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Big Inning Luke Strikes Again

You might remember before the season that I made a prediction that Luke Hochevar would have an ERA around 3.50. I said that because I felt that the improved defense would help him more than almost anybody else on the pitching staff. I said that under the assumption that he would continue to keep the ball on the ground at about the same rate that he had and that he would keep his home run rate about the same as he had throughout his career. The bad news for both my prediction and for the Royals is that Hochevar is not the same pitcher he was before. He has actually gotten more ground balls than he did last season, but the other thing he’s doing way more of is leaving pitches in very hittable spots. It could be argued that his HR/FB% is ridiculously high and that there’s no way he can maintain a 20.9% rate there, but if you’re watching the games and seeing where the pitches are that are hit out, you know that it might not be that far off.

Over the last few years I’ve been one of Hochevar’s biggest supporters, and the point of writing this isn’t to backtrack on my initial prediction. If he can stop leaving fat pitches over the middle of the plate, I think he can have a very nice season. I’m not sure that a 3.50 ERA is in the picture anymore due to the start that he’s had, but he could put up that type of ERA throughout the rest of the season. There’s something not quite right with him, though. I’m not saying he’s injured, though he might be. Prior to his elbow injury last year, it looked like he was finally putting things together. The game where Ned Yost famously left Hochevar in against the White Sox led to a really nice stretch before interleague play wreaked havoc on Luke’s elbow. Then when he came back, he wasn’t quite the same, at least I thought. It didn’t bother me because I figured the Royals were using September as his rehab.

I noticed, though, that his pitches weren’t quite as crisp. The velocity was there, but the stuff wasn’t quite the same as it was before the injury. If there’s one positive you can take from Luke Hochevar, it is that he has excellent stuff. Well, maybe it was had excellent stuff because I’ve only seen it in flashes throughout the course of the 2011 season. I could be way off base and he’ll reel off eight starts in a row that show Cy Young potential, but right now he looks like a different pitcher than the one who looked like he had turned a corner last season. The big encouraging sign is that his xFIP, which measures what his ERA should be factoring in average defense and an average home run rate is just 4.03. Now, if the problem is that his pitches are just too hittable, then his homer rate won’t drop because Major League hitters hit hanging sliders out of the park. But, if my eyes are deceiving me and he hasn’t actually hung that many pitches, then better things are in store.

The other encouraging thing is that Luke isn’t walking hitters. He’s walking less than two per nine innings which is fantastic. It would be better if that was coupled with a better strikeout rate, but it’s better than a bad strikeout rate and a bad walk rate. I’ll take a 3:1 K:BB ratio any day of the week, even though I’d like about two strikeouts per nine innings more for Hochevar. On the flip side, Hochevar has allowed just a .244 batting average on balls in play. His career average is .305, which means there might be further regression. Of course, if he does improve the home run rate, then the regression won’t be drastic and would put him at about a 4.25 ERA or so. That’s not ace quality, but it’s certainly not minor league quality either, which is the way he’s pitching right now.

I’ve probably muttered that the Royals should just release Hochevar, but outside of the intensity of a game, I think that’s a ridiculous solution. Of course, one radio show host in this city thought it was the way to go prior to the season. I won’t name names here, but Soren Petro made a stupid argument on that one. The funny thing is that if Hochevar wasn’t the first overall draft pick, he’d be on a much shorter leash. Of course he was the first overall draft pick and he’s the same pitcher who threw an 81 pitch complete game. He’s the same pitcher who struck out 13 Rangers and walked nobody in seven innings. The flashes of brilliance are there, and the knock has always been that he can’t keep it up. I don’t think anyone is expecting him to throw a complete game on less than 90 pitches every time or strike out 13 every seven innings, but he needs to be expected to do better than he has.

Right now, Luke Hochevar is a part of the Royals rotation, and as much as I said to the contrary last night while watching the game, I’m fine with that. I think he’s a big part of the Royals future. If he’s the ace on future Royals then one of two things has happened. Either he’s turned the corner and he legitimately is the ace of the staff or something has gone terribly wrong. Still, though, he has immense value as a righty to break up the lefties, but he has to be able to make quality pitches and get groundballs. We’ve seen this season that when he gets the ball up, it is hittable enough that it leaves the yard. Luke Hochevar can be a part of the next good Royals team, but he has to make some serious adjustments or else he’s going to get passed by and be on the outside looking in.

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