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Luke Hochevar and the Reliever Redemption

At the start of every season, or perhaps a little before, certain decisions are made in which certain starting pitchers suddenly cease to be starting pitchers. Whether due to age, ineffectiveness, or perhaps both, a handful of starting pitchers are demoted — if you can call it that — to a role in the bullpen. Certainly, this happens during the season, as well. A young pitcher could be knocking a starter out of their rotation spot, but offseason decisions to change a pitcher’s role is a pretty clear sign that the club isn’t terribly impressed with what a guy has been doing in that larger role. That is ostensibly happened to Ross Detwiler this year. It also happened to Paul Maholm, Brad Peacock, Justin Grimm, Chris Capuano, and Samuel Deduno, among others, probably. Contracts or lack of better options keep them on the team, but just not in the role most came into the league filling.

Almost every reliever is a failed starter of some sorts. Whether in college, the minors, or the big leagues, they were told that their services would no longer be needed in the first inning. A handful have been position player reclamations, sure, but you get the idea. And certainly players have flourished when being sent to the pen — Glen Perkins is a somewhat-recent example, but there are plenty to chose from throughout history. Some have fizzled out too, certainly. But as Detwiler et al. look to succeed in their new roles, there is a very recent blueprint for success they can look to — Luke Hochevar.

OK, the blueprint has one flaw. Luke Hochevar blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. That would not be a good path to follow. And while it certainly is a factor with Hochevar, let’s ignore that for the sake of argument right now.

Hochevar was drafted with the first overall pick by the Royals in 2006. His first full season was in 2008, and in the six seasons between then and 2013 he never posted an ERA lower than 4.50, never accrued more than 2.2 WAR or 1.4 RA9-WAR in a season. He allowed more than one home run per nine innings on average, while walking too many and striking out too few. He was a serviceable starter, but never reached the levels expected of a first-round pick, even by Kansas City standards. That was low. I apologize.

And so, in 2013, the Royals decided to cut their losses, as it were, and relegated Hochevar to bullpen duty. He responded by turning into a really good reliever. His fastball velocity went up, which is kind of to be expected, as it seems to be the norm for that kind of situation. Beyond that, he posted career bests in K%, BB%, ERA-, FIP-, and opponent average. He also stranded an INSANE amount of runners, 92.1% of them, to be specific. That put him third among qualified relievers in 2013, behind only Huston Street and Craig Kimbrel. That is almost certainly a candidate for regression, but the rest of the numbers show a drastic improvement.

K% BB% ERA- FIP- Opponent AVG
2012 18.00% 7.60% 138 110 0.278
2013 31.30% 6.50% 47 74 0.168

For reference, here’s a (sortable) list of all the pitchers in the free agency era who made the switch from full-time starter (25 games started) to full-time reliever (0 games started, minimum 70 IP):

1st RP Season Name K%Diff BB% Diff FIP- Diff HR/9 Diff
1974 Ken Forsch -6.27% -0.09% -2.683 -0.543346
1975 Dick Tidrow 0.99% 3.25% 0.928 -0.123617
1977 Rich Gossage 14.75% -0.05% -39.6512 -0.033834
1977 Don Kirkwood 1.88% -0.93% -12.6344 0.251427
1978 Reggie Cleveland 3.96% 1.92% -4.0801 -0.353604
1979 Woodie Fryman 6.00% -2.10% -14.9923 0.02202
1979 Dick Tidrow 4.98% 2.01% -8.4533 0.08679
1984 Dave Righetti 3.72% 1.81% -5.2794 -0.030568
1986 Steve Bedrosian 6.75% -3.31% -7.7816 0.455247
1989 Willie Fraser 2.28% -3.16% -46.3161 -0.936589
1994 Jose Mesa 6.85% 1.34% -30.6068 -0.535888
1994 Hipolito Pichardo 2.16% 0.56% -3.1416 -0.013435
1998 Mark Leiter 4.43% 4.74% -5.0368 -0.41972
1998 Tom Gordon 4.06% -2.19% -20.6983 -0.26581
1999 Mike Remlinger 3.60% -1.85% -27.039 -0.291502
2000 Jose Jimenez -0.93% -0.46% -30.5319 -0.374002
2000 LaTroy Hawkins 3.12% 1.18% -24.1495 -0.778499
2001 Jay Witasick 12.75% -1.10% -33.9969 -0.528608
2003 Steve Sparks 0.45% 0.32% -3.923 -0.00178
2003 Julian Tavarez 1.76% -2.65% -35.8765 -0.419544
2003 Danys Baez 2.84% -4.06% -6.2193 0.308382
2004 Danny Graves 5.69% -1.05% -16.833 -0.01714
2005 Miguel Batista 4.31% -2.91% -8.8174 0.088177
2005 Ryan Vogelsong -0.99% -0.14% -23.807 -0.935441
2006 Ryan Franklin 1.36% 2.17% 1.336 0.19125
2010 Joba Chamberlain 6.49% -3.51% -36.7847 -0.447782
2010 Chad Gaudin -2.96% -2.98% 44.389 1.348874
2012 Livan Hernandez 3.26% -0.65% 32.362 1.183656
2012 Wade Davis 17.42% 2.29% -50.7922 -0.485189
2012 Brett Myers -2.38% -0.71% -7.356 -0.18963
2013 Luke Hochevar 13.30% -1.14% -36.6172 -0.28745

Hochevar didn’t turn into Koji Uehara, but he went from a starter you’d probably pass on to a reliever almost any team would want. But it can’t all come from a small uptick in fastball velocity. A lightened workload could have helped certainly, but Hochevar changed other things about his game that helped acclimate him to the bullpen, and more importantly, success.

For the most part, it was all about pitch selection for Hochevar. In the past, he relied on a mixture of a four-seam fastball, a cut fastball, and a sinker, while mixing in a slider and curveball (these are all PitchF/X classifications). His four-seamer, sinker, and curveball were never that great. So in, 2013, he started to accentuate the positive, if you will. The four-seamer was still there, but that saw a big jump in value, most likely due to the increased velocity (from 92.6 to 95.6 MPH). The cut fastball saw a big jump in usage, while the sinker took a back seat. The biggest change came from his breaking pitches however. Both his curveball and slider usage saw a drop of around 12% each. His slider usage went from 12.7% to 0.7%. Since PitchF/X was a thing, only two other pitchers went from a 12% or more usage of sliders one year to less than one percent the next — Nick Blackburn and Brandon McCarthy.

Here’s the thing about the slider usage, though — a point you may have very well spoken to your screen much to the confused looks of your partner/pet/fellow cafe patrons. Did he drop the slider because of ineffectiveness, or because his elbow was feeling funny? There are some hypotheses out there that a heavy reliance on sliders can lead to an increase in elbow injuries, and this certainly could be the case here. Perhaps the slider was causing Hochevar pain, and that’s why he dropped it. Unfortunately, some professional Googling revealed no results, at least as far as confirmation from Hochevar himself.

Regardless, Hochevar will be entering free agency in 2015 fresh off a (albeit successful) demotion to the bullpen and major surgery to his pitching arm. He will almost certainly have to sign a minor-league deal of some sort in order to prove himself again. But he can be a beacon of hope for the new crop of demotees. Perhaps his lesson can convince Ross Detwiler to scrap his suboptimal slider. Maybe Paul Maholm will ditch the curveball and just utilize his changeup. As I mentioned, there are previous success stories on this front. Luke Hochevar’s might be a good one to follow. Again, except for the Tommy John thing.