Lukewarm Pitching

By Editorial Staff

Luke Hochevar is a good pitcher. No, he is. At least I think he is. I mean did you see him against Tampa Bay on Monday night? The guy was more lights out than Matt Treanor after a hefty helping of Matt Laporta and his sinker sunk more than the Titanic. He boasted a line of: 7 IP, 5H, 1ER and a 7/2 strikeout to walk ratio.

His start before that v.s. the Orioles was better—going 1/3 of an inning longer and giving up one less hit in eight fewer pitches. And the start before that against the Red Sox was better still, even though he gave up more hits, six, he went seven innings against the best offense in the league and held them to two earned runs—well below their average of 5.5 runs per game.

In fact, in five starts since the all-star break Hochevar is 3-0 with a 2.41 ERA and is averaging nearly six strike outs per nine innings. The problem lies within the 19 starts before that: 5.46 ERA and he had this strange habit of no decisions in games where the Royals would spot him a double digit lead in the early innings. But he did have a few similarly good starts mixed in that stretch, just a few awful ones that cancelled them out.

So lets compromise and say that Hochevar is good sometimes and not so good other times. In other words he’s inconsistent. No matter how many different statistics you look at on this guy you will come to the same conclusion that you would come to if you watched every one of his starts while getting tanked on your couch. Granted, you’d yell more and slur while doing so. But there has to be some sort of statistical relevance to determine a pitcher’s inconsistency, right?

For example, we all know Hochevar is a sinker ball pitcher, thus he should generally be more successful when he is inducing ground balls. His highest ground ball rate was in the month of May (58.2%) and it’s not even close, as his next highest month is April (49.6%). In May Hochevar threw 40 innings in six starts and gave up 19 ER for a 4.27 ERA. However, if you take out one bad start in that stretch—against Baltimore—his ERA drops to a 3.27, but shockingly enough that’s the start in which Hochevar induced the most ground balls!

Sorry, I realize this is a lot of numbers to throw out, but I feel it is prudent to point out how statistically confusing Hochevar is as a pitcher. 

This isn’t to say that it’s not important whether or not Hochevar generates ground balls, it is. But rather to suggest that it might not be the key to his ultimate success. I found another statistic that seems to be paralleling Hochevar’s recent surge: StS, which stands for strikes swinging. This statistic is obviously important for all pitchers, as it tells how good a pitcher’s “stuff” is based on how many bats he’s missing.

Side note: It is my belief that if we can define a pitcher’s physical ability with the word “stuff” then we should be able to measure his mental ability or mound presence with the word “fluff.” Example: Kyle Davies by some accounts had good stuff, but he just never had the fluff to make it work in the majors. His fluff outweighed his stuff! You like it? Don’t steal it. 

In his first 19 starts Hochevar averaged 7.2 StS, which is consistent throughout each four-to-five game stretch. In his last five starts Hochevar has an average StS of 11. This explains his improved strikeout rate as well as his lower ERA and WHIP and why he has looked more like the guy the Royals drafted #1 overall in 2006.

I wouldn’t predict a breakout performance the rest of the way by Hochevar (I mentioned he was inconsistent didn’t I?) but if his trend of bats missed and strikeouts continue to stay where they are at, then there’s no reason that we shouldn’t expect a quality start whenever he toes the rubber. At the age of 27 and over three years into his professional career, Hochevar is close to engraining himself for what he is in this league.

However, a look closer tells us that we may not know that to be true.

Hochevar has thrown more than 150 innings this season (152.1 innings) for the first time in his short career. Health has been a factor with him and perhaps the extended work as well as some past seasoning will provide us with a reformed opinion of him. He is on pace to throw 200 innings this season and that will give us a much better idea of the type of pitcher a healthy Hochevar figures to be for the remainder of his career. Is he a back end of the rotation guy on a contending team, or is he an innings eater that you depend on in the middle of your rotation?

The answer to this question could be contingent upon his ability to miss bats, rather than inducing ground balls.