Saturday, February 23, 2008

Reason #17: The Enigma.

Twenty-five years ago, Jose Cruz Sr. was earning the title as “the most underrated player in baseball”, at least in sabermetric circles. There was good reason for this: he played in the Astrodome, a park that absolutely killed his power numbers, in an era when pretty much everyone outside of sabermetric circles seemed to be in denial that park effects existed. It became almost a running joke in Bill James’ annual abstracts: another year, another season in which Cruz put up MVP numbers on the road.

It was in the power department that the splits were most glaring. In 1980, Cruz hit 7 homers on the road, 4 at home. In 1981, it was 10 on the road, 3 at home; in 1982, it was 6 and 3; 11 and 3 in 1983; an amazing 12 and 0 in 1984; 8 and 1 in 1985. Over that six year stretch he hit 54 homers on the road, 14 at home. In 1984 he hit .344/.394/.545 away from the Astrodome, just .276/.367/.371 in Houston.

But here’s the funny thing: call a player underrated long enough and, at least in sabermetric circles, he might have become overrated. It’s not like the mainstream media didn’t notice him at all – he finished in the Top 10 in MVP voting in 1980, 1983, and 1984, and won Silver Sluggers in both 1983 and 1984. And the focus on his home run totals and his extreme splits in 1984 obscured the fact that most years, he wasn’t particularly hurt by his home park. In 1982, he had a higher OPS at home than on the road, as well as every year from 1977 to 1980. In 1978, he hit more homers on the road than at home (9 to 8), but he hit for a higher average at home (.312 to .288), drew more walks at home (41 to 28), and had more doubles and triple at home (23 to 18). His overall splits that year were .312/.394/.517 at home, .288/.344/.440 on the road.

For his career, Cruz managed to hit 106 homers on the road, just 59 at home, almost certainly one of the most pronounced home/road splits of any player in history with that many home runs. And yet for his career, his home splits (.289/.366/.418) are better than his road splits (.280/.344/.422). There’s no question that Cruz, at his peak, was hurt by an oppressive home field, but he was probably affected less than, say, any San Diego Padres hitter is today.

All of this is an incredibly long-winded, tangential, and possibly irrelevant way of saying that just as Jose Cruz was considered so underrated that he became overrated, I’m beginning to think that Luke Hochevar has been called overrated – or synonyms like “draft mistake” and “not Tim Lincecum” – so often that he’s now become underrated.

Ignore the fact that he was the #1 overall pick in 2006, that the Royals took him over Andrew Miller and Lincecum, to say nothing of guys like Joba Chamberlain or Clayton Kershaw (neither of whom, despite obvious talent, were considered realistic #1 overall picks at the time). Just look at his body of work:

In his first full professional season, he started the year in Double-A, moved up to Triple-A in August, and pitched well (2.13 ERA) in a September callup.
2) Struck out nearly three times as many batters as he walked (138 to 47) in the minors.
Showed no signs of fatigue or injury all season.

That’s not a bad debut for a prospect, even a top prospect, is it?

The criticisms of Hochevar seem to boil down to this:

1) He gave up way too many hits and home runs in the minors;
He was a #1 overall pick.

Also, owing to his holdout, he was awfully old for a draft pick, and is already 24. On the other hand, age is not nearly as meaningful a factor for pitchers as it is for hitters, and if there is such a thing as an injury nexus, Hochevar is probably past it.

The hits, and especially the homers, are concerning. Hochevar is a flyball pitcher, and he’s going to give up his share of big flies. But the high BABIP is likely to be one of those fluky things that won’t stay with him in the future. Not to make excuses for him, but the Royals reportedly would sometimes restrict his repertoire during the season to tighten up his breaking pitches. More importantly, the scouts who saw him did not feel that his erratic performance was reflected in his stuff, which was still #2-starter caliber.

I only saw him pitch in September, but what I saw reminded me a lot of Gil Meche. Like Meche, Hochevar works off a good fastball and an excellent big-breaking curveball, but all four of his pitches are at least average. Maybe Meche isn’t the comparison I want to be making, given that it took him 7 years for his stuff to translate into results. But Meche’s medical reports could fill a file cabinet; Hochevar’s wouldn’t fit inside the MacBook Air.

