At his best, Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar is a pitcher with game-changing talent who is looking for an identity.
At his worst, Hochevar is... well, most of last season defined Hochevar at his worst.
Still, for a pitcher who had the highest ERA in the American League, 6.55, Hochevar has something to build on. His 17 poor starts were mixed in with eight good ones, and the problem, he thinks, is easy to pinpoint.
"The starts that didn't go as planned, (the damage) all came in one inning," the 26-year-old Hochevar said Thursday at the Royals Caravan event at Heroes Sports Bar. "I pitched good for six innings, but it was that big inning that was always biting me."
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The 6-foot-5, 205-pound Hochevar was the No. 1 overall pick by the Royals in 2006. The previous year, he was drafted in the first round by the Los Angeles Dodgers but did not sign.
His minor league career was rocky until the 2009 season, when he dominated at Triple-A Omaha and earned a promotion to Kansas City in May.
Hochevar's up-and-down season was mostly down, but he gave hope that he could be a future ace in starts such as the one against Texas in July, when he struck out 13 without a walk in seven innings to earn a win.
"Statistically, I wasn't pleased with my overall performance," Hochevar said. "But when I made adjustments and eliminated that one bad inning, that's when I had my good, quality starts."
In Hochevar's eight quality starts — defined as pitching at least six innings with three or fewer runs allowed — he was 5-0 with a 2.04 ERA. In his 17 other outings, he was 2-13 with a 9.86 ERA.
With five pitches, Hochevar fashions himself as a groundball pitcher. But some of his best starts in 2009 came when he had a high strikeout total.
He might be at his best when he can mix power with finesse — he struck out 8.3 batters per nine innings in his final 16 starts, when he also saw an improved groundball rate. Hochevar's second-most-often used pitch is his slider, which he calls his "out" pitch.
"I struck out a lot of guys in the minor leagues and all of a sudden they weren't punching out anymore," Hochevar said. "Learning how to punch guys out in the big leagues is different, but I started getting on rolls and striking guys out."
Bad luck also played a part in Hochevar's disastrous season. The Royals had one of the league's worst defenses, which turned some of those groundballs into hits.
Kansas City believes it took steps toward solving its defensive issues by acquiring veterans Jason Kendall and Scott Podsednik to play catcher and center field, and second-year player Chris Getz to man second base.
"You really can't start blaming things on luck or you don't get anywhere and you're running in circles, basically," Hochevar said. "I felt like we made some good acquirements this offseason... I think those are going to be some good additions."