When a player is the first overall selection in the MLB Amateur Draft, expectations are high. It is anticipated that the player selected will end up being the type of player that a team can be built around. Those players are expected to change a franchise for the better, to be the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. For Luke Hochevar, that just did not happen.
In 2006, the Royals had the first overall selection in the Amateur Draft. Unfortunately, that draft did not have a player that was considered to be a true franchise player at the time. Even with that assessment, the Royals still surprised a lot of draft prognosticators (yes, even baseball has their version of Mel Kiper Jr, only without the hair) by selecting Hochevar over players like Tim Lincecum, Brad Lincoln and Andrew Miller. In Hochevar, the Royals thought they were getting a pitcher that had been compared to Kevin Brown, a possible top starter with a fastball in the upper 90′s with the talent to be an ace.
Instead, Luke Hochevar struggled during his time as a starter, going 38-59 with a 5.39 ERA. Despite being billed as a possible top of the rotation talent, Hochevar performed at a level that far worse than league average, posting an ERA+ of only 79 from 2007 through 2012. To compound matters, players such as Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, who the Royals bypassed to take Hochevar, have gone on to become star players, ranking among the league leaders. Hochevar, meanwhile, led the American League in earned runs allowed in 2012 and has ranked in the top ten in losses three times. Yet, it could have been worse – the Royals could have drafted either Billy Rowell or Kasey Kiker instead.
With a rebuilt starting rotation, Hochevar was banished to the bullpen in 2013, where it was expected that Ned Yost could at least minimize the damage that he could inflict. Instead, Hochevar, probably to the surprise of many, became an effective relief pitcher, taking over as one of the primary setup men by the end of the season. For the first time in his major league career, Hochevar found success, putting together a 1.92 ERA and a strikeout to walk rate of 4.82.
The reason for the improvement seems obvious. In relief, Luke Hochevar relied mainly on his fastball and cutter, mixing in the occasional curve and sinker. His fastball almost three miles per hour last year, going from an average velocity of 92.65 MPH in 2012 to 95.40 MPH in 2013. By simplifying his approach, Hochevar improved.
Now, he finds himself in the battle to be the Royals fifth starter. Making $5.21 Million this season, Hochevar is the sixth highest paid player on the team in 2014. For a team that claims to be against their payroll limit, spending over $5 Million on a setup man is completely ridiculous. If Hochevar is going to be worth that salary for the Royals, it will need to be as a starter.
Meanwhile, for Luke Hochevar, this is his last chance for redemption. A free agent after this season, he needs to prove that he can be a viable option in the rotation in order to earn the type of contract that he would want in free agency. Although it is not expected that whoever wins the fifth starter spot will remain in that role all season with Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy in need of a role later this year, a solid start to the season could propel Hochevar into free agency as a useful option as a starter.
Luke Hochevar was a first overall pick not only for his talent, but because there was not a standout player considered to be the top talent in the draft. This may be his last chance to prove he was worthy of that selection.