I don’t think he’s ready for a rotation spot now. Another half-season in Triple-A would be ideal, but the notion of breaking him in as a reliever is not a bad idea so long as it remains a temporary one. Hochevar could also be compared to the Mets’ Aaron Heilman, a first-round pick who also spent his first full season in Double-A and Triple-A. Hochevar’s K/BB ratio last year was 138-to-47; Heilman’s K/BB ratio that year was 132-to-44. But Heilman struggled in the Mets rotation for parts of the next two years, and was starting to smell like a bust before the Mets moved him to the bullpen in 2005, where he’s been tremendous ever since. The problem is that the Mets are so concerned about his previous struggles in the rotation that they’ve decided to leave him in the pen permanently, despite a starter’s repertoire, and as a result his talents have been somewhat wasted.

If using Hochevar in middle relief for a season makes his transition to the rotation easier, I’m all for it. Better one year in relief now than a lifetime in relief later.

Do I wish the Royals had drafted Lincecum or Kershaw instead? Yes. Do I think that Hochevar could be an above-average major league starter in 2009? Yes. What’s past is prologue. The future for Hochevar is still pretty bright.


Anonymous said...

Very well said, Rany. I think Hochevar projects to being a pretty good #3 SP and maybe a #2. He certainly won't be that good in 2008 and maybe not in 2009. But by the time the Royals are ready to genuinely contend, he'll be ready to be an above average MLB starter.

And by then, will Lincecum's arm/elbow/shoulder have blown out? I'm not saying that is going to happen, but there is a risk and it is that risk that caused eight MLB teams to pass on him.

ChasingMoney said...

I was hoping KC would use that pick on Hoch and was thrilled when they did.

Anonymous said...

Rany, we are two weeks into your blog and you are setting a very high bar for yourself . . . this is the most fun I have had reading a blog in recent memory. Thanks for the insight, it has been a joy to read (and consequently reflect upon) so far.

Onto Hochevar -You are right, I imagine fans and critics would not be so hard on him if he was not the #1 overall pick. I don't really have a problem with his work so far, we just all see Lincecum and his sick stuff out there, and the comparisons are inevitable. How long has it been since the Royals drafted and developed a quality starting pitcher anyway (I hope we can count Zack, but who knows for sure)? I'll be pleased if he simply ends up in the rotation and his career doesn't resemble Dan Reichert or Chris George or Runelvys Hernandez or insert the name of any other pitcher since Kevin Appier.

Mel said...

I like Rob Neyer, it sucks that R&R is finished.

Anonymous said...

First time visiting the blog...Rany, I really never knew you were this good a writer until now (evidently I wasn't reading enough). Applause.

I am on record for having declared just this offseason that the Royals should have traded Hochevar (many tomatoes were hurled in my general direction). Here was my thinking: It appears (key word: appears) that the Royals have good pitchers at slots 1, 2, and 3 in the rotation. They have half a dozen stop-overs to throw at the wall for slots 4 and 5, and they're not really expected to compete in 2008 anyway. They also have a number of intriguing arms coming up through system (Rosa, Cortes, Duffy, Blake Johnson?, and Pimentel who is my personal favorite). What they don't have are bats. I was thinking that Hochevar's value might never be higher than it is right now, and that paired with the right player in a package, we might have gotten an exciting young bat. Might we have been talking to the Rays about Delmon Young, for example? (mind you, this is Hochevar plus another good player).

I guess I was giving up too easily on Hochevar. It's just that, after the littany of supposed sure-thing pitchers that have flamed out spectacularly with the Royals, I'd rather build our staff from low-profile overachievers/later bloomers (i.e. Duffy, Pimentel, et al), and gamble our high expectations on bats. Just a thought

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the Hoch argument! I've made this argument (underrated/overrated) to several in the past. Then again, you never know if the shoe fits until you try it on...

My only issue with breaking Hochevar in via the pen is that it causes us to have to make a decision on one of the guys without options. I think that unless he absolutely destroys in spring training that he will start in AAA.

Antonio. said...

It's funny. We're so afraid of losing the guys without options...though they've had plenty of time to show they belong. I'm not interested in giving a spot to a less than worthy player over a ready prospect just because the former has no options remaining while the latter does. I know, I know. It's the realities of the game. But if Hochevar is deemed ready and he outpitches some of those stiffs, then he should be on the team.

