by John Viril—
Internet wags clobbered Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore when he decided to keep pitcher Luke Hochevar for a 1-year $4.5 contract this off-season. I must confess that I was among their number. In my own defense, I blasted the move because I was convinced that the Royals would simply put him in the same situation in which he had failed so many times before—a rotation spot.
I—and many others—continued screaming even after the Royals moved Luke Hochevar to the pen. When manager Ned Yost brought everyone’s favorite whipping boy into an April 12 game against the Blue Jays with runners on base, my worst fears seemed realized. The Royals were again going to misuse Hochevar.
In a still-winnable 6-4 game, Luke promptly allowed a single to score both runners. Hochevar went single, wild pitch, walk, and finally a foul-tip strikeout to end the inning. The single, however, put the game out of reach at 8-4. Luke followed up that rough start by whiffing 4 hitters over the next two innings as he dominated the Jays.
I thought that appearance validated what bloggers had been screaming for years—Hochevar needed to pitch ONLY when the bases were clean. In the five innings since coming into that high-leverage situation, Luke Hochevar has 9 strikeouts, surrendered 2 hits, and issued 1 walk. That stretch includes 2 impressive innings on Sunday against the Indians, in which Hoch racked up 5 strikeouts in two shutout innings.
Those innings all started without runners on base. Amazing what happens when you avoid a player’s established weaknesses.
Luke Hochevar has never been developed properly. While he has flashed dominant stuff at times, he’s consistently struggled with runners on base. Yet, the Royals kept running him out there every 5 days to take his lumps. Last season, I suggested that it looked like a confidence problem (see here, here, and here). With his move to the back end of the pen, Hochevar has been freed from the pressure of becoming the staff savior. This is the first time that Hochevar hasn’t carried those expectations since the Royals made him the no. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft.
At age 29, Luke Hochevar should have been put in this position a long time ago. But, I suppose the old saw “better late than never” is a perfect fit. Let Hochevar pitch in low-leverage situations for half a season. Then gradually bring him in to pitch with the game on the line. If he can succeed in short stints of pressure, you might try him out as a starter late in the season.
If it doesn’t work out, at least you’ve turned Hochevar into something useful—even if he ends up being nothing more than a cleanup man.
Looks like the Royals finally got this one right.