Friday, September 24, 2010

Luke, and Ned's Cool Hand.

“In my book Out of the Blue I told the story of when my first major league manager, Tommy Lasorda, gave me the nickname “Bulldog.” It was May of 1984, my first full year in the majors. I’ve often referred to the meeting in his office as “The Sermon on the Mound.” Because he had been told to, Ron Perranoski, my pitching coach, escorted me into Tommy’s office. I was carrying a 2-2 record and my ERA was a miserable 6.20. I knew I could do better than that and suspected that Tommy agreed. I was glad that Perry had come along – although Tommy wouldn’t have met with me, or any of his players, without their coach present.

No person had ever been more intimidating to me than Thomas Charles Lasorda. He was an enthusiastic leader, but although I had not played for him for more than a few months, I also knew that he was loud and brash. Verbally, he took no prisoners. A few days before this meeting, I had given up a two-out double in Houston to Jose Cruz with two men on base. Tommy was furious. But his anger was not directed at my mechanics or pitch selection. He was mad at me because he thought I was pitching timidly and didn’t believe in my abilities.

Now I was sitting in his office. “You don’t believe in yourself,” he shouted. “You’re scared to pitch in the big leagues. Who do you think these hitters – are Babe Ruth? Ruth’s dead! You’ve got good stuff. If you didn’t, I wouldn’t have brought you up. Quit being so careful. Go after the hitter. Get ahead in the count.”

Although I was being aired out, I was sure that I heard a compliment hidden in Tommy’s words. I’ve got good stuff? He brought me to the big leagues because he believes in me?

Tommy wasn’t done. “If I could get a heart surgeon in here, I’d have him open my chest and take out my heart. Then I’d have him open your chest, take out your heart, and tell him to give you mine. With my heart and your arm, you’d be in the Hall of Fame! I’ve seen guys come and go, son, and you’ve got it.”

Tommy finished his sermon with a flourish. “Take charge! Make ‘em hit your best stuff! Be aggressive. Be a bulldog out there.” And then, almost like he had surprised himself with a stroke of genius, he announced, “That’s going to be your new name: Bulldog. It’s the ninth inning, we bring you in and you’re facing Dale Murphy. He hears, ‘Now pitching, Orel Hershiser.’ He can’t wait till you get in there. But if he hears, ‘Now pitching, Bulldog Hershiser,’ he’s thinking, Oh, no, who’s that? Murphy’s going to be scared to death!”

I admit that I was a little insulted by the rah-rah pep talk and the nickname, but I knew Tommy had spoken the truth. I had been tentative and too careful. Two days later we were in a tough situation against the San Francisco Giants. The call came from the dugout, “Can anybody down there pitch?” The bullpen was spent so I volunteered, in spite of a tender elbow and an arm weak from overwork.

I’ll never forget the walk to the mound and the three innings that followed. I could hear Tommy shouting from the dugout, “C’mon, Bulldog! You can do it, Bulldog! You’re my man, Bulldog!” I was a major leaguer. I was good enough to be here and had what it took to win. And I started to believe it because it’s what my skipper had told me.

Tommy Lasorda had introduced me to the importance of truth-telling – tactless as it was – and the power of an encouraging coach.

- Orel Hershiser, Between the Lines: Nine Things Baseball Taught Me About Life

It wasn’t readily apparent, but by some measures, Luke Hochevar had a pretty good season in 2009.

In 143 innings with the Royals last season, Hochevar did his job pretty well. By “his job”, I mean the three things that a pitcher has the most control over: walks, strikeouts, and keeping the ball on the ground. Hochevar had a groundball rate of 47%, which is very good. (For comparison’s sake, the major league average is between 43 and 44%.) He walked just 46 batters, or 2.90 walks per 9 innings (the AL average was 3.39). He struck out 106 batters, or 6.67 Ks per 9 innings (the AL average was 6.86).

If that’s all you knew about Hochevar, you’d have to conclude that he was an average, maybe slightly above-average, starting pitcher in 2009. You’d be wrong, of course. Massively wrong.

Hochevar had his moments, as we all recall – the 80-pitch complete game, the 13-strikeout, no-walk gem, and the 3-hit shutout. In his other 22 starts, he got beaten like an extra in The Expendables. Hochevar finished the season with a 6.55 ERA – the highest in baseball for anyone with 100 or more innings.

Take those three starts out, and his seasonal ERA was 7.70.

There are a number of reasons why Hochevar turned a solid set of peripherals into the worst pitching in baseball. For one, despite being a groundball pitcher, he surrendered 23 homers in 143 innings – nearly 14% of flyballs hit against him cleared the fence, which is close to twice the usual average.

