The Luke Hochevar Hard Sell

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By this point, the narrative is well-known. Number one overall draft pick makes it to big leagues, underwhelms. Team stays with him. He struggles more. Things take a turn for the better. It looks like he’ll turn it around.

Then Luke Hochevar gives up seven runs before most fans had opportunity to sit down at the 2012 home opener and it’s been series of peaks and valleys since.

Bob Dutton talked with many within the Royals organization and the feeling is that Hochevar is sticking around. Some, like Rany Jazayerli, should be ready to cut the cord.

Luke Hochevar. Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Three facts: 1) Luke Hochevar has a 5.30 ERA in 747 innings as a big leaguer. 2) After two sub-5.00 ERAs in 2010 and 2011, he’s sitting on a 5.36 ERA this season. 3) Luke Hochevar is probably going to get about $5 million dollars this winter if the Royals offer him a contract.

Jazayerli points out that Hochevar has never performed as the advanced metrics suggest he should. His career xFIP is 4.29. His 2012 xFIP would be a reasonable 4.36. Yet year after year, his ERA comes in higher than his xFIP. The Royals can’t seem to pinpoint the issue. They’ve suggested it’s tipping his pitches, made adjustments and seen improvements, then Hochevar regressed. They’ve asked him to simplify his pitch selection, he did so, and saw some results. Then he again regressed. For ever brilliant outing he puts up two stinkers.

He’s definitely an enigma.

I’m not opposed to the idea of trying a pitcher in the bullpen before cutting bait. He’s got good stuff and the talent shows itself from time to time and he could be someone who could contribute value in short stints. But the arbitration figure he’s likely to get isn’t going to pay him as a middle reliever. The Royals aren’t in a position to go toss $5 million at a guy who’s only effective in two inning bursts. That’s money that can go towards a better starter on the open market.

But fine, let’s say they keep him around. The Royals have that right. But they’re trying awfully hard to sell us that Hochevar is someone who’s *this* close to getting it together. Apparently, the same blindness they had towards Kyle Davies’s ineffectiveness still exists in the organization. I’m all for loyalty, but there’s a point where it extends into fear of making any change at all.

Ned Yost tossed out some names. He compared Hochevar’s career path to that of Kevin Millwood, Jason Schmidt and Jorge de la Rosa.

Alright, let’s play that game.

Luke Hochevar turns 29 on Saturday.

YearAgeWLERAGGSCGSHOIPERA+WHIPH/9HR/9BB/9SO/9SO/BB
200723012.13410012.22201.1847.80.72.83.61.25
2008246125.51222200129.0781.47310.00.83.35.01.53
2009257136.55252521143.0681.49010.51.42.96.72.30
201026664.81181710103.0871.4279.60.83.26.62.05
20112711114.68313100198.0871.2838.71.02.85.82.06
2012287135.36282821161.1771.3709.41.33.06.92.34
6 Yrs37565.3012812452747.0801.3929.51.13.06.22.05

And here are those other pitchers through their age 28 season:

Kevin Millwood

YearAgeTmWLERAGGSCGSHOIPERA+WHIPH/9HR/9BB/9SO/9SO/BB
199722ATL534.031280051.11041.4819.60.23.77.42.00
199823ATL1784.08312931174.11021.3259.00.92.98.42.91
199924ATL1872.68333320228.01670.9966.60.92.38.13.47
200025ATL10134.66363500212.2991.2939.01.12.67.12.71
200126ATL774.31212100121.01031.3319.01.53.06.22.10
200227ATL1883.24353411217.01291.1577.70.72.77.42.74
200328PHI14124.01353553222.0991.2528.50.82.86.92.49
16 Yrs1681524.114504422262715.11061.3299.21.02.86.92.47
ATL (6 yrs)75463.73168160621004.11171.2168.20.92.77.52.77

Millwood finished third in Cy Young voting in 1999 and put up a significantly better ERA in an era where offense was explosive. His worst ERA in his early years is still lower – even in the juiced ball era – than Hochevar’s best. Maybe Yost is referring to some years of struggle after Millwood had crossed 30 years old and was able to have a few years of success every now and then. That’s not a realistic comparison to Hochevar.