Anonymous said...

I guess I dind't really make much of a point on the guys wihtout options... I was thinking that using Hochevar in favor of a guy without options means he'll be used in a limited role, one in which we are HOPING he doens't fill in the future, and a guy like Nunez (or any of the other dudes) is going to get picked up/traded. And maybe losing some guy like Nunez does us a favor in that we get someone in trade, and it does him a favor in going to another team where he'd have a shot. I'm really liking how our AAA and AA rotations are shaping up. Dayton has done a fabulous job stockpiling young pitchers that appear to have upside in such a short time.

All that said, whoever pitches best should get the job regardless of options.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your original point anonymous. I would prefer to protect a player, with value i.e. Nunez, over easing Hoch into a role. Especially whenever having Hoch pitch out of the pen is arguable for his development. I feel independent of spring training we should have Nunez in the pen, there will be plenty of opportunities to ease Hoch in over the season, if mgmt decides that's the right way to do it.

And why should the best guy get the job regardless of options? Assuming we don't think we win the world series in '08.

Antonio. said...

Because it's often guys like Jorge de la Rosa and Luke Hudson that get those spots because they're out of options. If the prospect is deemed ready, then there's no reason to have him in the minor leagues. De la Rosa and Hudson have both had plenty (274 and 243 IP) time to show that they can at least make improvements and they have both failed (78 and 87 ERA+) and while they're not old (27 and 31 Season Age in 2008), they're not young enough to expect or to really hope beyond hope that they will improve. Holding back your ready prospect because they showed glimpses of decent or even good pitching during a short stretch in 2007 and 2006 is counterproductive to the organization.

Anonymous said...

I am actually really sick and tired of hearing this thing about Meche's injuries past. Do you really ever do homework on this? As a M's fan for the past 30 years, I can tell you from the day Meche was drafted till he went to KC.

Meche had bronchitis at HS which limited his senior year and thus it was a surprise he was even taken at 1st round. He got called up 1999 and shut down 2000. He was shut down at 2000 for exactly the same reason that took Mariners more than eight months to decide. They simply thought he got dead arm while all he needed was surgery to repair rotator cuff. He finally got it and felt discomfort and had to shave off some bones next year at 2001.

THAT WAS IT. 2002 he pitched from their AA at San Antonio and didn't pitch well. Ever since he made it back to big league at 2003, Meche was on DL briefly 2005 for tendinitis. It wasn't serious and he made it back to pitch from bull pen. He made one more start but arm strength was not there so they shut him down.

What I really really want to know is your thick files on Meche's medical history. WHAT ARE THEY anyway? You keep hearing again and again he is injury proned blah blah blah. Before his surgeries, yes, after his surgeries, I just want to know WHEN WAS MECHE INJURED or SHUT DOWN MORE THAN one DL on 2005? It gets old.

kcghost said...

My problem with Hochevar is that this is all we got with the Number 1 pick in the draft. This is not a trivial point. To wave it away with "let's ignore he was the number 1 pick on the draft" is not good analysis of the issue. My problem with Hochevar is not him but that our Front Office thought he was the best player in the draft.

And I think Rany is giving Hochevar way too much credit for last year's performance. Sure he started in AA, but he didn't exactly shine there even though he pitched there some in 2006. And in Omaha he got hammered. Just no other way to say it. He got hammered.

Yes, he pitched well in September, but that can just as easily be charged off to sample size as any thing. It was just 12 innings.

To me he shouldn't be on the major league squad in any capacity until he shows he can get minor league hitters out.

ASMR Review said...

Great analysis of Hochevar. I think you're right, he's become so criticized that he really is underrated now.

I don't think he'll ever be an ace (the track record of #1 overall picks for pitchers is generally that they become solid #2/#3 starters, not ace pitchers - see Mike Moore, Tim Belcher, Andy Benes, Floyd Bannister) But that is still awfully valuable to have.

For the record, I wanted Brad Lincoln. Oops.

Antonio. said...

We have an anonymous Meche stalker. Bronchitis in high school? Wow. The injury concerns stem from his lack of ever reaching the 200 IP threshhold before last year...and considering there's a lot more seasons in the past where he didn't get it, he has to continue to prove'll hear less about it going into '09 if he does it again this year.