While the Royals are publicly saying that Luke Hochevar is going to be given a chance to compete for a spot in the starting rotation, they can't really be serious, can they? After 128 starts over five seasons that could best be summed up by saying 'well, Luke had some nice little runs here and there', Kansas City used Hochevar exclusively in relief in 2013.
Over 58 appearances, Luke seemed to have found a niche. His ERA+ was 215 as Hochevar allowed just 41 hits in 70 innings and struck out 82. Traditional stats, non-traditional stats, sabremetric fabric of the game ruining devil stats: you name them, Hochevar had good numbers.
Throwing his fastball an average of three miles per hour faster, coupled with a complete ditching of the slider and refocusing on the cutter, seemed to turn a maddeningly inconsistent starter into a really fun to watch reliever. Does that make Hochevar a reliever you can count on late in games?
Using Fangraphs Leverage Index, we can look back and see that the Royals were very cautious when it came to relying on Luke early in the season. Only once between the start of the season and June 23rd did Hochevar enter a game in a high leverage situation (inLI of 1.50). In that contest on May 24th, Hochevar gave up a home run and took the loss.
In 16 of Hochevar's other 19 appearances in that early season stretch, Luke entered the game in basically low leverage situations. He performed well, but then so did Kyle Farnsworth in similar situations. However, starting with a June 26th appearance against Atlanta, Ned Yost began to feed Hochevar a little more stress.
Hochevar blew a save, allowing two of three inherited runners to score on the 26th. After striking out seven over four innings in two subsequent lower leverage appearances, Hochevar pitched a high leverage scoreless 8th against Cleveland on Independence Day. Five more good, but low leverage appearances came before Hochevar entered in his next high leverage situation. He responded by pitching a scoreless ninth and picking up the win against Baltimore on July 24th.
Stress came visiting again on July 28th when Hochevar pitched two perfect innings on the road in Chicago and three appearances later was shaky but unscathed in another high leverage situation against the Mets. That game seemed to send Luke back to the low to mid leverage situations for most of August until he entered in the 11th inning against Chicago. Luke struck out four in two innings, but the one hit he allowed was a home run that made him the loser.
A few more low interest outings finished out August and then the Royals decided to see what Luke could really do when it matters. From September 3rd on, 8 of Hochevar's 11 appearances came in medium to high - often extremely high - leverage situations. He entered in the 8th inning eight times, the ninth inning once and in the seventh two other time. Both games in which Luke entered in the seventh, he pitched into the eighth inning. How did our pal Luke respond?
Very well, my friends.
Hochevar gave up two home runs in a nasty eighth inning on the 23rd against Seattle (although the Royals did win that game), but otherwise Luke was outstanding. He stranded six of seven inherited runners and the only other run he allowed in the month was in a loss to Cleveland that Hochevar entered with the Royals already losing.
While 48 of Hochevar's 70 innings last season were classified as 'low leverage' situations, we saw a glimpse of what he might be able to do as a late inning reliever. Truthfully, my money would be on Hochevar enjoying far more success manning the 8th inning in front of Greg Holland than in his suddenly 'turning that one last corner' as a starter.
Is five million too much money for a small market team to spend on a set-up guy? Probably, but the money is spent. The Royals' best use of Luke Hochevar is not in the rotation, but instead working late in games.