Barring some sort of trade or a collapse that makes release unavoidable, the Royals will begin the year with Luke Hochevar likely in the rotation.
September 24, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Luke Hochevar (44) pitches during the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
So with that in mind, let’s make the best of it. He’s shown that, on occasion, he can be dominant. He’s also shown that, more frequently, he can be a 6’5″ gascan on the mound. The Royals stick with him because they see the good stuff and think they can fix it. And boy, have they tried to fix it. They’ve had him change his sequencing and selection of pitches, asked him to simplify things. Now he’s noticed something that he’s working on changing when runners reach base.
So far it hasn’t worked, but the Royals still hope.
I wanted to take another look just in case I was missing something. At the end of 2011, Hochevar looked like he’d figured it out. He had a 3.52 ERA after the All-Star Break that year. That got me to wondering about what things were different in the second half of 2011. The Royals had Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer promoted and entrenched into their corner spots. Alex Gordon was still cruising along and Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur were changing some minds.
Also Salvador Perez arrived a month after the break.
Was it that simple? Salvador Perez reaches the majors and all of a sudden Hochevar becomes a stable pitcher? He opened up 2012 with Sal on the 60 day DL and looked like he was coming close to being released after a few awful starts, or at least demoted to the bullpen. Injuries required he stay in the rotation though and he looked like his old self, with all the big innings and lost games.
I checked Hochevar’s splits to see if Perez had some magic power over him that other Royals catchers hadn’t.
As you can see, Perez has been better than most ERA-wise for Hochevar, but it’s not like he’s working miracles. But what interested me was the strikeout to walk numbers. Hochevar has struck out a higher percentage of batters throwing the Perez than any other catcher (with 50 or more innings caught) the Royals have paired him with. He’s walked the second-lowest percentage of batters while paired with Perez.
It’s a fairly small sample to go off of, considering the Royals have trotted in so many catchers over the years, and because of Perez’s injury last year, so it’s not even a full season of work, but if someone told you that Perez, the franchise catcher, got more out of Hochevar than any other catcher so far, wouldn’t you buy it?
When Perez returned from knee surgery on June 22nd last year, he caught Vin Mazzaro. Hochevar didn’t get paired with him until June 25th.
June 25, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar (44) Hugs catcher Salvador Perez (13) after pitching a complete game shutout against the Tampa Bay Rays at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Hochevar threw a complete game shutout against the Tampa Bay Rays. He walked one, gave up seven hits and struck out eight in the win, compiling a game score of 80. Luke Hochevar has thrown four games with a game score of 80 or better in his career. Three of those have been caught by Salvador Perez:
- September 3, 2011 vs. Cleveland Indians: 8 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 8 K, 1 BB – Game Score: 81
- June 25th, 2012 vs. Tampa Bay Rays: Hochevar’s first 2012 game throwing to Perez – Game Score: 80
- August 21, 2012 at Tampa Bay: The 1-0 duel against Cy Young winner David Price. Hochevar threw eight innings of shutout baseball, giving up just one hit and striking out ten for a game score of 87, a career best. The game went into extra innings, so he didn’t even get the win for it.
Once Perez was back, Hochevar was better. From that June 25 start until the end of August, he threw 75.1 innings and had a 4.18 ERA over that span. More than acceptable, especially given his history. So what else may have changed? Perez was catching him every game and there’s a shift in Hochevar’s pitch selection. Hochevar had started to turn things around a bit before Perez had returned and the Royals and Dave Eiland credited a shift to a more simple, basic set of pitches.
"We want 85 percent of his pitches to be his four-seam fastball, his curveball and change-up. – Pitching coach Dave Eiland"
Before Perez returned (per TexasLeaguers.com):
A lot of sinkers, a lot of sliders. So after Eiland made that statement (and Perez returned), how did Hochevar’s selection change?
A bit closer and there’s a definite shift away from the sinker and slider and to the curveball and fastball. Did Perez hold Hochevar to that better? Perhaps so. You’ll notice that this selection goes through the end of August.
Of course, maybe Perez had nothing to do (or not as much to do) with any turnaround. In the eight starts before Perez returned, Hochevar threw 43 innings and had a 4.40 ERA over that period. Adding those eight starts to the other 12 Perez starts through August, and Hochevar was a 4.26 ERA starter. That run started on May 17 when Hochevar lowered his ERA from 7.20 to 7.02 and ended on August 27 when his ERA was 4.93.
For all of the adjustments and all of the returned franchise catchers, Hochevar fell back in September. After having one start all year with four walks, he walked that many in two of his first three starts in September. In that month, Hochevar’s six starts amounted to a 9.56 ERA and swelled his ERA from 4.93 at the end of August to 5.73 once the season ended.
Did Hochevar revert to his sinker/slider ways?
Quite the opposite. Hochevar essentially turned into a two pitch pitcher in the month of September last year, focusing so much on the fastball and curveball that he threw one or the other 70% of the time.
So now we’re back at square one. One of Hochevar’s biggest issues throughout his career has been working with runners on. In 771 career innings, Hochevar has left just 63.4% of baserunners on base. His walk numbers have always been decent, so that’s limited the damage, if you can believe it. He’s had less runners on to come around and score.
But when more than a third of the runners you allow to reach base come around to score, that’s not a good thing. Most pitchers will have a 70-72% LOB%. Last year, before Perez returned, Hochevar was letting a ghastly 41% of baserunners score (a 58.8% LOB% according to FanGraphs’ formula). Once Perez returned to the end of the year, that improved to a 65.6% LOB%. During the June 25 to August stretch, Hochevar left 73% of baserunners on.
But once September hit, all the good evaporated.
Maybe it was a matter of overthrowing. Those were some of the worries Hochevar expressed at the end of the 2012. Hochevar has said that he’s noticed that he’ll throw the ball flat out of the stretch with a “soft front side” and miss location. It’s something he says he’s worked on heading into spring training. He says he can reach back and keep everything compact without his front side flying open now and the idea (the hope) is that this adjustment (and being a bit more diverse in his pitch selection than in September) spur Hochevar to success.
Maybe Hochevar is simply cursed. I don’t believe in such voodoo, but he’s ran into patches of success in the past and it’s always ended in the same way, with his season ending with him well below expectations. He could be trapped in a cycle that Sal Perez can’t even save him from. He could just be one of those players that, despite numbers suggesting he should be able to be around average, performance-wise, never really gets there.
His first spring start was on Wednesday against the Brewers. He gave up the only two runs Milwaukee scored, walked three and struck out two. He was pulled after 38 pitches, 20 of which were strikes (I assume 40 was his pitch limit). Hochevar said he was specifically working on his two seam fastball and his command wasn’t there yet. He’ll have more opportunities this spring, but the season is swiftly approaching. Hochevar is the leader for the fifth starter spot, but he’s not guaranteed the spot by any means. He’ll have to put it all together – Perez, the mechanics, the pitch selection – to win the spot and keep it through the year.