Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Luke Hochevar: Starter? (Again)

With the departure of Ervin Santana and Bruce Chen, and the ineffectiveness of Wade Davis, the Royals are looking for some starting pitching depth. To replace Santana, the Royals signed Jason Vargas. The rotation is Shields, Guthrie, and Vargas at the top; while that isn’t that bad, it doesn’t scream playoffs. The Royals have a multitude of players for the other two rotation spots, including Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, Wade Davis, and Luke Hochevar. Wait, Hochevar? Again? Yes, again. The Royals are aiming to give him another shot. What can we expect? 

To predict the future in baseball, we naturally look to the past. Hochevar’s past is pretty awful, but there are some odd reasons for that awfulness. Hochevar has a career ERA/FIP/xFIP of 5.44/4.44/4.26. According to his FIP and xFIPHochevar wasn’t great, but he wasn’t the dumpster fire his ERA suggests. The reason is this-Hochevar allows a .247/.307/.422 line with the bases empty. With men on base, he crumbles to a .287/.361/.458 triple slash line, and it’s worse with runners in scoring position. Either he has a mechanical issue from the stretch, or he just doesn’t have the mental makeup to deal with men on base. In order for Hochevar to become a more effective starter, the Royals have to teach him how to deal with runners on base. 

As a reliever in 2013, Hochevar was quite good with men on base, but in a very small sample. Most of his improvement can be attributed to a strong increase in velocity that he likely won’t retain if he returned to the rotation. Some pitchers can pitch out of the bullpen for a year and come back as better starters, and some can’t. History is mixed but not necessarily in Hochevar’s favor in this scenario. 

Another issue Hochevar has is his home/road split. Hochevar is somewhere around average when he pitches at Kauffman Stadium. In away games, Hochevar seems to give up more home runs, which when combined with his problems with men on base, leads to too many runs crossing the plate. 

In order for Hochevar to have any chance at being a contributor as a starter, I propose a change. His last year as a starter, Hochevar threw sinkers about 16% of the time and generated about a 63% groundball rate (groundballs per ball in play). Hochevar needs to do a better job of commanding his sinker, but as a way to limit the damage with runners on base, I propose that the Royals convert Hochevar into an extreme groundball pitcher by drastically increasing the use of his sinker. While fly balls aren’t that bad in Kauffman stadium, fly balls given up by Hochevar in other stadiums can do significant damage. 

Two of Hochevar’s better seasons came with an elevated groundball rate. I have been doing research for Beyond the Box Score, and I have found that the groundball rate of a starting pitcher is correlated with better performance. Given Hochevar’s middling strikeout and walk rates, becoming a groundball pitcher could help limit the damage with men on base and turn Hochevar into a more useful starter. 

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