...but the mountains of the past.
(From "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," Together Through Life)
It's time to state the obvious: Luke Hochevar has no business in the starting rotation of a team trying to make it to the postseason. I hate to say it, because we have all seen the flashes of brilliance, and I also hate to say it because confronting this truth head-on makes me realize how far the Royals really are from being a playoff-caliber team.
After Hochevar got hammered again in today's game against the Yankees, I spent the rest of the afternoon looking through his game logs on baseball-reference.com. We all know Hochevar is prone to disastrous big innings, which is part of the frustration many Royals fans feel towards him. But when you take time to write it down, it's amazing how consistently Hochevar has this problem.
For my little study, I checked how many times Luke gave up four or more runs in an inning. Obviously, pitchers will give up runs, but a 1- or 2-run inning isn't that bad. You could argue a 3-run inning is pretty bad, but it happens. But a 4-run inning, or worse, is really awful. It almost certainly will include walks and extra-base hits, meaning a pitcher has command issues (either losing the strike zone or leaving everything up) and is giving up plenty of hard-hit balls. In other words, it can't normally be chalked up to bad luck. I included innings with unearned runs on the theory that the pitcher needs to be able to work around those. But really, the vast majority of these big innings were all on Hochevar.
In 2008, Hochevar's first chance in the rotation, he made 22 starts and allowed six big innings:
4/22 @ Oakland, a 5-run fourth inning
5/19 @ Boston, a 5-run third inning (only 2 runs were earned; this was Jon Lester's no-hitter)
5/24 @ Toronto, a 4-run first inning
7/1 @ Baltimore, a 4-run third inning
7/6 @ Tampa Bay, a 4-run third inning
7/21 vs. Detroit, a 5-run third inning
OK, he was a rookie on a bad team; maybe a year's experience would help. Nope. In 2009 he made 25 starts and allowed nine big innings:
5/12 @ Oakland, a 7-run second inning
6/18 vs. Arizona, a 4-run third inning
7/30 @ Baltimore, a 4-run fifth inning
8/9 vs. Oakland, a 4-run second inning
8/31 @ Oakland, a 5-run third inning (the 2009 A's finished ninth in the league in runs scored, by the way)
9/6 vs. Anaheim, a 4-run second inning
9/23 vs. Boston, a 6-run fifth inning
9/28 @ New York, a 5-run seventh inning (Hochevar did not record an out in this inning; I was struck by how many of the innings on this list were innings Hochevar completed)
10/4 @ Minnesota, a 4-run first inning
Well, maybe two years in the majors will help him. Nope, in 2010 Hochevar made 17 starts and allowed four big innings:
4/29 @ Tampa Bay, a 5-run second inning
4/29 @ Tampa Bay, a 4-run third inning (yep, he pulled off two big innings in one game!)
5/9 @ Texas, a 4-run third inning
5/15 @ Chicago, a 4-run seventh inning
A sprained elbow cut Hochevar's 2010 season short, but when he returned that September, he avoided the big inning in his five starts.
Finally, in 2011, Hochevar had a decent season. But the first half of the year was more of the same:
4/5 vs. Chicago, a 4-run first inning
4/20 vs. Cleveland, a 4-run sixth inning
5/25 @ Baltimore, an 8-run fourth inning (in some ways, this was the quintessential Hochevar start: three scoreless innings, then the 8-run meltdown, then three perfect innings)
7/3 @ Colorado, a 5-run fifth inning
7/9 vs. Detroit, a 4-run fourth inning
As we all know, Hochevar was impressive after the 2011 All-Star Break, putting up a 3.52 ERA in 12 starts. It looked like he perhaps had turned a corner. That is, until the home opener this year, when Hochevar allowed seven runs in the first inning. Now he has followed that up with a 5-run first inning against Detroit on May 1, and today's 6-run third inning against the Yankees.
So, Hochevar has 102 career starts, and in 26 of those, he has had one inning where he allowed four or more runs, plus the one start where he did it twice. In other words, one out of every four Luke Hochevar starts features a monster inning for the other team!
You just can't win with a guy like that starting every fifth day. Not only does an inning like that put your team in a hole, it often destroys your bullpen. Look how many of those innings came early in a game--this is not a guy who runs out of gas late and gets hamered, this is a guy who can't make it out of the third inning on a regular basis. The Royals already feel compelled to carry two long relievers in their 8-man bullpen. This is ridiculous, since it also serves to limit the bench (the Royals only have three reserve position players available in this setup), so Ned Yost really has to be careful about pinch-hitting or pinch-running. In turn, this affects the lineup--it's no wonder Jeff Francoeur keeps batting fifth no matter how badly he's going, Yost is trying to keep from bunching up his left-handed and right-handed hitters for late-game matchups.
In the short-term, I don't know what the Royals can do. I wouldn't be surprised if they figure out a way to put Hochevar on the disabled list before his next scheduled start. I'm no Luis Mendoza fan, but he could fill in. Also, they could try some of their options at Omaha: Everett Teaford and Nate Adcock have both shown some promise at the major-league level, and Ryan Verdugo has a 2.87 ERA in his first 31 innings at AAA.
The Royals might also take a look at the free-agent options. Cot's Baseball Contracts (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/compensation/cots/) lists pitchers who are currently unsigned. Most of them are unsigned for a reason, but perhaps a stopgap replacement could be found there. The Royals were able to come up with a decent starter in Felipe Paulino with good scouting; perhaps they can repeat that and find a replacement on the waiver wire or even in a trade.
In the long-term, this is an obvious area of concern for the Royals' championship window. Here we are six years into the Dayton Moore era, and we've got one system-developed starting pitcher (Danny Duffy) in the majors to show for it. Granted, Duffy has looked quite good at times this season, but he can't do it alone. Meanwhile, the organization's top pitching prospects struggle at Omaha (Mike Montgomery has a 4.98 ERA) or at Northwest Arkansas (Noel Arguelles, 7.52 ERA; Chris Dwyer, 7.46 ERA). About the only prospect trending up is Jake Odorizzi, and he too is at Northwest Arkansas. He's probably not going to be in the majors until next year, and of course he will likely need time to make an impact here.
If the Royals are serious about contending next year, they are going to need a major upgrade to the starting rotation. As far as I'm concerned, auditions for Hochevar's spot begin now. As long as Hochevar is starting every fifth day, it's going to be difficult to take the Royals' playoff aspirations seriously.