Thursday, March 14, 2013

Hochevar: It's A Relief.

Sorry for my absence last week; I was working on my big article for Grantland – hey, any time you get the chance to write that the Yankees are doomed, you have to take it – and then I had to prepare for my Stratomatic draft. Priorities, people.

It may be a little light over the next 2-3 weeks, as I’m due to take my Dermatology re-certification exam later this month. Fortunately, I only have to take the exam every 10 years; if I’m still writing on this blog the next time I have to take the exam, something’s probably gone wrong.

Anyway…so, Luke Hochevar.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first. Luke Hochevar, who has a 5.39 career ERA, who in five seasons as a starter has never had an ERA below 4.68 – something unprecedented in major league history – was tendered a contract by the Royals, on the expectation that he would be in their rotation this season.

They gave up the ghost on March 13th.

I know many of you think I’m an insufferably arrogant human being, possibly because I can be insufferably arrogant at times. And I know many of you think that all I do is bitch about the Royals, even though this blog started with 23 Reasons Why I’m Optimistic About The Royals, and I’ve been complimentary of such moves as signing Juan Cruz and signing Jeff Francoeur and trading for Jonathan Sanchez.

But tell me, guys, how would you react if for the past 20+ years, this was the story of your life?

Me: “I can’t believe the Royals did X. That makes no sense.”
Royals: “We know what we’re doing.”
Me: “No you don’t. Here are seven reasons why doing X hurts the team.”
Royals: “Trust us. We’re the professionals.”
Me: “Then why does a rank amateur like myself know that you’ve made a mistake?”

A few months pass.

Royals: “We have elected to reverse decision X. It’s no one’s fault. Sometimes things don’t work out in baseball.”
Me: “And sometimes things don’t work out because they were bad ideas to begin with.”
Royals: “Trust us. We’re the professionals.”

I’ve been having these conversations – admittedly one-sided, and in the early years, entirely in my head – with the Royals since 1989, when I was 14 years old. Here’s just a short list of the decisions the Royals have made which were clearly, unequivocally bad from the moment they were made, and whose badness was only made clear and more unequivocal by the passage of time.

1989: Signed Storm Davis
1992: Left Jeff Conine exposed in the Expansion Draft; protected David Howard and Bill Sampen
1993: Traded Gregg Jefferies for Felix Jose
1995: Traded David Cone for three magic beans
1997 & 1999: Rode Jose Rosado’s arm into the ground
2000: Traded Jeremy Giambi for Brett Laxton
2001: Traded Johnny Damon in order to get proven closer Roberto Hernandez
2002: Hired Tony Pena as manager instead of Buck Showalter
2002: Traded Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez
2005: Left Jose Lima in the rotation all year (and paid him incentive bonuses of $1 million) to finish with a 6.99 ERA in 32 starts
2005: Hired Buddy Bell as manager instead of anyone else in the whole world
2007: Signed Jose Guillen to a 3-year deal so he could poison the clubhouse, apparently
2009: Traded for Yuniesky Betancourt
2009: Destroyed Gil Meche’s arm
2009: Declined Miguel Olivo’s option and released John Buck so they could sign Jason Kendall to a two-year deal for more money than Olivo and Buck combined
2011: Brought back Kyle Davies for $3.2 million even though he wasn’t good at his job
2012: Thought so much of the Yuniesky Betancourt Experience that they signed up for it again

This isn’t a listing of the Royals’ worst mistakes, mind you; only a listing of the ones that were inexplicable to anyone with common sense. I’m not including the Mark Davis signing, or the many, many, many draft mistakes they’ve made over the years.

Now, you’ll notice that most of these occurred under a different administration, and it’s not fair to blame Dayton Moore for something Herk Robinson did. On the other hand, the pace of these unforced errors doesn’t appear to have slowed down at all. I think Moore has done more things right than his two predecessors, particularly in the player development department, which is why the Royals are poised to have their best season since John Schuerholz left town. But he’s also good for a doozy at least once a year.

And now we have one more. In December, the Royals tendered Hochevar a contract for more money than he would possibly have gotten on the free agent market. They didn’t even try to play hardball with him, the way they did with their two other arbitration-eligible players, Felipe Paulino and Chris Getz, both of whom signed before the tender deadline for less money than they might have earned in arbitration, out of fear that they might get cut.

But in Hochevar’s case, the Royals not only had no intention of cutting him, they were very explicit to the media that they had no intention of cutting him, which of course destroyed all of their leverage.

Three months later, he was moved to the bullpen.

