Battle for the Bump


Feb 21, 2013; Surprise, AZ, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Luke Hochevar (44) poses for a picture during photo day at the Royals Spring Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

With each pitcher having made an appearance at this point, seems like a decent time to start tracking the fight for the fifth rotation spot between Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, and Luis Mendoza.

For whatever reason, it seems like Hochevar has a leg up in this race. Management keeps telling us how he’s got the right stuff (Click the link? You’re welcome), that he will put it all together, and so on. Chen is the guy who isn’t great, but is adept at pitching with what he’s got. Not the most talented of three, but when he’s on, he’s pretty good. Plus, he’s a lefty, which KC doesn’t currently have in the rotation. Smart money says one of these two will wind up with the job, so that’s where we’ll start.

Fittingly, Hochevar and Chen piggybacked off each other against the Milwaukee Brewers in their first action of 2013. Luke started, followed by Francisley Bueno, and then Chen. Luke lasted 1.2 innings, not quite making it the full two we expected, and with good reason. He struggled (though Ned Yost will claim otherwise), giving up a hit and 3 walks while striking out 2. He faced 7 batters and needed 38 (20 thrown for strikes) pitches to get 5 outs.

In the fourth inning, Chen took the mound and did manage a full 2 innings. He gave up no hits, walks, or runs and also struck out 2. Chen threw 28 pitches, with 21 strikes, showing good command and staying in the strike zone. I’d say the edge here goes to Chen.

Neither had to face batters like Ryan Braun or Aramis Ramirez, which makes Chen’s performance a little less impressive, perhaps…but what does that say about Hochevar?

While Chen easily outpitched Hochever, Mendoza has perhaps been most impressive thus far. He went 4 innings against the Texas Rangers, using 66 pitches (46 strikes) to get his 12 outs. He did give up a run on 4 hits and a walk, giving him a WHIP of 1.25 for the day, but also struck out 2 batters.

What does this all mean? Well, probably nothing, really. At least not yet, anyway. But the fact that Hochevar is likely the front-runner is a little disconcerting to most fans. On my way home from work Thursday night, Joel Goldberg (Fox Sports KC) was interviewed and asked to speak on the topic. He confirmed what we as fans are afraid of – the job is probably Luke’s to lose. Joel went on, telling the radio host, who kept going over statistics, the choice is not likely to be decided by the numbers. And why is that? Because the stats don’t reflect what coaches see.

Here we go again…back to the battle of stats (also known as a great way to measure actual results) versus a scout’s eye or manager’s gut feeling. Didn’t I just read something regarding this topic?

The fact of the matter is this: this battle should have no favorite, and if there is one, it certainly shouldn’t be Luke. If anything, Mendoza has earned the right to be considered the man to beat.  Yes, the 29-year old AAA veteran has, in my opinion, elbowed his way past the two major league veterans.

Feb 21, 2013; Surprise, AZ, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Luis Mendoza (39) poses for a picture during photo day at the Royals Spring Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Last season Mendoza pitched 166 innings for the Royals, by far his biggest workload in the majors. After a bumpy start, something clicked, and he became a steady contributor on the mound. Maybe the steadiest starter KC had, outside of late addition Jeremy Guthrie. Mendoza had a 1.416 WHIP on the year, struck out 104 (not too impressive), and walked only 59. He finished the year with an 8-10 record and a 4.23 ERA. Not too shabby…especially if he can do it as a fifth starter.

How did the two vets stack up? Chen managed 191.2 innings in 2012, finishing the year with a 1.367 WHIP, which was better than Mendoza’s, but an ERA of 5.07, which was much worse. He also had better strike out and walk rates, but gave up home runs a twice the rate.

Hochevar? Well…Luke went 185.1 innings and also put up better strike out and walk rates. He had a worse WHIP (barely) at 1.419 and the most god awful ERA this side of Jonathan Sanchez. Luke, who gave up homers at about the same rate as Chen, crossed the finish line last year with an ERA of 5.73.

The most important difference, in my opinion, is that Mendoza, in addition to keeping the team in ballgames, is on an upswing in his career. He’s coming off two straight seasons of great success. We just reflected on his 2012 numbers, but going back to 2011, he dominated in AAA with a 12-5 record, 2.18 ERA, and 1.247 WHIP. He followed that up with two solid starts in the big leagues, going for a total of 14.2 innings. He posted a 2-0 record, 1.23 ERA, and 1.091 WHIP. If you add those starts to his 2012 numbers, Mendoza has a total of 180.2 innings, a 3.99 ERA, and 1.389 WHIP.

Chen hasn’t been terrible, either. In his last three years with KC, he’s compiled 487 innings, a 35-29 record, 4.40 ERA, and 1.349 WHIP. And, as I mentioned earlier, he’s a lefty, which might give him a little edge.

What of our front-runner? Hochevar, the former number one overall draft pick, has been nothing short of a failure. Since we only looked at the previous three years for Chen, I’ll do the same for Luke (which excludes his 6.55 ERA from 2009). In the last three seasons, Hochevar has racked up 486.1 innings (on pace with Chen), a 25-33 record, 5.11 ERA, and 1.365 WHIP.

It would be one thing if Luke was a good pitcher coming off a bad year, but he’s a chronically bad pitcher coming off yet another bad year. Chen wasn’t much better in 2012, but Hochevar has never had a season as good as Chen’s best. Mendoza was trending up a bit, while the other two were trending down. Still, it’s a tough call between Chen and Mendoza, but Luke should be the one with something to prove, not the other way around.

The good news? Last year, all three would’ve been a lock for the rotation. This year, there can be only one.