Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Luke Hochevar delivers a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers at Kauffman Stadium. Credit: Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE
Royals starter Luke Hochevar has a certain reputation. Does he deserve it? If so, where's the evidence, beyond the obvious evidence?
On a national scale, Luke Hochevar is known for a few things. He's known for being a young starting pitcher on a bad but improving team. And he's known as a guy who probably shouldn't have been drafted as high as he was. Hochevar, of course, went before Evan Longoria in 2006, and before Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Brandon Morrow. He went first overall, not that a better draft selection would've made all the difference for the Royals in seasons past.
On a local scale, Luke Hochevar is known for a few other things. He's known for the things above, but he's also known for being frustrating. Some people choose to refer to him as having a ten-cent head, and a popular criticism is that he doesn't know how to pitch well at all from the stretch. It's not even just volunteered as a theory -- it's declared with certainty by those who've followed the Royals all along. "Luke Hochevar can't pitch from the stretch." I read enough Royals blogs today to know this idea isn't a secret.
I'm intrigued by an idea like that, and just the other day realized that I can perform pitch-by-pitch analysis based on the situation. Now, before we get to the analysis, we should review the evidence. Why do people believe Hochevar can't pitch from the stretch? Since 2009 -- chosen as an endpoint because that's as far back as I can take the analysis -- Hochevar's allowed a .731 OPS with the bases empty. He's allowed an .854 OPS with men on base. We're dealing with plate-appearance sample sizes of 1,304 and 948, so the samples aren't small.
He's struck out 18 percent of batters with no one on, and less than 15 percent of batters with someone on. Among all pitchers with at least 400 innings since 2009, Hochevar has stranded the lowest percentage of runners, according to FanGraphs. The difference between Hochevar's ERA and FIP is also the second-greatest in baseball over that span, just behind Ricky Nolasco, who has his own issues. Hochevar's four-year FIP of 4.30 puts him around guys like Clay Buchholz and Rick Porcello. His four-year ERA of 5.36 puts him well north of Chris Volstad and Tim Wakefield.
So, there's all this evidence that Hochevar struggles mightily from the stretch. You can see why that's caught on as an idea. But I dug deeper, expecting to find some things, but finding other things. Let's begin by looking at Hochevar's actual pitches. We'll simplify things and say that Hochevar throws a fastball, a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. What have those pitches looked like with no one on, and with someone on?
"Horiz." refers to horizontal movement, as measured by PITCHf/x, and "Vertical" refers to vertical movement. Second half of the data:
You can observe some minor differences. Hochevar's generated nearly an inch more sink on his fastball, and also some more sink on his changeup, with runners on base. His curveball picks up a tiny bit of velocity with men on. But none of the velocity differences seem meaningful. None of the differences in general seem meaningful. If this table is showing me something, I don't know what it is.
Now let's move on to some pitch-by-pitch results, which I love to look at. Here, I expected to find far greater differences than I did. In a few cases I expected to find a difference and observed no difference at all.
I was shocked to see no difference in Hochevar's strike rate or contact rate allowed. You can only be so shocked with things like this, because ultimately none of this matters for me or you or any of us, but when you spend as much time looking at numbers in Excel as I did for this, you become more invested, and the stakes get higher. So I wound up double-checking the calculations. You should know that producing this data ate up a lot of my afternoon, which I already regret. But then those were the sun's brightest hours, so as much as I would've liked to be outside, it's important to play it sun-smart.
Batters have swung a little more often against Hochevar with runners on base. Maybe this is the norm across the league. This is a pretty consistent table, though. You wouldn't think that a pitcher with that table would have splits as crazy as Hochevar's.
As a final table, we look at batted balls allowed:
Batted Ball Data
Lots more line drives. Much higher batting average on balls in play, which you'd guess based on the line drives. Identical groundball rate. This is it. That's all of our data.
So what's the matter with Luke Hochevar with runners on base? Is anything the matter with runners on base, or is Hochevar the victim of sustained but mathematically possible bad luck? You'll notice that I didn't analyze Hochevar's pitch location, because that would've taken entirely too long, for probably too little benefit. The immediate answer is that Hochevar just locates worse with runners on base, allowing him to get hurt. "After all," you might say, "look at the line drives." But what about the slightly lower home-run rate? What about the identical strike rate? What about the identical contact rate? We have some evidence that Hochevar locates way worse with runners on, but not evidence across the board.
That's why this is a mystery to me. Maybe I'm digging too deep, looking too closely. Maybe I should just look at Hochevar's OPS splits and be satisfied. They are very wide splits, after all, and maybe that's all that's necessary to know. Hochevar's results very strongly suggest that he's uncomfortable working out of the stretch. But then, not all of Hochevar's results suggest that. Some of them suggest that, when he's in the stretch, he's just fine. I've been thinking about this for way too many hours, and I don't have an answer.
What say you? I can't help but feel like I'm missing something obvious. What is the actual matter with Luke Hochevar when there are runners on base? If Luke Hochevar could pitch to his peripherals, he'd be about an average starter, which isn't much. But as is, he's at risk of no longer being a starter at all, so while figuring this out isn't so important to you or me, it's of the utmost importance to Luke Hochevar.