I've been thinking about how Luke Hochevar may fit into the next three years while our beloved Royals will supposedly be making a playoff run. Somebody will need to step up and pitch like a #2 in the #4 or #5 slot should Meche and Banny regress this much in a contending season, and since 2007 may have been a miracle year for both, the Royals need that extra ace or #2 by 2009.
Maybe the 24-year-old Hoch can be that guy, but his current and past performance are underwhelming so far (< 2:1 K:BB ratio, 1.50 WHIP, more hits than IP, 5.40 K/9IP, 4.16 BB/9IP, 86 ERA+). His minor league stats were compiled strictly with his secondary stuff, so there is only conclusion to draw from that data: the Force had better be with Luke when he throws his sinker. Hopefully, he'll improve, but how much is too much to ask? When is a reasonable time to expect much better performance than this? How high should we allow our hopes to get?
With only 14 MLB starts this season and no meaningful data before that in Hochevar's short career, I dug around in a few books (especially The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers), made a list of 27 sinkerballers, looked for patterns, and added 13 more. I didn't include many relievers or short careers (my hopes for Hoch are higher than that), and I tried to stick to the past 30 years or less. I set a few guidelines for evaluating these other pitchers for comparison, also. Since Hoch is strictly a starter this year (and presumably next year), then starter/reliever seasons with more than 3 relief appearances should be excluded, and a full season as a starter will be defined as at least 24 GS (since one of these happened in 1994).
By ERA+, many of these pitchers had their best seasons as a starter during their rookie season or during their first full season as a starter. In other cases, the rookie and/or first full season as a starter ERA+ was among the best 3-4 seasons of that sinkerballer's career.
Ten pitchers did not meet the exact criteria for those categories. Kevin Brown's best years were after age 30, but he posted the best ERA+ of his twenties as a 24-year-old rookie. Had Tim Hudson (24) started three more games in his rookie year, then he may have qualified as a rookie sinkerballer whose ERA+ was among the 3-4 best in his career as a starter. Hudson's ERA+ dropped from 142 to 119 in his first full year of starting in the bigs, and his career worst is not as bad as Hochevar's 2008 so far. Tommy John's ERA+ of 120 in his first full season as a starter (at age 23) was 10 better than his career mark. When Kenny Rogers (28) was converted to a starter, he was immediately league-average with better days ahead.
Only seven of these 40 pitchers had an ERA+ below 100 in their rookie and/or first season with 24+ games started. Jon Garland (22) posted a 99 ERA+ in his first full year of starting and has performed slightly better than that each year except for 2004. Jose Guzman posted the second-lowest ERA+ of his career (95) at age 23 and steadily improved over the next two seasons. He missed all of the following two seasons, reached his peak when he returned at age 28, declined for two years, and was out of the majors for good a little after his 31st birthday. The then-24-year-old Matt Clement's 94 ERA+ was the best of his first three seasons, as things got worse before they got better (with a different team). Doyle Alexander posted a 97 ERA+ in 26 starts for the Orioles at age 22. He split the next two-plus seasons between the bullpen and occasional starts until he was traded to the Yankees and thrived in their starting rotation. He scattered five above-average to good seasons over the next thirteen seasons. He may be better remembered for his trade history. Jamey Wright (22) is the only one whose first full season as a starter was also his worst, but not because he improved tremendously. Rheal Cormier's short career as a starter began below the league average, so he was moved to the bullpen. Scott Bankhead (23) improved upon his first full season as a starter for two years before injuries sent him to the bullpen.
Rookie sinkerballers whose ERA+ was a career high as a starter:
Rookie sinkerballers whose ERA+ was among their 3-4 best of their careers as starters:
Career-high ERA+ in first full season as a starter:
ERA+ in first full year as a starter was among their 3-4 best of their careers as starters:
After all of that, it's still difficult to make heads or tails out of where Hoch is headed. None of the good ones started out this poorly (with the possible exception of Bankhead or Jose Guzman, who were younger), with 33/40 posting league-average seasons or better in their first full season in a major league starting rotation. Very few of these 40 pitchers sustained any real success with a WHIP around or over 1.50 (see also: first-round bust Willie Banks), either. Then again, almost certainly none of them sat out a year or were prohibited from developing their best pitch while being rushed through the minors. If Hochevar's bizarre handlings had any real merit, then I suppose we should be able to see something positive in the results by now, but that isn't the case. Unfortunately, all data is rendered useless, and all comparison studies would be unfair.