Cause For Concern


On opening day, the Royals sent Luke Hochevar to the mound to kick off the season.  While not ideal – the trade of Zack Greinke left a huge hole in the top spot of the rotation – Hochevar had twice been a first round pick out of Tennessee.  There’s talent there, and he’s shown signs of being a better than average pitcher in the past.

Unfortunately, those signs are fleeting.  He’ll have one great start and follow it with two bad ones.

So far in 2011, he’s carrying a 5.48 ERA in seven starts over 44.1 innings.

But it’s early, there’s always time for the stats to correct themselves, right?

Hmm… About that…

I don’t want to discount what Hochevar’s done so far in 2011.  His ERA looks bad, and it is, especially for a top of the rotation starter.  He’s shut down 31 straight batters over two starts.  He’s cut his walkrate and bumped up his ground ball rate.

He’s also given up 10 homers and despite that stretch of 10.1 perfect innings, still has that inflated ERA.

The homers shouldn’t be a continuing trend.  Hochevar’s surrendered a homer on over 20% of the fly balls hit against him.  The generally accepted average rate for HR/FB is about 10% and since he’s more of a ground ball pitcher historically, that’s one number I’d expect to normalize.

He’s even been a bit unlucky, as his expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) projects his current ERA to be 4.15.  xFIP looks more at what the pitcher himself controls so that someone with a team of Adam Dunn-range fielders isn’t penalized (statistically) for the players behind him.  It also “resets” HR/FB to a 10.5% rate.

By that measure, Hochevar’s not looking too bad.  He’s more in the range of a #2 or decent #3 starter instead of an ace, but 4.15 on this team at this time – that’s not too bad.

There are still reasons why I’m afraid he may not improve.

First, while his xFIP is low, he’s already been helped out by his defense.  Batters are hitting .236 on balls they put into play (which omits homers since a fielder usually won’t make a play on them).  The 2011 league average is .286.  Seems like Luke’s doing alright, yeah?  BABIP, however, is one of those stats that isn’t a measure of what a pitcher has done, it’s more a reflection of what’s happened.

To get a batter out, a pitcher uses his experience, scouting reports, feel for the game and chooses a pitch and location (with assistance from his catcher).  It’s up to him to execute the pitch, but once he’s released the ball, he has no control over it.  So if a batter connects, it’s left to the defense to make a play.  The xFIP measurement says that if you take his homers down to normal levels, his defense is getting enough outs to put him at that 4.15 ERA.

The Royals defense has improved.  Melky Cabrera has shown decent range and Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur have made plays and throws to create outs too.  Chris Getz has been solid and Alcides Escobar has been spectacular.  Some of that should continue, but Hochevar’s BABIP as it stands now is almost certain to regress.  That means more batted balls sneaking through, more balls dropping in for hits.

That could be a big issue for Hochevar, since he hasn’t been missing bats like he has in years past.  Last year, batters made contact on 79.2% of Hochevar pitches.  This year, they’re making more contact (84.9%) against Hochevar’s pitches.  Batters are making contact at a better than average rate on pitches in (92.8% vs. 87.6%) and out (69.2% vs. 66.3%) of the strike zone.  His K/9 has dropped from 6.67 and 6.64 K/9 in 2009 and 2010 respectively to 4.87 K/9 this year.  He’s not missing bats, and if that continues, that’s when those balls will start finding holes.

It may be a loss in effectiveness from his best pitch – the slider.  Back in January, we looked at Hochevar’s slider in light of a Buster Olney column on the best pitches in baseball.  Hochevar’s slider had the second-best OPS against in 2010, second only to Daniel Bard of the Red Sox.

In 2008, his slider was 2.20 runs above average per 100 pitches (FanGraphs labels that wSL/C).  In 2009, it was 2.63 runs above average.  Last year, he reached 2.71 wSL/C.  In 2011, he’s at 0.17 runs above average per 100 pitches with the slider, a pitch he’s thrown about 14% of the time.

Batters are hitting him more, his best pitch is merely average, and the result of that means runners start reaching base.  So far, he’s stranded a lot of runners – 63.6% – while the league average is 72%.  If he starts to allow runners that reach to score, creeping up toward the league average, his already high ERA isn’t going to improve.

But wait, there’s more.

Watching his starts, I get a sense of panic the later it gets into a Hochevar game.  I keep waiting for the meltdown.  He’s been prone to the big inning his whole career, and it’s been his downfall to this point.

1st PA in G, as SP63113133.
2nd PA in G, as SP63144140.67.241.302.552.853129
3rd PA in G, as SP58164231.83.308.379.6351.014157
4th+ PA in G, as SP52000.400.400.400.800115

So far in 2011, he starts getting beat up that third time through the order.  His career numbers aren’t as dynamic as his 2011 numbers (which makes sense, as he has more innings and a larger sample size to stabilize those numbers), but he still runs into that problem, where lineups figure him out that third time through.  It might be fatigue – especially this year.  In 2011, he either loses focus as his pitch count rises, or he gets tired.

Pitch 1-254369311242.
Pitch 26-504727102284.
Pitch 51-7548811415300.
Pitch 76-100467143123124.00.326.370.581.951158
Pitch 101+512010200.00.667.8001.3332.133450

Notice the big OPS jump starting in the 51-75 pitch range.  Plate appearances are balanced among all tiers of pitch counts, but his homers take a jump while his strikeouts disappear in the third tier.  That’s bad news.  When he’s given up homers, it’s been on balls that are left up in the zone.  It goes back to either focus, fatigue or both factors.  The longer Hochevar pitches into games, the more likely he is to give up a big hit or a big inning.

Hochevar was a high-velocity strikeout pitcher in college with a 9.21 K/9.  In the minors, he had a 7.8 K/9.  As a big leaguer, he’s sitting on a mere 5.9 K/9.  If he limits his walks and keeps getting ground balls, he can survive.  If not, his ceiling is that of an average starter.

The keys for Hochevar will be re-establishing his slider as his pitch and improving his focus.  One of those is easier to do than the other.  His brushes with greatness show me that he has the physical ability to execute the pitches.  He gets locked up in the mental side of the game.

There may not be a fix for that aspect of Hochevar’s game.  Poise and demeanor aren’t really teachable attributes.  It’s up to him.  Trust your instincts, Luke.

(I couldn’t resist.)

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