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Luke Hochevar could be a key factor for the Royals

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With Luke Hochevar expected back from Tommy John surgery, the Royals have another valuable arm in the bullpen. What should they do with this surplus?

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Fans, front offices, heck, everyone in baseball gets excited about prospects. Who doesn't love the excitement prospects bring? Often times, hope for the future is the only thing keeping a fan base alive. Many times you hear "they have the best farm system in baseball" yet their big league club is one of the worst. Well, the excitement understandably rises when your team gets the first overall pick in the Rule 4 draft, or first-year player draft. The top overall pick has produced guys like Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr, Chipper Jones, and many other greats. But, the early-to-mid  2000's have produced a rather disappointing group of players:

2002 Bryan Bullington
2003 Delmon Young
2004 Matt Bush
2006 Luke Hochevar


We're going to take a look at Luke Hochevar, who was somewhat of a surprise going as the first overall pick in the 2006 draft ahead of the highly touted North Carolina prospect, Andrew Miller. This was one year after Hochevar failed to come to terms with with the Dodgers in the 2005 draft. He fell to the 40th overall pick because -- surprise! -- his agent Scott Boras was seeking a higher bonus. Baseball America believed he had a chance to go first overall in 2005 as well. He had a long frame with great command, a fastball that sat around 93-95 mph with sink, along with an above-average curve and slider. He undoubtedly had tremendous upside and got to the big leagues one year after he was taken by the Royals.

He got his first taste of the big leagues with the Royals in 2007 by throwing 12 total innings. His first full season was in 2008. As a starter, he never lived up to expectations placed upon a top overall pick. He never posted an ERA below 4.68, and his best season produced an fWAR of 1.7. Here are his numbers as a starter from 2008-2012.

K% BB% FIP- SIERA fWAR
16.0% 7.7% 106 4.32 6.8


Over the course of five full seasons as a starter, those aren't the numbers you're looking for, especially for Royals fans and front office personnel who had such high hopes for the former first round pick. The lack of production inevitably landed him a spot in the bullpen where many failed starters believe their careers go to die. But Hochevar, like many other failed starters of late, has actually had a resurgence and became a valuable reliever out of the bullpen in 2013.

In fact, his numbers were so good that he should have regressed in 2014. Wait, Luke Hochevar due for regression? I wish I could have been able to tell the Royals that back in 2009. Let's take a look at his numbers in 2013 and see just how dominant he was out of the pen.

K% BB% FIP- SIERA fWAR
31.3% 6.5% 75 2.26 1.1


Why the huge jump in success from the bullpen? I find myself asking the same question. The move to the bullpen brought a change to Hochevar's repertoire. As a starter, he was mostly a four-seam, cutter, curveball, and sinker pitcher with a slider and change occasionally mixed in. With the move to the bullpen, Hochevar primarily threw a four-seam fastball and cutter with a sinker and curveball mixed in. Here's the change in pitch usage from when he was a starter compared to 2013 in the bullpen.

Season Fastball Sinker Change Slider Curve Cutter
2007-2012 29.9% 25.7% 6.6% 12.7% 13.4% 11.5%
2013 40.5% 11.3% 1.3% 0% 15.4% 31.3%


He increased his fastball and cutter usage quite substantially. His sinker usage decreased quite a bit, and he completely abandoned his slider. It's a little strange he abandoned his slider, because according to his wSL, slider runs above average, it was actually his best pitch. 2012 was his worst season in terms of value on his slider, but it was still a positive 3.3. From 2008-2011, it was consistently around 9 runs above average. After a wFA in 2012 of -18.0, his fastball value jumped all the way up to a positive 7.2 runs above average in 2013. His cutter also saw a big jump from 2.6 runs above average in 2012 to 10.3 in 2013. So he used them more and they were more productive, but how? Two things: velocity and luck.

His velocity saw a fairly significant jump, especially in his two most used pitches, his fastball and cutter. His average fastball velocity sat around 93 mph prior to 2013, when it jumped up to 96 mph on average. His cutter generally sat around 88 mph but sat around 91 in 2013. His sinker also went up from 92 to 95 mph. The increase in velocity really paid off for him. Check out the results in 2013 in comparison to 2012.

Fastball:

Season Whiff/Swing Average ISO BABIP
2012 17.92% .314 .252 .342
2013 22.47% .185 .130 .234


Cutter:

Season Whiff/Swing Average ISO BABIP
2012 32.83% .239 .086 .325
2013 34.60% .126 .072 .191


His BABIP saw a significant drop on both pitches in 2013, which inevitably led to an overall drop in his BABIP from .315 in 2012 to .214 in 2013. Hochevar was likely due for regression in 2014, but we can partly attribute the drop in BABIP to his increase in velocity. Another reason Hochevar was due for regression in 2014 is because of his LOB%. League average LOB% in 2013 was 73.5%. Hochevar's best LOB% prior to 2013 was 66%. In 2013, he posted a 92.1 LOB%. That was good for third best in baseball behind Houston Street and Craig Kimbrel. Most pitchers who have extreme seasons either positively or negatively in terms of LOB% regress back toward league average. Hochevar's move to the bullpen could result in a much higher LOB% for him as many relievers post a higher LOB%, but one could reasonably assume he was due for regression in 2014 because of the extreme fluctuations in terms of his LOB% and BABIP. On the other hand, maybe Hochevar had become a much more dominant pitcher.

We can also note his dominance by his very impressive RE24. RE24 is an excellent advanced metric that shows us the difference in run expectancy a player contributes after certain situations throughout the course of the season. RE24 is a great tool to look at for relievers because relievers often come into situations with runners on base, and RE24 takes that into account. It is context-dependent, so there is a higher value placed on situations with runners on base. RE24 is scaled so that league average is 0. For pitchers, any positive number means they allowed that many runs less than average based on the situations they were placed in. In 2013, Hochevar produced an RE24 of 19.04, which was good for fifth best among relief pitchers and 23rd overall.

All of this wasn't just to tell us the story of Luke Hochevar. Although it is interesting, it is not the main point. Back in December, our Matt Goldman wrote an excellent article on why the Royals need to dismantle the Big Three. I couldn't agree more with his stance on the current state of the Kansas City Royals. Although the Royals (in honor of March Madness) were our Cinderella story of the 2014 season, you can't expect them to repeat in 2015. PECOTA projects the Royals to win 73 game this season. With their season not very promising for 2015, it would be smart for the Royals to trade Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Holding on to Holland and Davis would make sense if they were a playoff contending team, but that isn't likely. So why keep a tremendous bullpen with such a mediocre team? Look, Holland and Davis are great players, don't get me wrong. They're two of the best relievers in baseball. But like Matt said, the Royals need to invest heavily in their young core of players rather than investing heavily in relievers on a mediocre team for a couple of seasons.

If the Royals were to trade Holland and Davis, this is where Hochevar comes along. Herrera would likely be the replacement closer, but Hochevar could be a very good 8th inning setup man. As you can see, his 2013 was quite an impressive performance for the former number one pick, and he showed that he can be quite valuable for the rebuilding Royals. He's likely to start the season on the DL, but Ned Yost has high praise for Hochevar on his recovery this spring. It will be very interesting to see how he recovers, and what the future holds for Luke Hochevar and the Kansas City Royals.

All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus.

Brandon Decker is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @bdeck02.