Should Royals Give Up On No. 1 Draft Pick Hochevar?

Luke Hochevar of the Kansas City Royals reacts to a Jose Bautista home run during MLB action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Six years ago, the Royals owned the No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft and used it on Luke Hochevar. He's been a mainstay of their rotation since 2008, but his numbers suggest a wasted choice. Was it, though?

According to the readily available evidence, neither one nor two but three draft picks have been wasted on Luke Hochevar.

The Dodgers drafted Hochevar in 2002. But that was just a 39th-round pick; they presumably assumed the big right-hander was heading to college (which he did) and figured taking a late-round flyer wouldn't hurt. Which it didn't; 39th-round draft picks reach the majors roughly as often as lefty-throwing catchers.

But three years later the Dodgers had another shot at Hochevar, who was going 15-3 for the University of Tennessee. The Dodgers' first pick in the draft was the 40th pick; they'd given up their first-round pick, the 26th, by signing Red Sox free agent Derek Lowe, but in turn been granted the 40th pick when the Mariners signed Dodger free agent Adrian Beltre.

The Dodgers probably figured they were lucky to snag Hochevar with the 40th pick, as other clubs shied away from the Scott Boras client. For good reason, as things turned out. From the Baseball America Draft Almanac:

Hochevar's holdout soon became one of the top stories in the draft. Over Labor Day weekend, the Tennessee All-America righthanders switched advisers, leaving the Boras Corp. to sign with the Sosnick-Cobbe Sports Agency. He then negotiated a $2.98 million signing bonus in a phone call with Sosnick and Dodgers scouting director Logan White. Between the phone call and the time when a Dodgers scout showed up with a contract for Hochevar to sign, Boras had convinced Hochevar to return to the fold, turn down the Dodgers offer and remain a holdout.

The negotiations then turned ugly, as Boras first accused White of lying, trying to drive a wedge between White and new general manager Paul DePodesta. DePodesta responded by holding firm by White, and the Dodgers soon withdrew their offer to Hochevar. Because his agent switch had become so public, Hochevar had little hope of returning to college as a senior and wound up pitching in the independent American Association the following May.

All of which worked to the eventual advantage of Boras and Hochevar, because the following June the Royals used the first pick in the draft on Hochevar, who signed for $5.3 million guaranteed. Drafted later in the first round: Evan Longoria, Brandon Morrow, Clayton Kershwaw, Drew Stubbs, and Tim Lincecum. Baseball America had Hochevar as the eighth-best prospect in the draft.

Hochevar would struggle in Class AA, and he would struggle in Class AAA.

Regardless, the Royals promoted him to the majors, and he's generally been a member of the big club's rotation since the spring of 2008.

And the results? Hochevar's career numbers include 33 wins, 49 losses, and a 5.41 ERA. Among the 126 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings since 2007, Hochevar's ERA is the worst.

This season he's got a 6.63 ERA.

Which might lead one to a conclusion, and a question ...

Conclusion: The Royals squandered that No. 1 draft pick, and a few million dollars since then.

Question: Is it finally time to give up on Hochevar?

I'll buy the conclusion; they should have drafted Longoria or Kershaw or Lincecum.

The question, though, is a bit more interesting than you might guess. Because by at least one measure, Hochevar has pitched significantly better than his ERA suggests.

I suspected this might be the case when I tried to figure out why Hochevar's been so (apparently) awful.

Not enough strikeouts?

Not really; he's struck out six batters per nine innings in his career, which isn't good but isn't terrible.

Too many walks?

Not really; he's walked three batters per nine, which again isn't good but isn't terrible. And of course, the 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio isn't great but isn't terrible, either.

Too many home runs?

Nope. He's given up one homer per nine innings, which (again) is a perfectly acceptable figure.

If you look past Hochevar's terrible record and his terrible ERA, you see the numbers of a perfectly average American League pitcher.

Well, maybe not quite average. Hochevar got blasted in his last start, and his career FIP -- that's Fielding Independent Pitching, on an ERA scale -- now stands at 4.35, which ranks 42nd worst among those 126 pitchers with at least 500 innings. The pitchers clustered around Hochevar include Rick Porcello, Ervin Santana, Clay Buchholz and Randy Wolf.

There's more than a full run of difference between Hochevar's ERA and his FIP. That difference is highly exceptional. Scanning the bottom 60 FIPpers, one simply doesn't find anyone remotely like Hochevar.

This season the difference is particularly striking. With that 6.63 ERA, Hochevar's got a perfectly fine 3.68 FIP, thanks to his usual 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and giving up only four home runs in 57 innings.

So, why these huge differences between ERA and FIP?

Left-on-base percentage, mostly. Or, more prosaically, clutch pitching.

Major-league pitchers typically leave slightly more than 70 percent of baserunners on base; conversely, slightly fewer than 30 percent of baserunners wind up scoring. When Hochevar's pitched, though? Thirty-seven percent of the baserunners have come around to score.

Usually, we would attribute this to poor luck. Usually, we would be right. Sometimes, maybe, we wouldn't be right. Whether or not to give up on Luke Hochevar depends almost entirely on determining whether he's a poor clutch pitcher, or just an unlucky-in-the-clutch pitcher.

Based on what I know, I would assume that he's been mostly unlucky, and keep running him out there every five games.

And really, it's not like the Royals have anyone better for that slot.

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