Royals are convinced Luke Hochevar can harness potential

09/11/2012 8:07 AM

09/11/2012 8:07 AM

Let there be no doubt: the Royals remain bullish in their belief that right-hander Luke Hochevar can be a productive cornerstone in their rotation for years to come despite his ongoing inconsistencies in a disappointing season.

General manager Dayton Moore dismisses the suggestion the Royals might walk away from Hochevar, who is again eligible for arbitration, after the season. Manager Ned Yost barks “absolutely” when asked if Hochevar can be part of a championship rotation.

Pitching coach Dave Eiland sees, in Hochevar, a pitcher “who is starting to figure some things out,” and who is “making strides” while stressing “the growing process is over now; it’s time to go out there and be consistent.”

For his part, Hochevar, who turns 29 on Saturday, remains dogged in his belief that if he sticks to his approach, the results will come.

“To be consistent,” he said, “you must have a consistent approach. You must have a consistent routine, a consistent thought-process. I do. This year has been tough, but I believe if I persevere through it, if I continue to prepare and battle, it’s got to pay out

“It’s got to pay out.”

It hasn’t yet.

Hochevar enters his start Wednesday night against Minnesota at 7-13 with a 5.36 ERA in 28 starts – and it’s hard to cast this season as an outlier. He owns a 5.30 ERA in 128 career games as he works toward the end of his fifth year in the Royals’ rotation.

Here’s the alarming context: Only eight pitchers in history have made at least 100 starts and compiled a higher ERA than Hochevar. (One of those is his former teammate, Kyle Davies, who had a 5.59 ERA in 151 games.)

What do the Royals see beyond the stats?

“His numbers are not spectacular by any stretch of the imagination,” Yost conceded, “but I’ve seen many pitchers go through what he’s gone through. Actually, he’s better than most of those guys.”

Yost ticked off Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Schmidt and Kevin Millwood as examples.

“Those guys struggled and struggled,” Yost said, “but they figured it out. You knew it was in there if you could wait it out. That’s the case with Luke – you know he’s going to be good because he’s got tremendous stuff.

“Stuff, makeup and competitiveness are key for starting pitchers. You develop those three traits and, hopefully, it leads to consistency. He’s got the three. The fourth one he’s still working on.”

Hochevar shows tantalizing flashes on a regular basis. He limited opponents to two or fewer earned runs in 11 starts. He matched zeroes with Tampa Bay ace David Price for eight innings on Aug. 21 before the Royals won 1-0 in 10 innings.

And Hochevar is the only Royals pitcher to register an 80 game-score rating, a metric developed by seminal statistician Bill James to measure a starter’s effectiveness. Hochevar has done it twice.

But he has also yielded at least six earned runs in seven starts.

“It’s been tough,” Hochevar said. “It hasn’t been easy by any means. I just feel the consistency hasn’t been there in the results. The consistency in my approach is the exact same, and that’s what makes it so frustrating.”

Eiland has a ready explanation for the inconsistency.

“He’s got five or six different pitches,” Eiland said. “There are not many starting pitchers in this game, ever in this game, who have been successful for a long time who tried to throw that many pitches. You need to have three or four good ones.

“When he sticks to a certain plan, and he concentrates on three or four pitches, he has good games. When he tries to throw all of them, he doesn’t have good games.”

Eiland wants Hochevar to scale back use of his cut fastball. He contends that Hochevar’s two other fastballs – a four-seamer (straight and hard) and a two-seamer (a tad slower with sinking action) – are sufficient when combined with a curve and a change-up.

“It’s a true 12-to-6 curveball,” Eiland said. “When he’s got his curveball going, I’ll put it against anyone’s curveball in the league. And he’s got a change-up that’s 84-86 (mph).

“So he’s got 93-94 (mph on the fastball), 78-81 (on the curveball) and 84-86 (on the change-up). You can go to both sides of the plate with all of those pitches. OK? I’d sign up for that any day.”

Hochevar admits he’s hesitant to shelve his cutter while pointing out opponents are “only hitting about .170” when he throws it. But Eiland said the cutter creates bad habits for other pitches.

“Now, is his cutter that bad of a pitch?” he said. “No, but when you throw a cutter, you have to get on the side of the baseball. When you throw the fastball, two- and four-seamer, you have to be behind it. When you throw a change-up, you have to be behind it.

“When you throw a curveball, you have to get back on top of it. If you throw too many cutters, you start slipping on your fastball. You don’t get back behind it. You go to get back to your curveball, and you get beside it. It’s flatter.”

Former All-Star closer Joakim Soria, prior to his injury, saw his effectiveness slip last season after he began throwing a cutter. When he junked it, Soria’s other pitches soon regained their sharpness.

“Use it sparingly,” Eiland said. “For me, only five, six percent of his pitches should be cutters. Use it when you need it.”

Hochevar’s resistance, which he acknowledges, stems from numerous club-prompted tweaks in the past. Former pitching coach Bob McClure worked to moderate what he viewed as an over-aggressive approach. (That remains a problem; more on that in a bit.)

Midway through the 2011 season, Yost called for greater variance in pitch location, specifically seeking an increase at throwing inside. Now, Eiland wants a reduced arsenal.

“It’s the easier way,” Hochevar said, “to just start tweaking things or changing things – things that aren’t a factor. Sometimes it takes more courage to stay the course as opposed to saying, ‘I’m going to try something completely different.’”

Hochevar agrees that his cutter can lead to bad habits on other pitches but argues the solution is to eliminate the bad habits, not the cutter.

“I really don’t think it matters what pitch you’re throwing if you execute it,” he said. “A good pitch is a good pitch. It doesn’t matter if it’s cutting, sinking, four-seaming, curving, sliding

“If you go out and execute, that’s the bottom line. And that’s where my mind is because I’ve been down that road too many times. Oh, this is it. Or here it is. This is the ticket right hereNo. When you’re set is when you’re making good pitches.”

Eiland’s response: “How successful have you been doing it this way? Tell me.”

The debate continues.

There is no argument regarding Hochevar’s competitive fire. It is that quality, plus his stuff, that keeps the Royals convinced that he can eventually harness his gifts. But that aggressiveness has a dark side that surfaces in a tendency to surrender big innings.

“No matter what he’s throwing,” Eiland said, “when he gets in trouble, he tends to overthrow. He wants to make his good stuff even better. He starts pulling his head off-line, the shoulder comes up, the arm slot drops, and he gets on the side of all of his pitches.

“It happens when he’s really trying to make a good, quality pitch rather than just staying within himself, trusting his delivery, trusting his ability and trusting his stuff. Sometimes, I don’t think he gives his stuff enough credit.”

This much is clear: The Royals aren’t ready to give up.

“People want guys to go out and be (Justin) Verlander,” Yost said. “They’re not going to be Verlander. We just want them to keep us in the game. He’s done that a lot, and we think he can do that a lot more.

“If you get to the point, after all we’ve been through with him, where you give up on him, and he goes somewhere else, someone else is going to reap the benefit. Because it will come together for him.”

Hochevar said the key is to stick to a consistent approach. Do that and it will pay off.

“I’m due for about a 30-win season the way my career has gone,” he said. “I’m due. It’s going to turn. It has to. There’s no doubt in my mind that it will because I’m going to be relentless, and I’m going to continue to persevere.”

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