I will spare you the rehashing of the Hochevar Epic by briefly summarizing: He was drafted first overall in 2006 (after having been drafted twice by the Dodgers). He reached the majors in 2007, was permanently affixed by 2008, and has been a maddening presence in the rotation ever since. The best thing you can say about him over the last two seasons is that he has been healthy.
He’s thrown a few gems over his career. Last August he out-pitched David Price, taking a no-decision in a 1-0 Royals win, striking out ten and allowing only four baserunners in eight innings. It probably shouldn’t have been a huge surprise; earlier in June, he pitched the second shutout of his career against those same Rays, striking out eight and scattering eight baserunners. Obviously, neither of those performances are very indicative of how Hochevar’s season ended up: 8-16, 5.73/4.63/4.32 triple slash, an uptick in home runs given up, and generally under-performing statistically given his talent and “stuff”. Like every Nickelback song you’ve ever heard, it’s basically the same thing as the year before that, and the years before that.
And he’ll be back. The Royals tendered him earlier this off-season, and there’s very little evidence suggesting that they would cut bait with him. Even if he performs poorly in the spring (and despite the fact that they brought in three starters, re-signed Guthrie, and still had Chen under contract for another year), I can’t imagine a scenario that results in Hochevar being cut any time before the season begins.
So what gives? How does a guy who so consistently performs as poorly as he does keep getting chances to prove himself?
It mostly stems from the fact that, 60% of the time, Luke Hochevar works every time (well, 53% of the time anyway). Last season, he made 17 starts where he gave up 3 earned runs or less with 7.54 K/9, 2.60 BB/9, and a 2.27 ERA. Over those 17 starts, he threw 111 innings (6.5 per start) and pitched very effectively.
The problem is the other 15 starts that he made, which highlights the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of Hochevar’s career: He managed to last only 74.1 innings (4.95 per start) with 6.17 K/9, 3.51 BB/9, and a 10.90 ERA.
From an organizational standpoint, there will always be a belief that Hochevar is more of the former and less of the latter, that with a few tweaks, some more consistency, and the right pitch selection, he can be an above-average to good starter. And they may be right (probably not), but the clock is ticking. For most, time expired this off-season. For the Royals, they plan on giving him at least another season (he will be arbitration-eligible for the final time in 2014) to fulfill a modicum of their expectation.
Perhaps the best news for Hochevar is that he will no longer be counted on to perform as a “top-of-the-rotation” guy. After acquiring Shields, Santana, and Davis, re-signing Guthrie, and without being able to trade Bruce Chen, the Royals are no longer handcuffed into a position where they have to keep pushing Hochevar out there regardless of his performance. He will be (at best) the 5th starter amidst a sea of 4th and 5th starters, stretching the range from Chen and Davis to Mendoza and Will Smith.
But really, this is it. I mean, this is it, right? It sort of has to be. With Duffy and Paulino coming back, Zimmer and Ventura on the horizon, and the Royals sold out for “win now” mode, Hochevar needs to become more of a consistent presence if he wants to stick around. And even then, there might not be room for him.
For this season, at least, let’s hope he’s more of Jekyll and less of Hyde.