Jason Schmidt

YearAgeTmWLERAGGSGFCGIPERA+WHIPH/9HR/9BB/9SO/9SO/BB
199522ATL225.76921025.0741.8009.70.76.56.81.06
199623TOT565.7019170196.1781.67110.10.95.06.91.40
199623ATL346.7513110058.2651.72210.61.24.97.41.50
199623PIT224.06660137.21091.5939.30.55.06.21.24
199724PIT1094.60323202187.2941.4339.30.83.66.51.79
199825PIT11144.07333300214.11071.3959.61.03.06.62.23
199926PIT13114.19333302212.21101.4299.31.03.66.31.74
200027PIT255.4011110063.1861.76810.10.95.87.21.24
200128TOT1374.07252501150.11061.3248.30.83.78.52.33
200128PIT664.6114140184.0991.2988.71.23.08.32.75
200128SFG713.3911110066.11181.3577.70.34.58.81.97
14 Yrs130963.963233141201996.11101.3218.30.83.67.92.22

Schmidt’s first couple of years were difficult, though he pitched in the same offensive period that Millwood started in. an injury-plagued 2000 looks bad but like Millwood, Schmidt’s worst full season otherwise was still better than Hochevar’s best. Overall, Schmidt had a solid career as a mid-level starter with the occasional hot stretch, but I can’t see the comparisons here either.

Jorge de la Rosa

YearAgeTmWLERAGGSIPERA+WHIPH/9HR/9BB/9SO/9SO/BB
200423MIL036.355522.2701.89711.50.45.62.00.36
200524MIL224.4638042.1962.03110.20.28.18.91.11
200625TOT566.49281379.0721.7099.21.66.27.61.24
200625MIL228.6018330.1531.7809.51.26.59.21.41
200625KCR345.18101048.2911.6649.11.85.96.71.13
200726KCR8125.822623130.0791.63811.11.43.75.71.55
200827COL1084.922823130.0951.4628.90.94.38.92.06
200928COL1694.383332185.01081.3788.41.04.09.42.33
8 Yrs54494.90188126769.2951.4979.01.04.58.01.79

de la Rosa fits a bit better, as he fought control issues for a long time and once those got into a reasonable range, he saw some success. Hochevar is at this point in his career, except the issue isn’t control for him. It’s everything else. Hochevar’s struggles have come with a career BB/9 that’s much better than de la Rosa’s best full season mark. He’s probably not going to improve it to such an extent to make a jump like de la Rosa did in 2010 and 2011. In those two seasons, de la Rosa threw 180.2 innings and had a 3.99 ERA (116 ERA+). Hochevar isn’t anywhere close to that.

So what’s Hochevar going to correct to get to the level of de la Rosa? I’m all for saying statistical measures like xFIP need a large sample size to be reliable, but to me, nearly 800 innings is enough and year after year, he can’t perform to the level the stats suggest he should. There’s got to be something else. Hochevar told Dutton:

"You must have a consistent routine, a consistent thought-process. I do. This year has been tough, but I believe if I persevere through it, if I continue to prepare and battle, it’s got to pay out…"

Here’s the thing, though. It doesn’t have to pay out. Just because the roulette wheel has hit black 25 times in a row doesn’t mean that it’s due to come up red. Perhaps the consistent approach and mindset are the problem. Consistency isn’t enough. If you throw a dart 200 times and hit the same spot, that’s consistent, but if that spot is three feet to the left of the bullseye, what good is it?

The Royals called 2012 “Our Time”. For whatever retconning they want to do to say it was meant for the All-Star Game and not expectations of competing for real, that’s what they labeled this season. Our Time. The window isn’t staying open forever and at some point, the Royals have to hold their players and coaches accountable. They waited and waited for Brian Bannister to recapture the magic of his rookie season. They waited and waited for Kyle Davies to unleash his “good stuff”.

At some point, you can’t wait any more.

There may not be a fit any more for Luke Hochevar. Photo Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

The Royals have Bruce Chen under contract for next season. Will Smith is a good bet to be another starter in the rotation. If it’s not right out of spring training, Jake Odorizzi should be up around May. That’s three pieces to build around. A promising rookie, a #4 starter and the quintessential replacement level player who can eat up innings and has upside to improve. Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino should be back in the middle of the year, barring complications from their rehab after Tommy John surgery (though pitchers aren’t often at their best right away after that process, so neither are guarantees to be big impact players. We hope so, but there’s no guarantee.) Jeremy Guthrie might be an option, as well.

The Royals have an out here with Hochevar if they don’t offer him a contract this winter.

If you can take that $5 million you’d give Hochevar and use it to pad an offer for Shaun Marcum or Edwin Jackson or even the great white whale that is Zack Greinke, isn’t that a better option? Any pitcher with a true track record of being average or better would be fine.

I want to see Luke Hochevar figure it out. I want him to stop turning the corner and stay on one path. The poor guy must be dizzy from all those turns by now. I want the storybook ending where the number one overall pick figures it out, toughens up and leads the team to the promised land.

But nothing in his track record says he’s going to do that, no matter how many names Ned Yost tries to pass off as similar success stories. I’m not buying it. Neither should Kansas City.

Note: I should also include this nice analysis done by Jeff Zimmerman at Royals Review. One item the Royals say they want to fix is to have Hochevar be more sparing in using his cutter. Turns out, when he throws more cutters, statistically, he’s performed better. They simply don’t know how to fix him.

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