Yes, you can argue that at the time Hochevar was tendered, the Royals hadn’t yet traded for James Shields and Wade Davis. But that’s a diversion. The fact remains that for the money they’re paying Hochevar, the Royals could have found better starting pitchers on the free agent market. The fact remains that in the last five years, 108 pitchers have made 90 or more starts in the majors, and Hochevar ranks dead last among them with a 5.45 ERA. No one else is higher than 5.06.

(This is kind of an aside, but it’s too funny not to mention: if you lower the minimum to 70 starts, here are the three worst ERAs from 2008 to 2012: Brian Bannister (5.58), Luke Hochevar (5.45), and Kyle Davies (5.20). Royals Baseball!)

The Royals are saying all sorts of nice things about how this will free Hochevar to air it out for an inning or two, and how they don’t see him as a long reliever but as a genuine power arm that could pitch the seventh and eighth innings alongside Crow and Collins and Herrera. That’s, um, debatable. What’s not debatable is that a small-market team that has an incredibly deep pool of young, cheap relievers is paying Luke Hochevar $4.56 million to pitch middle relief.

What’s not debatable is that, assuming Bruce Chen wins the fifth starter’s role, Hochevar will be paid more in 2013 ($4.56 million) than the other six relievers in the bullpen combined (about $3.8 million).

And sometimes things don’t work out because they were bad ideas to begin with.


OK, we’ve dispensed with the negativity. Which is good, because I would much rather dwell on the positives of this decision, which are plenty. It may sound snarky to say that upon hearing the news, I felt a lot better about the Royals’ chances to make the playoffs this year – but it’s absolutely true.

Because look, as silly as it was for the Royals to bring Hochevar back as a starting pitcher this season, it would be MUCH MUCH MUCH more silly for them to backtrack on their decision in May or June, after he’s already put up a 7-spot in the box score a couple of times, than to do so in March. Moving Hochevar to the bullpen now puts egg on their faces, but it doesn’t put any losses in the standings.

In past years, the Royals would stubbornly send a starting pitcher out there every fifth day in the hopes that he would turn it around, whether it was Jose Lima in 2005 or Kyle Davies in 2011. But in past years, the Royals weren’t really playing for anything; there weren’t really any consequences. That was what made Hochevar’s return so frustrating: a team that was going all-in on 2013, that had gambled so many prospects on that proposition, was prepared to undo all of that just to prove a stubborn point about Luke.

The Royals are still putting a brave face up about him, as they should, publicly. But by making this move, they are in effect acknowledging that if they’re serious about winning this year, they have to stop sacrificing potential wins to prove a point. As a fan, it was easy to say “why I should take the Royals’ chances of winning seriously when the organization itself doesn’t?” By making this move, the organization is finally saying: we do.

So I give them credit for doing it. I didn’t think they had the guts to – I mean, in my very last column less than two weeks ago, I said that Hochevar almost certainly wouldn’t lose his job. “And if they cut bait with him now, they’d be admitting they made a mistake without even giving him the chance to prove it. The embarrassment that would cause makes it highly unlikely that they would do such a thing.”

Instead, they sucked it up and accepted the embarrassment. They knew that when they made this decision, they’d be mocked the way I mocked them in the first half of this column. It’s that fear of embarrassment that causes organizations – not just in baseball but all of sports – to double-down on bad decisions long after they’ve been proven wrong. (Matt Cassel, anyone?)

Every year in spring training, the Royals say that the better player will win the job, even though the winner appears to be a foregone conclusion. It’s not just the Royals – every team puts on the illusion of competition even though they’ve already made up their mind. And I (and lots of other people) honestly thought that was the situation here.

That’s why this decision is so potentially significant. The Royals have made it very clear that when they say the best pitcher will be named the fifth starter, they mean it. That gives them the credibility to say that whoever wins the job at second base, or backup catcher’s spot, or the last spot in the bullpen, really did win the job because they were perceived to be the best player for it, and not just because the organization had already made up its mind and was too stubborn to change it.

Having said all that, the Royals haven’t gone far enough. Sparing us Hochevar’s 5+ ERA in the rotation is an enormous relief, but there’s no real evidence that he will pitch better in the bullpen, or at least better than Donnie Joseph or JC Gutierrez or Louis Coleman or whoever else would take that spot. Even when you apply the natural bump that pitchers get when they move to the bullpen, Hochevar’s looking at an ERA in the mid-4s. That probably deserves to be in a major league bullpen somewhere, just not for the money they’re paying him.

