DETROIT — What’s the future hold for Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar now that the first pick in the 2006 draft has blossomed into a shutdown reliever after years of maddening inconsistency in the rotation?
“I don’t know,” he said, “and I don’t really think about it. In the end, it’s whatever can help the team the most. I’ve seen it, and I’ve been around long enough to know you don’t get a vote. It’s whatever the team needs.
“It’s not my job to make the decision. It’s my job to take the ball in whatever situations they want me in and to get outs. If they want me in the bullpen next year, I’ll be in the bullpen. If they want me to start, I’ll start.”
Any decision is, of course, on hold as the Royals close out their most meaningful September in more than a generation. They entered Thursday’s open date in their schedule just two games out in the wild-card chase.
“Everybody wants to look ahead,” manager Ned Yost growled. “I’m just trying to win the next game. Right now, he’s in the bullpen. He’s comfortable in his role. He’s confident in his role, and he enjoys it right now.”
And why not?
Hochevar, who turns 30 on Sunday, owns a 1.70 ERA in 51 games with eye-popping peripherals: Just 35 hits allowed in 63 2/3 innings with 72 strikeouts and 16 walks. That converts to an 0.81 WHIP and a 243 ERA+.
That means he’s allowing the fewest walks and hits per inning on the staff (Greg Holland is next at 0.83), and is pitching at nearly 2 1/2 times as well as a league-average pitcher with ERA adjusted to individual ballparks.
It is, by any measure, a remarkable turnaround for a pitcher who last year led the majors in runs allowed. Hochevar ended last season with a career resume showing a 38-59 record and a 5.39 ERA in 132 games over six years.
Many were surprised the Royals held onto him because his arbitration-eligible status meant eating up payroll in an offseason committed to rebuilding a dreadful rotation that Hochevar … well, helped make dreadful.
“This is the guy everybody was complaining about last year,” Yost said. “This is the guy we knew was in there. This is the guy we knew that we had. We just had to get it out of him.
“And we’re definitely getting it out of him now.”
The Royals, with that rebuilt rotation, shifted Hochevar to the bullpen midway through spring training — and that move created a public stir within their fan base and, to some extent, the industry itself.
The consensus, at the time, praised the Royals for recognizing they had better rotation options than Hochevar while chiding them for paying $4.56 million for a middle reliever because they didn’t see it sooner.
Hochevar, for his part, embraced the change immediately.
“What’s important is that when I take the ball,” he said, “I’m helping the club. That’s how I look at it, and that’s how I’m going to approach it.
“If you view it as a bad thing, it’s a bad thing. If you view it as a good thing, it’s going to be a good thing. That’s how it works in everyday life as well. You have a choice.”
Yost eased Hochevar into the role over the season’s first few months by, generally, calling on him in low-leverage situations. That slowly changed as Hochevar demonstrated consistent dominance.
Hochevar is the Royals’ top set-up bridge to Holland. On Tuesday night in Cleveland, Hochevar faced five batters with the game on the line, struck out all five, and got the ball to Holland, who closed it out.
So ... what turned Hochevar into, stats suggest, the game’s top set-up guy?
“There are a few things,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “No. 1, he’s keeping it simple. He’s using his fastball, and he’s kind of blended his cutter and slider together. He’s made it one pitch.
“He knows he’s in there for a short period of time, he’s (pitching) solely out of the stretch and he’s letting it go. He’s got his fastball and cutter, and he slows them down with his curveball.”
A year ago, Hochevar resisted Eiland’s urgings to trim back a far-more extensive repertoire. The switch to the bullpen made that suggestion more palatable. And Hochevar now credits it for a large part of his success.
“I canned my slider,” he said, “and I think it’s made my cutter better. I think those two pitches have a tendency to blend. I really found that out this year.
“Once I got rid of my slider, it made my cutter tighter. I was able to command it better. And I’ve kind of stayed away from my change-up because I don’t need another pitch to put in their head.”
That brings us full circle.
Could Hochevar, with his current three-pitch approach, shift back next season to the rotation? After all, the Royals could be looking for help since Ervin Santana and Bruce Chen are pending free agents.
“There are a lot of starting pitchers who get by with three pitches,” Eiland conceded. “But to say Luke is going to use his fastball at 97-98 miles an hour, his cutter at 90-93 and his curveball from 80-83 ... for 100 pitches?
“I’m not saying he couldn’t, but it’s a stretch to assume that. I don’t think there’s anybody who can answer that question. People might try and think they can, but it’s a guess.”
If not, the Royals must decide if Hochevar, still arbitration-eligible and in line for another raise, is affordable as a middle reliever or whether he might be better used to fill another need through a trade.
Another possibility: Dangle Holland as a trade chip and shift Hochevar to the back of the bullpen — although that would mean going into next season with an untested closer.
Hochevar’s only two saves this season came in a three-inning tour against the Angels when he closed out a big lead, and in returning for the ninth against the Red Sox after the Royals extended their lead in the eighth.
“He’s having far more success now than he’s ever had in his career,” Eiland said. “What the future holds, nobody knows, nobody can predict, but we’ve got one of the most successful set-up guys in the game right now.
“For me, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
Anyway, those decisions can wait.
“Oh, yeah,” Hochevar said. “I mean, shoot, this is the first time in my career that we’re in the hunt. It’s the funnest time I’ve had in the big leagues. We’re in a position where we’re playing for something.
“Shoot, that’s fun. That’s what it’s all about.”