Luke Hochevar has re-joined the Royals after missing the entire 2014 season and the first month of this year following Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament. Luke Hochevar was the #1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, and after a disappointing and frustrating career as a starting pitcher, converted to a reliever in 2013 with fantastic results.
In 70 1/3 innings of relief, Hochevar struck out 10.5 hitters per nine innings, to just 2.1 walks. He posted a 1.92 ERA, the eighth-best in the league among relievers with 50 innings pitched. His 1.1 fWAR was tied for 12th on the 2013 Royals ballclub. Hochevar also excelled at RE24, a run expectancy metric, posting the fifth best RE-24 among relievers. Interestingly, as a reliever, Hochevar became much less of a ground ball pitcher, instead relying on more fly balls to get outs.
Then, the spring of 2014, disaster struck. Hochevar injured his ulnar collater ligament in spring training and missed the entire season. Fortunately, the Royals still had the best bullpen in the history of whatever, and were able to grab the pennant without Hochevar. Despite their depth, they brought Hochevar, a free agent last winter, back on a two-year $10 million deal.
What should we expect upon the return of Luke Hochevar? The success of pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery has been all over the map. It doesn't help that Hochevar is rather old at age 31 to be recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Royals have said they will be cautious with Hochevar upon his return, pitching him in low-leverage innings with off-days between appearances. He has been clocked at 92-96 mph in his rehab appearance, so the velocity still seems to be there. The uptick in velocity seems to be a big reason for his success in converting as a reliever.
Even if healthy, Hochevar is likely bound to regress some from his remarkable 2013 numbers. His .213 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is likely not sustainable going forward, and Hochevar had an amazing 92.1% left-on-base rate in 2013 that will almost certainly go down despite the terrific relievers around him. Hochevar's cutter has improved considerably as a reliever, so his success may depend on how effective that pitch bounces back from injury.
ZIPS projects Hochevar to have a 3.31 ERA this season, which sounds about right to me. With the average American League reliever posting a 3.63 ERA, that would put Hochevar as an average-ish reliever, which is just fine and dandy to have as your fifth, or even sixth-best option in the pen after Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Jason Frasor, and Ryan Madson. This also allows the Royals to be patient with him as he recovers, and by the end of the season he could serve as a valuable weapon in higher leverage innings.
What do you expect out of Luke Hochevar in 2015?