Luke Hochevar and Reason For Optimism

The Kansas City Royals, as you well know by now, are chock-full of talented youngsters. It wasn’t more than a couple seasons ago that one of those talented youngsters was Luke Hochevar, their first round pick in 2006. And while many predicted big things for the lanky kid out of the University of Tennessee, he has quickly become the captain for the quad-A starting pitching corps as his talent in the minors simply never translated to the major leagues.

2011 was looking much the same for Hochevar, but something peculiar started happening just before the All-Star Break.

Taking his start on July 3rd as a cutoff point, Hochevar at that time had a 5.17 ERA and a 4.38 K/9 rate. His swinging strike rate was 6.9%, well below the 9.4% he demonstrated in 2010 and his fastball was averaging right around 92 mph. He had a 5-8 record over 18 starts and appeared headed for a very forgetful season, not to mention the black chasm of fantasy baseball irrelevance.

And then it was like some kind of switch got flipped. That putrid strikeout rate suddenly skyrocketed:

Over his last 12 starts, his K/9 rate is near nine after barely being above four over the course of 18 starts. For the visual learner in you, here’s his K rate by month:

So just how has he doubled his strikeout rate? I don’t know that there’s one smoking gun, but a couple things have happened over the course of the season that almost certainly have contributed: his fastball velocity steadily returned over the course of the season and he tweaked his repertoire, or at least how frequently he threw each pitch.

If you look at his velocity charts you’ll see that early in the season, he was struggling to break 90 and the trend is steadily headed north up to his last start where he averaged 93.3 MPH on his four seam fastball. While velocity doesn’t explain everything, it’s certainly a significant contributor when attempting to predict strikeouts.

The other thing he’s done is juggled his pitch selection.

The change isn’t terribly dramatic, but he’s leaning far more on his slider (11.9% to 17.1%) and going less to his cutter and fastball. Now, by pitch type values, Hochevar has a pretty darn good slider. In fact, per 100 pitches it is one of the most valuable sliders among starting pitchers. #1 is some guy named Cliff Lee at 5.18 runs above average, then Hochevar at 4.08. Behind him are Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, and CC Sabathia. I’m not trying to say Hochevar is in that league – but his slider is. And the more he’s using it, the more success he seems to have. In fact, in his last start, he used the slider almost 40% of the time, producing a near 24% whiff rate. His least effective pitch, his curve, he threw only seven times. Maybe Bob McClure reads Fangraphs?

Some of Hochevar’s problems stem from struggling the further he gets into games. Looking at opponents’ OPS in the first, second, and third time through the lineup against the American League average, you can see that Hochevar does quite well early in the ballgame and then tends to fall apart:

In the second half so far, Hochevar is holding opponents to a .652 OPS with just a .223 batting average, so it’s possible that he is improving the deeper he gets into ballgames. Taking a cursory glance at his last 10 outings, if there has been any damage done, the majority of it has been early in the game and he seems to be finding a way to settle down.

Hochevar is arbitration eligible for the first time in 2012, and while it’s likely the Royals offer him arbitration, something tells me the club and agent Scott Boras will be far apart in figures they bring to the table, and I’d bet his strong second half is going to be prominently featured in Boras’ binder.

For typical fantasy leagues, however – Hochevar isn’t a keeper. If you’re in mile deep or AL-only leagues and you have the roster flexibility, I’d monitor his next several starts and think seriously about hanging on to him. He is just 27 years old still, he is still making adjustments, and he’s always had the pedigree of a very good starter. Should he be able to migrate his second half success into 2012, he could prove to be a pretty useful fantasy starter, and he would no doubt be inexpensive.

*Note, this post was written prior to Hochevar’s outing on September 14th, where he wasn’t lights out, but pitched well enough to win.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

8 Responses to “Luke Hochevar and Reason For Optimism”

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  1. geo says:

    Hochevar had the flu yesterday, the September 14th start where you say he wasn’t lights out. He gets a mulligan for that.

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  2. opisgod says:

    What Hochevar really needs to learn to do is strand runners, he is just godawful in that department and has always been. Regression isnt coming for his strand rate, he has to learn to pitch from the stretch.

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    • Michael Barr says:

      he has had historically crappy strand rates. The league average this year is about 72% and he’s currently at 66%. That is, for what it’s worth, a career high for him.

      I was looking at his OPS with the bases empty, men on, and RISP, and he’s actually a little worse than league average across the board. Can’t paste the graph in here, but hopefully the data will present ok (alright, it’s ugly…first column is Hochevar, second is AL League Avg)

      LH AL Avg
      Empty 0.732 0.711
      Men On 0.758 0.741
      RISP 0.769 0.743

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  3. GLP says:

    Royals are shutting Hochevar down for the season. Career high in innings. They also have some AAA guys they want to look at.

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  4. Joe says:

    Hochever had a stretch of awesomeness a few years ago, probably 08 or 09 where he dominated for a little while then lost it. He had much more break to his curve and slider during that time.

    I remember it was mid season and one of the teams was Texas. I think he struck out 13.

    It doesn’t show up on month to month splits because it was about half of two different months.

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  5. Paul says:

    I think Hochevar’s success actually has a lot to do with Felipe Paulino. They have pretty similar stuff, and when he came over they started having Paulino pitch backwards off the slow curve, but also use it sparingly as use it as a true knee locker after establishing the fastball.

    Hence, I think the change to more heavy reliance on the slider was a total accident. The Royals have a huge blind spot in their pitcher development where they clearly prefer the curveball. Hochevar’s curve has always sucked. Scouts say either you have a curve in your wrist or you don’t. It’s fine that he has it, but they basically wasted three years of development by instructing him to go to battle with inferior ammo.

    In an odd way, with this being a good developmental year for the Royals, the success of their best starter, best offensive player, and best reliever (Hoch, Gordon, Crow) have made clear that their developmental processes are highly flawed. Essentially, they completely stand back and let freakishly talented players like Eric Hosmer do their thing, but with pitchers they have them rely too heavily on the CB (Crow’s slider is so good he could be a two pitch starter, his numbers are good, but in the second half he is not the same guy as they’ve been having him throw a mediocre curve), and have no idea whatsoever how to develop raw power hitters.

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  6. jim fetterolf says:

    “(Hoch, Gordon, Crow) have made clear that their developmental processes are highly flawed.”

    It should be noted that both Hoch and Gordon have battled injuries in a couple of seasons and Crow is a rookie. Gordon and Hoch are both healthy this year and Crow may not be, having some shoulder issues.

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