Secondly, he was a nightmare with men on base. Whether it was a matter of pitching poorly from the stretch as opposed to the windup, or a matter of him putting too much pressure on himself with men on base, or simple luck, the fact is that with no one base, Hochevar held opposing hitters to a line of .238/.302/.411. With men on base, they hit .364/.420/.628. With the bases loaded, batters were 4-for-7 with a double and a homer.

The xFIP stat is one of the best ways to calculate a pitchers’ “true” pitching ability – it calculates his ERA when you strip out all the luck out of his performance, and look simply at his ability to strike out batters, avoid walks, and keep the ball on the ground. Hochevar’s xFIP last season was a very solid 4.34. His ERA was 6.55 – a difference of 2.18.

Since 2002, when batted ball data became readily available and xFIP could be calculated, Hochevar has the greatest disparity between his xFIP and his ERA of any pitcher in a single season (min: 140 IP).

Pitcher Year ERA xFIP Diff.

Luke Hochevar 2009 6.55 4.34 2.20

Casey Fossum 2004 6.65 4.57 2.08

Carlos Silva 2008 6.46 4.64 1.82

Ricky Nolasco 2009 5.06 3.28 1.78

Manny Parra 2009 6.36 4.64 1.72

(Many thanks to Matt Klaassen for procuring this data for me.)

Early this year, it looked like more of the same. Through his first eight starts, Hochevar had made some progress – he had surrendered just one home run all season – but his inability to avoid the big inning saddled him with a 5.86 ERA.

“You manage two ways every night,” Yost said. “You manage for the small picture -- everything you can do to win tonight. But you also manage for the big picture, because we’re trying to change things around here. We’re trying to take ourselves to the next level.”

The last of those eighth starts was Hochevar’s first start under new manager Ned Yost. The start summed up Hochevar’s entire career to that point. He cruised through the first six innings, allowing two hits and one run, and the Royals led 4-1 going into the top of the seventh.

Hochevar had breezed through six innings when, with one out, he banged headlong into the big inning that has often betrayed him. But even as Mark Kotsay and Alexei Ramirez singled and Mark Teahen walked to load the bases, there was no stirring in the bullpen.

“We had that ballgame won. That’s on me; I gave that game away,” Hochevar said. “I need to get it done in that inning and get out of that. That’s not good.”

That’s what Yost and Hochevar discussed in the manager’s office right after the final out.

“Hoch is a guy that, when we get to the next level as an organization, he’s going to be a guy that's probably going to be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter, and he needs to find ways to not let that happen,” Yost said.

After retiring the first batter of the inning, Hochevar allowed five hits and a walk in succession. By the time he was pulled from the game, the game was tied, and Brad Thompson allowed a go-ahead sacrifice fly that would decide the ballgame.

“You can’t run and get him every time he gets in a little bit of trouble,” Yost said. “He has to learn how to pitch his way through that situation before he can really take it to the next level and, I mean, a 15- to 18-game winner and helping us win a championship.”

On Twitter, a frustrated blogger made it clear to the new manager that he needs to have a quicker hook with the shrinking violet that was his former #1 overall pick.

Peavy gave Hochevar a live demonstration on how to survive.

“Like I told Hoch, that's a perfect example,” Yost said. “Callaspo got the big hit in the first inning to give us a three-run lead, but Peavy stopped the bleeding and he settled down and made pitches right into the ninth inning. And that's the kind of guy I see Hoch becoming.”

Only after the game did it become clear that Yost deliberately left Hochevar out there even as his game fell apart. Yost was trying to lose the battle to win the war.

But the little picture was lost, as Yost took a chance on fixing the big picture with Hochevar.

“In terms of that, he has to learn how to take his game to the next level, and you don't do it by getting taken out of situations when you get in trouble,” Yost said. “And sometimes they hurt like tonight, but you can take a night that hurts and learn from it and become a better pitcher.”

There was no Sermon on the Mound that day. (By the way, I apologize for not quoting from Out of the Blue directly. I searched through all the storage boxes in my basement but could not locate my copy. Which is a shame, because after spending $18 for it – a lot of money for a 14-year-old in 1989 – it would be nice to actually get some use out of it.) But in leaving Hochevar out there to battle through adversity, Yost showed a confidence in his pitcher that Hochevar may not have had in himself.

From the time he was drafted, Hochevar has shown himself to be very intelligent, thoughtful pitcher – “thoughtful” in the sense that he is very aware of his strengths and weakness on the mound. He might have been too aware, in fact; perhaps the biggest criticism of Hochevar throughout his career has been that he has been too tentative on the mound, too quick to give the opposing hitters credit, too reluctant to go right after them, match strength against strength. He’s been missing a killer instinct, in other words.

