Use the Force, Luke


Much of the Royals success in 2011 (if there’s to be any at all) is tied into the starting rotation.  After the trade of Zack Greinke, the starters seem to be put together by baling wire and Big League Chew.  With leading candidates Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies, Vin Mazzaro, Sean O’Sullivan, Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen, you have a group of young guys who may or may not ever be league average statistically and two lefties, one of which could pitch 30 or 130 innings and neither would be surprising, while the other is on his 45th team in his career (okay I exaggerate…a little.)

There’s a ray of sunshine, though.  While the results haven’t shown it yet, Luke Hochevar may be close to a breakout, or at least close to being better than we expect.

(A tip of the hat to Wally at Puckett’s Pond for inspiring this analysis by passing on some info he read from Buster Olney which I’ll pass on in a bit.  Also, I’m surprised there aren’t more Star Wars references connected to Hochevar articles.)

4 Seasons19325.6065387.2781.45710.
162 Game Avg.10165.6033197781.45710.

Hochevar and his career ERA+ of 78 certainly haven’t lived up to the expectations of a first overall draft pick.  As a starter, he’s been plagued by the problem of the big inning and can sometimes pitch scared.  His particularly bad 2009 can be partially blamed on an increase in homers hit against him, as he’s traditionally been known as a ground ball pitcher.

He doesn’t have exceptional control and his strikeout rate isn’t great.  He’s as milquetoast as a pitcher could be.  Bland, common, unspectacular.

And that’s our de facto ace, Royals fans.

So where’s the sunshine?

What got me looking at the potential of Hochevar as an ace was Buster Olney’s look at the slider and the pitchers with the best result with the pitch (that was Wally’s tip – Insider required).  In the American League, Hochevar’s .270 OPS against on his slider was second-best.  Not second-best on the Royals.  Second-best among all AL pitchers.

TypeCountSelectionStrikeSwingWhiffFoulIn Play

This table lays out Hochevar’s pitch selection in 2010 according to  Luke’s slider (SL) is a pitch that batters swing at most frequently, and when they do, they miss it the most frequently as well.  The league average whiff rate on sliders was 13.63% – and Hochevar got a swing and a miss almost 5% more than average.

According to FanGraphs, the slider has been Hochevar’s most effective pitch.  The following table shows each pitch weighted according to runs above average (and runs above average per 100 pitches – /C).  While Hochevar’s slider was strong in 2010, it actually regressed according to these numbers – and was still strong.  He also improved his fastball performance and his curveball at least returned from the pit of despair it was stuck in during the 2009 campaign.  His changeup turned into an above average pitch.













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The slider sits at about 83-84 mph, about 10 mph lower than Hochevar’s fastball, and it features movement that pushes it away from right-handed batters and down and in on lefties.

Comparing the slider’s movement from 2009 to 2010, it looks more consistent on the charts, but I’m not sure if that’s just due to increased results (Hochevar missed much of 2010 with an elbow strain so there are just less pitches to chart), or some kind of mechanical reason.  In both seasons, it was his most effective pitch, just more effective in 2009.

His release point looks to be more consistent in the 2009 charts than in 2010 and perhaps that’s due to or the reason for his elbow strain.  My guess is it did have an effect:

His command of the changeup seemed to improve as well.  He threw it more frequently and located it better in 2010 than in 2009:

Hochevar’s success in 2011 hinges on a few factors:

  • Maintaining the dominance of the slider and, perhaps, using it more often, perhaps as an out pitch.
  • Continuing the development and command of the changeup.
  • Improving the fastball to at least league average levels.
  • Improving mound presence and maturity.

Yes, that’s a lot to ask, but the trends look to be in his favor.  The slider has been consistently strong as a big leaguer and the changeup, as demonstrated, has improved as well.  His fastball, while still below average according to FanGraphs, improved.

Hochevar’s career ERA is 5.60, but his career FIP is 4.47, more than a run lower.  He’s a strong groundball pitcher (48.7%/33.4% GB/FB ratio for his career) and has been fairly effective at keeping the ball in the ballpark.  Other than his 2009, he had FB/HR rates below 10%.  He’s been jumpy on the mound in the past, unlucky at times, and with a porous defense behind him all at the same time – just a perfect storm of awfulness.

With the acquisition of Alcides Escobar to replace Yuniesky Betancourt and an infield that could replace Billy Butler with Kila Ka’aihue at first base, Alberto Callaspo with Chris Getz at second and Wilson Betemit with Mike Aviles, the Royals infield should also be better, which is a point in Hochevar’s favor.

The rest is up to Luke.  His career has been a mix of excellent and terrible performances, sometimes with five great innings destroyed by one devastating one.  His first start after Ned Yost took over in May is a great example of that track record.

To recap, Hochevar had cruised through six innings, allowing just one run against the White Sox.  Alex Rios grounded out.

Then things started to go awry.  Mark Kotsay singled.  Alexei Ramirez singled.  Mark Teahen walked.  With the bases loaded, Yost made a visit to the mound and told Hochevar he’d let him pitch out of the jam.  On that day, it didn’t work out, as Hochevar gave up two more hits and after the inning was over, the White Sox had scored four times and Luke took the loss.

Yost said after the game that Hochevar had to learn how to keep things rolling when the game started to turn sour.  Hochevar responded with 31 innings over his next four starts after that White Sox debacle, during which time he had a 3.19 ERA and a 28/6 K/BB ratio.  In the end, he was able to string together enough decent starts to have his best season as a big leaguer (even if it was still pretty bad).  It’s progress, at least.

There’s a chance that he might respond to the confidence the Royals have in him as their frontline starter and finally get the resolve that an ace pitcher needs on the mound.  He’ll be 27 on opening day in 2011 and the Royals have his rights through 2015.  If he can right the ship, he could be a valuable arm while the uber-prospects start their way up the ladder and into Kansas City.

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