Not a Rookie: Luke Hochevar
Luke Hochevar was supposed to be an ace starter by now. Instead, he's one of the poster children for everything that's gone wrong in Kansas City over the last few years. What happened?
The saga of Hochevar begins in 2005. He had an excellent season for the University of Tennessee, going 15-3, 2.26 with a 154/54 K/BB in 140 innings with 104 hits allowed. Many teams thought he was the best college pitcher available, but he fell to 40th overall due to signability questions. Hochevar was originally represented by Scott Boras, but switched to agent Matt Sosnick, then accepted a $2.98 million bonus offer from the Dodgers. But Hochevar changed his mind at the last second, switched back to Boras, reneged on the agreement, then went back into the draft pool for 2006. This left a negative taste in the mouths of many people in the game.
Hochevar pitched for Fort Worth in the independent American Association in the spring of 2006. He pitched well, and was so impressive in workouts that the Royals made him the first overall pick in the '06 draft, giving him a $3.5 million bonus and a major league contract worth $5.25 million. He was expected to be ready very quickly, due to a 92-95 MPH fastball, along with a slider, curveball, and changeup that all showed high promise. He made four starts for Burlington in the Midwest League after signing, posting a 1.17 ERA with a 16/2 K/BB in 15 innings. I gave him a Grade A- in the 2007 book, very impressed with the scouting reports and his college performance.
Hochevar began 2007 with Double-A Wichita, posting a 3-6 record with a 4.69 ERA, a 94/26 K/BB ratio, but 110 hits given up in 94 games. He gave up 13 homers. The park and league worked against him, but Texas League observers felt he was an enigma: the stuff was fine (92-94 MPH, curveball, slider, changeup all plus offerings at times), but he tended to leave pitches high in the strike zone, got behind in the count too often, and did not show the polish or feel for pitching that was expected. Promoted to Triple-A Omaha, he went 1-3, 5.12 with a 44/21 K/BB in 58 innings, allowing 53 hits but 11 homers in 10 starts. Scouting reports were similar: the stuff looked like it was there, but he just didn't look in synch much of the time, and the whole was less than the sum of the parts. His mental toughness was questioned by more than one source. He got 12.2 innings of work with the Royals late in the year and posted a pretty 2.13 ERA, but with just five strikeouts. I gave him a Grade B in the 2008 book, writing that Hochevar "could end up being a really good pitcher, or he could languish in mediocrity, at least for awhile. In some ways he reminds me of Jeremy Guthrie, a similar package of talent who took some time to figure out the pro ranks."
Hochevar has spent most of the last two seasons with the Royals, with 11 Triple-A starts mixed in. He's been terrific in Omaha, but his major league numbers have been weak: 13-26, 5.88 ERA in his career, with a 183/97 K/BB in 285 innings, 321 hits allowed, 5.8 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 10.1 H/9. His FIPs have not been as bad as the ERAs: it was 4.43 in '08 and 4.84 in '09, hardly good marks but evidence that he's been badly supported by his teammates.
What's wrong with him? He flashes dominating ability at times: last July he looked superb in three starts against the Rangers, Rays, and Red Sox, posting a 27/1 K/BB in 19.1 innings of work. But he hasn't been able to maintain it for long, and his performance was particularly awful in September and October last year. He was 2-10, 7.35 with 111 hits and 14 homers given up in 86 innings after the All Star Break.
Living in the Kansas City area, I've seen a lot of Hochevar over the last two years. Visually, his best pitch looks like the slider, and that's the only pitch in his arsenal that Fangraphs gives a positive rating to. His fastball still comes in at 90-94 MPH, a tick slower than earlier in his career, and the movement on the pitch isn't as good as reported when he was younger. To me anyway, the fastball often looks flat and straight. He threw more curveballs last year and also added a cutter, but aside from the slider, Fangraphs gives all of his pitches a negative rating. It is often infuriating to watch him pitch; you can see his natural abilitym but the results aren't there. Sometimes it just doesn't look like he knows what he's doing, but other times he looks terrific. Unfortunately the lousy starts have outweighed the good ones. Note that his problems in the majors are the same as his problems in the Texas League and PCL back in '07.
Hochevar enters 2010 as a 26 year old with two poor seasons under his belt. I mentioned Jeremy Guthrie as a possible comp in the 2008 book, as a guy with a good arm but poor results. Guthrie finally figured things out in 2007 at the age of 28, after he was traded from the Indians to the Orioles. Perhaps Hochevar will need another year and a similar change of scenery to unleash his potential. At this point, I can't say I'm especially optimistic, but stranger things have happened, and as long as he's healthy and throwing hard, they will keep running him out there.
He would certainly benefit from a better defense behind him. If I were a real baseball team on the lookout for a pitcher to acquire low while his stock was down, I'd consider asking the Royals about Hochevar. I don't expect him to develop into the ace originally envisioned, but with a better team behind him he could still develop into a workhorse inning-eater.