On May 15th, Ned Yost, who had a long track record of instilling confidence in his young charges in Milwaukee, started to put his stamp on his new team, starting with his biggest enigma.

In Hochevar’s next start, threw his first complete game of the year, in a tidy 107 pitches. After allowing a two-run homer in the sixth inning – the Royals still led 6-3 – Hochevar retired the last 10 batters of the game. His next time out, Hochevar protected a 2-1 lead into the sixth inning. With one out, he gave up a single to Elvus Andrus and a game-tying triple to Michael Young. Hochevar stranded the tying run at third on a pair of grounds. The Royals re-took the lead with two runs in the bottom of the inning, and Hochevar worked two more scoreless innings before Joakim Soria closed out the 5-2 win.

Hochevar would give up five runs in his next outing, though he pitched well (two walks and 7 Ks in 7 innings). He was a hard-luck loser his next time, taking the loss despite allowing just one run in seven innings, striking out ten. He struggled in his start after that, on June 11th, after which it was revealed that his elbow was bothering him, and he missed nearly three months before returning. After a pair of abbreviated outings while he got his stamina back, he was let loose in his last start and threw six solid innings, allowing three runs.

All told, since Ned Yost sat him down for a talk, Hochevar has thrown 49 innings, allowed 46 hits, and has an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio of 41 to 11. He has allowed 7 homers, but even so his ERA in that span is a very solid 3.86. In terms of runs allowed, this is easily the best stretch of Hochevar’s career.

For the season, Hochevar’s ERA is 4.79 – nearly two runs lower than last year’s mark – even though his xFIP is barely lower this year (4.25) than last (4.34). Is he really pitching better, or is his luck just evening out? I think it’s both. Certainly he was hurt by bad luck last year, and hurt by bad defense (only one of those things has evened out). But I also think that Hochevar has learned to staunch the bleeding. Last year, you knew that the minute Hochevar ran into some trouble, the wheels would come off. This year, he’s stayed on track through adversity. Maybe that’s the confidence imparted him to by Yost, simple maturation, or maybe it’s a mirage. But I don’t think it’s a mirage.

The simplest way to show the change in Hochevar’s results is to look at how many times he’s given up 3 or more runs in an inning. Hochevar started his career pitching long relief in September 2007, and began with a run of 15.2 consecutive non-3-run innings. That doesn’t sound like a particularly impressive streak, and it isn’t. But in his rookie season of 2008, he would have only one streak that was longer: after he was chased from the game by a 3-run sixth inning against the Twins on May 29th, Hochevar would make it until July 1st before giving up another 3-run inning, this time a 4-spot to the Orioles in the 3rd inning. In between, he threw 33.1 innings. They weren’t particularly good innings – he allowed 37 hits and 17 runs – but at least he was able to avoid any seriously crooked numbers in that span.

In 2009, Hochevar’s longest stretch without a 3-run inning was 24.1 innings. Over the last two months of the season, his longest stretch was just 13 innings. In his last seven starts, Hochevar had at least one 3-run inning in six of those starts (and in two of those starts he gave up 3 runs twice!) – the other start was his complete-game shutout.

Hochevar finished the season by allowing 12 runs in his final four innings – a 5-spot to end his start on September 28th, then a 3-spot and a 4-spot in the first three innings against the Twins on October 4th, helping the Twins to the sweep they needed to tie the Tigers for the AL Central.

Suffice it to say, by the end of the season he was a mess.

Hochevar started 2010 with the second-longest stretch of his career, 26.1 innings without allowing a 3-run outburst. His stretch ended when he gave up 5 runs to the Rays in the second inning on April 29th…and naturally, he gave up another 4 runs in the very next inning.

He allowed the Rangers to score 4 runs in the third inning on May 9th, and then on May 15th, with Ned Yost watching on, Hochevar surrendered the four runs in the seventh inning that cost the Royals the ballgame.

I’m not saying that Yost’s pep talk transformed Hochevar into a new man. All I’ll do is state the evidence, which is this:

Hochevar hasn’t given up three runs in an inning since.

Last Sunday, Hochevar gave up a two-run homer to Shin-Soo Choo in the first inning, then started the second inning by giving up back-to-back-to-back singles to plate a third run. The old Hochevar would have melted like the Nazis when they opened up the Ark of the Covenant. The new Hochevar retired the next three batters in succession, then went on to pitch four more scoreless innings and got the win.

Hochevar has now made 8 appearances and thrown 49 innings since Ned Yost gave him a talking-to, and has yet to allow more than 2 runs in any inning. That streak might well end tonight, but even if it does, it’s easily the longest such stretch of his career. And it makes me optimistic that Hochevar’s physical abilities, which are formidable, now come with the mental fortitude to match.

