Is Luke Hochevar a Bust?

Nathaniel StoltzSenior Analyst IJune 27, 2009

When the No. 1 pick of the MLB draft is selected, he is expected to be a star.

Some picks are met with more fanfare than others (Stephen Strasburg elicited much more buzz than Matt Bush) but all No. 1 draft picks are expected to, at the very least, be good contributors to their major league teams.

And usually, they are.

Brien Taylor and Bush are the only two No. 1 overall picks in the last 40 years to not make the majors (aside from Strasburg and last year's No. 1, Tim Beckham). A few guys (Matt Anderson and Bryan Bullington come to mind) were only marginal contributors. 

There are also guys like Josh Hamilton, Adrian Gonzalez, and Joe Mauer, who went on to become superstars.

However, most No. 1 picks fall somewhere in between. Phil Nevin was a late bloomer who had a few nice years. Darin Erstad had a couple of great years, but fell off quickly.

Kris Benson was an average guy when healthy, and often was hurt. Delmon Young is a groundball hitter who can't play defense.

And so on.

It's important to keep that, and many other things, in mind when evaluating 2006 No. 1 overall pick and current Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar.

Hochevar's started 30 major league games and thrown 180 innings: roughly one full season. In that time, he's posted a 5.35 ERA and struck out only 93 batters. Neither mark is very good.

Naturally, performance like that falls well short of the No. 1 overall pick hype.

So Hochevar gets the "bust" tag, right?

Not so fast.

First, Hochevar's been unlucky thus far. His miserable 62.4 percent strand rate is far below the league average and should regress to the mean, which is about 10 percent higher.

His career 4.62 FIP is much better than the ugly 5.35 ERA, and pegs him as a decent fifth starter in the majors.

While Hochevar hasn't picked up many K's, he does a good job limiting walks (just 3.2 BB/9) and homers (.9 HR/9). Batters find it difficult to lift his pitches (53.5 GB%) and they also struggle to hit liners (15.7 LD%).

Really, the only thing Hochevar doesn't do well is strike out hitters. And given his groundball tendencies, that's okay. Aaron Cook, Chien-Ming Wang, Jake Westbrook, and Roy Halladay have similar tendencies, and all four have carved out nice careers.

While the odds of Hochevar being the next Halladay are slim, he certainly could be right up in the Cook/Westbrook class. After all, he's only 25 and throws five quality pitches (93 mph four-seam fastball, 90 mph two-seam fastball, 83 mph slider, 75 mph curve, 83 mph changeup), so he certainly has good stuff.

As Hochevar learns better how to use that stuff, and get his K rate from 4.65/9 innings to about 6, he could move up into the mid-rotation status shared with guys like Cook and Westbrook.

Over his minor league career, Hochevar struck out 8.3 batters per nine innings, so his track record there provides further reason for optimism.

Now, I know what you're thinking.

The Royals didn't draft Luke Hochevar to be the next Aaron Cook. They drafted him to be an ace.

True, and I understand that. However, the perception of what #1 picks should be is much higher than what they actually turn out to be.

Between 1990 and 2004, the only No. 1 picks who could ever be defined as "stars" are Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Gonzalez, and Joe Mauer. That's one in every three.

The average No. 1 pick is someone like Phil Nevin, Darin Erstad, or Pat Burrell: a useful player, maybe an occasional All-Star.

Notice that all five of the "superstars" were position players. There hasn't been a #1 pitcher who became a superstar in my lifetime.

The post-1990 No. 1 pitchers were Brien Taylor (never got higher than Double-A), Paul Wilson (career 40-58 with a 4.86 ERA), Kris Benson (back-of-the-rotation guy), Matt Anderson (fringey reliever who was a closer for a couple of years early on), Bryan Bullington (may yet turn out to be a No. 4 starter or quality reliever, but is trapped in Quad-A oblivion), Hochevar, David Price, and Strasburg (none of which we can render final judgment on yet).

If these guys are the standard, Hochevar's actually above the expectations. Even his detractors think he can be as good as Paul Wilson or Kris Benson, and Hochevar's already had a more significant career than Taylor, Anderson, or Bullington.

In short, Hochevar may have been drafted to be an ace, but history tells us that expecting him to be an ace is ridiculous.

What further perplexes me about giving Hochevar the bust label is the alternatives. 

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Brandon Morrow, Joba Chamberlain, and perhaps Max Scherzer have brighter futures than Hochevar. Prospects such as Brad Lincoln and Kasey Kiker may surpass him one day as well. And that's just the first-round picks.

Now, Hochevar wasn't the consensus No. 1 talent on draft day; that's true. But then again, neither were any of the guys I listed in the last paragraph. Hochevar was ranked ahead of all of them. Who was No. 1?

Andrew Miller.

Hochevar was supposed to be the second-best pitcher in the draft after Miller. But in 2008, Miller's ERA was worse than Hochevar's. Miller has bigtime command issues and mechanical problems, and he's had injury issues as well.

Hochevar's been more durable. While Miller has struck more batters out, he's walked far more hitters, and he doesn't have Hochevar's groundball ability.

Furthermore, Hochevar's in the more difficult league, and yet his stats are right on par with Miller's, if not better.

Of course, as they say, hindsight is 20/20, and I'm sure the Royals would love to turn back the clock and pick Kershaw or Lincecum.

But they should be equally as glad that they didn't take pitchers such as #2 overall Greg Reynolds, who is sort of similar to Hochevar but much worse, Jeremy Jeffress, whose awful command makes Miller look like Roy Halladay (Jeffress has also been suspended three times for marijuana), or Colton Willems, who's had about as much success in A-ball as Hochevar has in the majors.

While the 2006 draft produced some future (and current) superstars, none were considered as good as Hochevar at the time.

The only one considered better (Miller) has a 5.40 career major league ERA. That puts Miller on the Wilson/Benson path if he can't right himself in a hurry.

Nobody knew Lincecum would be this good, or that Kershaw would already be a quality mid-rotation guy two years out of high school, or that Chamberlain would become a New York legend.

There was very little evidence (if any) on 2006 draft day that those players would turn out that way. 

It happens all the time. Things change. People get stronger. Fastballs increase in velocity. Breaking balls get sharper. Pitchers learn new pitches.

The Royals couldn't have known that it would be Kershaw, Lincecum, etc. taking the great leaps and not Hochevar.

Going forward, the right-hander looks to establish himself as a 200-inning-per-season mid-rotation stalwart who can give you plenty of seven-inning, three-run games.

It may be that expectations were higher on Draft Day 2006, but realistically, Hochevar's turned out pretty well. The only pitcher who was thought to be better at the time was Andrew Miller, and he's closer to busting than Hochevar is.

Luke Hochevar isn't a star, but he's no bust.


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