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.