The narrative of Luke Hochevar is that he’s another failed #1 overall pick, another college starting pitcher who never showed the same stuff as a pro. That narrative is driven by Hochevar’s performance, but it isn’t supported by his stuff. Hochevar isn’t Bryan Bullington, who got hurt and never threw as hard after he signed with the Pirates as he did in college. He’s not Jeff Austin, who held out for 9 months and then showed up with 3-4 mph mysteriously missing off his fastball. Hochevar doesn’t have a dominant fastball, but he throws plenty hard, generally 92-93, and he has a full four-pitch repertoire. He never profiled as a prototypical ace, maybe, but he definitely projected as a #2 starter, and frankly his stuff still projects that way.

According to Pitch F/X data, Hochevar’s fastball has jumped in velocity this year, from an average of 91.8 mph to 93.6 mph this year. I’m a little skeptical about that, because the Pitch F/X data from Kauffman Stadium has been notoriously hot all season. (Analyst Mike Fast estimates that the average reading on pitches at Kauffman Stadium is 1.1 mph faster than at other ballparks.) But even if you factor in an adjustment for that, it appears Hochevar is throwing a little harder this year. Whether that’s a maturation thing, or whether he’s throwing harder because he’s learned to stop trying to be too fine with his pitches and just go after hitters, I don’t know. But it’s something.

I don’t think that Hochevar is going to suddenly turn into the second coming of Orel Hershiser. (For one thing, as I’ve detailed here, we’ve already seen the second coming of Orel Hershiser, and his name is Brandon Webb. I wrote that comparison three years ago, and since then the similarities between the two have only grown stronger. Four starts into his seventh full season in the majors, Hershiser tore his rotator cuff, and missed a season and a half. One start into his seventh full season in the majors, Webb tore his rotator cuff, and has missed almost two full seasons.)

But I do think that Hochevar has the power to re-write the narrative of his career. Hochevar has, unfairly I think, been labeled as another big draft mistake by the Royals, and all because a guy named Tim Lincecum was drafted by the Giants and won two Cy Young Awards in the next three years.

If you want to label, say, Alex Gordon a draft bust, the evidence is far stronger for that. Not only is Gordon a year further into his career, but the 2005 draft already is considered to be one of the best ever. Justin Upton went first overall; Ryan Zimmerman went fourth, Ryan Braun fifth, Troy Tulowitzki seventh. Ricky Romero, who went sixth, and who two years ago was considered the black sheep of this group, has suddenly turned into one of the better left-handed starters in baseball. Only Matt Jeff Clement, who went third, saves Gordon from being the worst pick in this group.

(And that’s not it. After the Rays whiffed on Wade Townsend with the eighth pick, the next four players selected were Mike Pelfrey, Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen, and Jay Bruce. Of the first 12 picks in the 2005 draft, Gordon might have been the third-worst – and he’s still an average major league player.)

But the 2006 draft was far weaker, and the decision to take Hochevar first overall is far more defensible. Everyone likes to talk about Tim Lincecum, but you know where he was picked? Tenth – meaning that eight other teams also passed over him. If you think Hochevar was a bad pick, do you know who went second overall? A guy named Greg Reynolds – whose major league resume consists of 62 innings and an 8.13 ERA. That’s a bad pick.

Evan Longoria went third, but Brad Lincoln went fourth, and he’s still trying to establish himself in the majors. Brandon Morrow went fifth, and he’s suddenly emerged as one of the best power pitchers in the league. But none of those guys were considered to be worthy #1 overall picks. The guy who was the consensus Best Player in the Draft went sixth overall: Andrew Miller. Miller has a 5.74 career ERA, has suffered arm troubles, and this year was relegated to Double-A – where he had a had an ERA over six.

Yes, the Royals could have had Lincecum, who Kevin Goldstein recommended they take. They could have taken Clayton Kershaw, who went seventh overall and was my favorite (after Miller) heading into the draft. Or they could have taken Drew Stubbs, who went eighth. (I swear I remember reading somewhere – and I don’t remember where – that Dayton Moore, who had just been hired by the Royals but who was not allowed to participate in the draft, wanted the Royals to take Stubbs. That would have been a fascinating pick – Stubbs isn’t a star player, but his combination of power, speed, and great defense makes him one of my favorite breakout candidates for 2011.)

But they could have had Greg Reynolds, or Brad Lincoln, or Andrew Miller as well. It’s time to stop regretting what the Royals could have had with that pick, and recognize that the player we did get is better than a lot of the alternatives. And he’s only getting better. The Royals have a lot of problems to solve in their rotation. But Zack Greinke isn’t their only solution.