SURPRISE, Ariz. — We’re about to see, over the next several weeks, the results of Luke Hochevar’s winter recovery plan. That’s we as in the Royals, their fans and everybody else … most especially Hochevar himself.
There are doubters, certainly. How can there not be after Hochevar went 8-16 last season with a 5.73 ERA in 32 starts? But whatever comes next will unfold amid few guarantees and increased expectations.
Hochevar is battling this spring to hold a spot in what, to all appearances, is a significantly upgraded rotation. A demotion to long relief is a real possibility.
“That’s the situation that I’m in,” Hochevar said. “It’s not like I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God…’ It’s not a degrading situation at all. It is what it is. We’ve got some great arms in here, and it’s not the first time I’ve fought for a spot.”
Hochevar enters camp after a winter of initial discontent following the most disappointing season of a disappointing career. His offseason workouts began as soon as he got home in October.
“I think I hunted nine days this offseason,” he said. “Usually, as soon as the season ends, I’ll knock that much out. But I didn’t hunt much at all this year. I had some bigger fish to fry.
“Obviously, the year I had last year was not even close to my standards or what I want to do. As soon as the season ended, I had to choose action. I couldn’t go home and rest and relax. I had to get to work.”
Hochevar said he “stewed” over his 2012 performance.
He came to recognize he wasn’t always as bad as the overall numbers indicate; take away seven horrific starts, and he posted a 3.65 ERA in his other 25 games.
It wasn’t much comfort.
“I know that there were seven starts that screwed up my year from a numbers standpoint,” he said. “Then again, losing 16 games just does not sit well with me. I’m better than that.
“I understand you can’t control everything, but there’s a reason that people win.”
That prompted an intense self-examination in addition to those head-clearing workouts.
Hochevar studied tape from each of his 32 starts in 2012 and from many of his 2011 starts — and he believes he found the reason for his career-long inability to prevent small jams from becoming colossal meltdowns.
“When runners would get on, or I’d get in a tough situation,” he said, “that’s when I was really getting whacked. But nothing changed in my approach — and I’m going to go after them no matter what the situation is. I’m not changing that.”
Hochevar did what all pitchers do in game-on-the-line situations; he’d try to reach back for a little more. To “step on the gas,” as he puts it. When he did, the situation often quickly got out of hand.
He now thinks he knows why.
“When I’d step on the gas,” he said, “my front side would fly open, and my ball would get flat. The thing is, if my front side stays in, I can step on the gas and (be effective). My front side stays in. I keep my angle. I don’t get flat. The hitter doesn’t pick me up early.”
Fact is, this isn’t an entirely new revelation.
Former pitching coach Bob McClure said repeatedly that Hochevar’s problems resulted from a breakdown in mechanics that often stemmed from pitching “like his hair was on fire” in tight situations.
Current pitching coach Dave Eiland attacked the same issue from a different angle in trying to get Hochevar to limit his repertoire in order to tighten the muscle-memory mechanics on his best pitches.
“What he does,” Eiland said, “and a lot of guys do it, is to try to make the good stuff you have even better. You overthrow. How do guys overthrow? They do two things. They collapse on their back side, and the front side flies up.
“When that happens, you lose your angle, and it’s hard to get the ball down to your glove side. It runs back. It’s just a matter of staying under control. We talked about it last year.”
They did — but Hochevar often exhibited a stubborn, and at times exasperating, resistance to change. Now, a few months of reflection seems to have everyone on the same page and hoping, finally, it permits Hochevar to unlock his potential.
“It’s hard to make adjustments in-season in this sport,” manager Ned Yost said, “because you’ve got so much going on. Where you really make adjustments is when you go home over the winter, reflect on your season and really start to analyze it.
“Luke spent all winter long doing that. I think he sees the areas he can improve on to be a more consistent performer. He’s just got too many pluses for it not to happen in the end.”
Spotting the flaw himself on tape, Hochevar said, was a revelation.
“It was almost peace of mind to see that,” he said. “I clean that up, and I stay the same mentally, and I’m OK. That was probably the biggest thing that I worked on in the off-season, really; just making sure I stay online and don’t fly open.”
Sure, it’s easy to be skeptical.
Few pitchers have undergone more resets in recent years than Hochevar, whose perplexing domination/abomination mix had fans groaning merely at the Royals’ decision to bring him back for another year.
“It’s part of it,” Hochevar said. “The dogs are going to bark, but the caravan just keeps rolling. If I think about that, that sucks. So you just eliminate it. I just completely eliminate it.
“I don’t worry about it. I don’t even think about it. I just stay locked in to what I need to do. I mean, sure, you don’t want that. Then again, it is what it is.”
The Royals never considered not bring Hochevar back.
“I think every market has a segment of the fan base that gets upset with different players,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “I think Luke Hochevar is going to have a good year, but you’ve got to produce, and you’ve got to perform.
“You’ve got to contribute to the success of the team. That’s what fans want to see from players.”
Yost said the club’s improved rotation ease expectations on Hochevar, which began with his selection as the first pick in the 2006 draft and escalated when he became the club’s top starter following Zack Greinke’s departure after the 2010 season.
“Having (Ervin) Santana, (Jeremy) Guthrie, (James) Shields and (Wade) Davis takes all of the pressure off of him,” Yost said. “That’s going to help him some. Having a good starting rotation helps everybody.”
It also means Hochevar must win a job in competition with Bruce Chen and, perhaps, Luis Mendoza and others. The alternative is to open the season in the bullpen as a long reliever.
“That’s where I’m at right now,” Hochevar said. “I’m locked in to what I need to do. I know that if I do it, then things are going to work out. And if I don’t, then that’s what it is. I get what I deserve.”
Rays trade completed — The final piece to the Royals’ big trade with Tampa Bay fell into place Tuesday afternoon when the two clubs agreed on utilityman Elliot Johnson joining the Royals as the player to be named later in the Dec. 9 deal.
“He’s a super utility guy who can play any position,” said pitcher James Shields, a former teammate whom the Royals acquired in the seven-player trade.
Johnson, 29, was designated for assignment Feb. 5 by the Rays after he batted .242 last season with six homers and 33 RBIs in 123 games. He
Johnson is out of options, which suggests the Royals see him as a likely fit for their 25-man roster. He is expected to report Thursday to the Royals and take part Friday in the club’s first official full-squad workout.
The move completes a seven-player deal that previously saw the Royals obtain Shields and pitcher Wade Davis for outfielder Wil Myers, pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery, and third baseman Patrick Leonard.