Royals' Luke Hochevar Comes Into His Own

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Royals' Luke Hochevar Comes Into His Own
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It is possible that Luke Hochevar is just on a hot streak—much as Kyle Davies was last September when many of us thought he might well have emerged as a true No. 3 starter for the Royals.  After Saturday's 13 strikeout-no walk performance, however, it might also be safe to say that the former No. 1 overall pick is, at last, becoming a legitimate middle of the rotation starter.  

Considering that over his last six starts, Hochevar has compiled a 3.44 earned run average while throwing at least six innings in each, striking out 38, and walking just eight, calling Hochevar a middle of the rotation guy might actually be understating his value.  We will let the last two months of the season play out before officially ordaining Hochevar as a "legit No. 2" or, at least, a "solid No. 3," but for now you have to be impressed by what Hochevar has accomplished recently.

In his two starts since the All-Star Break, Hochevar has thrown 13.1 innings, allowing just 12 hits and four earned runs.  The striking numbers, however, are the TWENTY-FOUR strikeouts and ZERO walks.  Considering that he averaged less than six strikeouts per nine innings in both 2008 and 2009 (before the last two starts), those numbers are something to get excited about.

Given that the Rangers and Rays rank second and fourth in baseball in striking out, you can temper those numbers just a tad.   However, it is worth noting that the Rays also rank second in walks and yet were not able to get to Luke for even one free pass.   Besides, the Rangers are not striking out 13 times against just everyone.

The obvious question is: has there been a real change that has led to Hochevar's increased strikeouts?  In checking the outstanding numbers provided by Fangraphs and Brook's Baseball, we can indeed some that, at least for the last two starts, Luke has had a different approach.

In 2008, Hochevar 59.2 percent of the pitches Hochevar threw were fastballs and in 2009 that percentage is virtually the same (59.9 percent).  Almost 10 percent of the time in 2008, Hochevar threw a changeup, but that pitch has all but disappeared from his repetoire in 2009 with Luke tossing it just 2.2 percent of the time.  

As a result of throwing fewer changeups, Hochevar is (rather obviously) throwing more sliders and curves.  The percentages breakdown like this.

2008 Sliders—21.0%

2009 Sliders—25.9%

2008 Curves—9.5%

2009 Curves—12.1%

That only begins to tell the story, however.  In his two post-break starts, Luke's pitch selections have skewed even further to the breaking pitches.

 

July 19th vs. Tampa Bay:  6.1IP, 7H, 2ER, 0BB, 9SO

Fastballs—47 (48.5%)

Sliders—35 (36.1%)

Curves—8 (8.2%)

Cutters—7 (7.2%)

 

July 25th vs. Texas: 7IP, 5H, 2ER, 0BB, 13SO

Fastballs—44 (39.3%)

Sliders—35 (31.3%)

Curves—30 (26.8%)

Cutters—3 (2.7%)

As an aside, I am not going to talk much about the cutters as I think the pitch data sometimes gets confused with cutters and regular fastballs.  I can tell you that Hochevar's cutter percentage in both 2008 and 2009 is almost zero and it is possible that what is being counted as a cutter might just be a fastball with a bunch of movement.

What we can see from the above breakdowns is that Luke Hochevar has not thrown a changeup for two weeks and has now started to throw breaking pitches, not only when he used to throw changes, but also when he might have used his fastball in the past.   

For some pitchers, this might be a warning sign: a signal that the hurler is trying to be "too cute" or "nibble."  In the case of Hochevar, it might simply be a sign that he has gotten comfortable with his breaking stuff to the point that both slider and curve are legitimate "out" pitches.

As you can see from the above, Luke went to the curve often against the Rangers, but barely used it against the Rays.  That two different approaches led to back-to-back high strikeout quality starts would seem to indicate that Hochevar is becoming a force to be reckoned with on the mound.  

We will not have to wait long to find out if opposing hitters can catch up to the new and improved Luke Hochevar.   His next start this Friday will be against the Tampa Bay Rays, who have already encountered the post-break Luke.  

Will the Rays now look for more breaking stuff and force Hochevar back to more fastballs and the resulting consequence of having to rely on the Royals' awful defense?  Or will the fact that Hochevar displayed just eight curves on July 19 give Luke the edge once more? 

While Hochevar may spend his Kansas City career being known as "the guy we drafted instead of Tim Lincecum," a few more starts like the previous two will make that statement not quite as painful. 

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