So yeah, you could argue that the best move for the Royals would be to just release him outright. And I’m not 100% convinced that they won’t. While the initial deadline to release a player and pay him just one-sixth his salary has passed, the final deadline is still two weeks away. If the Royals cut Hochevar by March 27th, they’ll owe him just under a quarter of his salary, about $1.1 million. By moving him to the bullpen now, they have two weeks to evaluate what they see. While I’m sure they’re not intending to cut him, if he handles the transition poorly, they have that option in their back pocket.

The other option is that they could trade him. I don’t think he has any trade value at his full salary, but I do think that if the Royals pick up a significant amount of his contract, he could be moved. Since they owe him $1.1 million anyway, let’s say they’re willing to pick up $2 million of his contract in a trade. Now another team might look at Hochevar and see a pitcher who, if nothing else, has made over 30 starts each of the last two years, a pitcher who is just 29 years old, who has the stuff and peripheral numbers of a #3 starter. The opportunity to acquire that pitcher for one year and $2.5 million dollars – along with the option to bring him back for one more year if he figures things out – might appeal to some teams.

No, not every team. Not most teams, honestly. But, say, the Colorado Rockies? Just maybe.

The Rockies have already been linked to Luke Hochevar this winter, although the reported rumor is that the Royals called them, not the other way around. But right now, the Rockies’ projected rotation is Jorge de la Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Drew Pomeranz, Juan Nicasio, and Jeff Francis. There aren’t a lot of rotations that Hochevar might improve, but that’s one of them. Then factor in that the Rockies…how do I put this nicely…don’t seem to know what they’re doing right now. Their front office is in disarray; I’m not even entirely sure who’s in charge. The Royals have already taken advantage of the Rockies’ poor decision making by acquiring Felipe Paulino for nothing and Jeremy Guthrie for less-than-nothing.

To you and me, it looks like no team could possibly have interest in Hochevar. But Hochevar’s trade value looks like Clayton Kershaw compared to where Jonathan Sanchez’s stock was last July, and the Royals were able to convince the Rockies to take a flyer on him.

There’s an added bonus to sending Hochevar to Colorado if you’re the Royals: it seems to me (and a lot of people) that the Royals don’t want to give up on him because they’re deathly afraid that they’ll let him go and he’ll figure it out somewhere else, and not only will they miss out, but they’ll like idiots for not fixing him themselves. Not to be cruel, but if you wanted to put a pitcher in a position where he was least likely to succeed and make you look foolish, um, wouldn’t you pick Colorado? Between the ballpark and the organization, Hochevar could have the best year of his career and still have a 5 ERA.

And if they’re able to convince the Rockies to take Hochevar and half his contract, and maybe even surrender a modest prospect in return, their decision to tender him that contract may yet be redeemed. After all, for all the inexplicable decisions the Royals have made over the last 20 years, few seemed as self-defeating as the decision to keep sending Sanchez out there last year to walk the ballpark and get pulled in the third inning every five days. I was adamant that he was never going to turn it around, and I was right. But the Royals found a way to be right as well, by finding a team even more oblivious to his suckitude than they were. If they can do it again with Hochevar, their decision to tender him will be explicable after all.

Even if they don’t, and they keep him around to pitch low-leverage innings, the worst he can do is turn a 6-3 game into a 10-3 laugher. Sure, I don’t want the Royals to throw away money. But I’d much rather that than to see them throw away games.


Michael said...

The only positive I see is the possibility that going to the bullpen helps him figure out how to pitch from the stretch. I don't know if it's the pressure of men on base or simply mechanics, but his numbers with men on base is his Achilles heel. Honestly I think this move is the right one, just two years later than when it should have been made.

Kansas City said...

Hard to see how the Royals will ocnclude it is worth $3 million to keep him in the bullpen. I suppose they could conclude that the combination of the possibility of a revival and the possility of a later trade is enough to roll the dice one more time. But it is at least odd timing.

skeptic said...

I love how Hochevar has embraced going to the pen. The threat of unemployment does that to people.

ffb3cbe6-8d64-11e2-ab53-000f20980440 said...

He's made around 16 million in his career so far. I doubt the prospect of unemployment worries him that much.

ffb3cbe6-8d64-11e2-ab53-000f20980440 said...

From memory it seems like he did okay the first time through the line up a lot of the time

He might do pretty good as a reliever

sedated ape said...

Storm Davis won 19 the year before the royals signed him and 16 the year before that

It didn't work out for the royals, granted, but at the time it didn't seem like such a bad thing.

You wanted them to to go after Dickey based on one excellent season. Is that so much different that wanting Davis after his 1989 season? And Davis was a decade younger than Dickey in his big season

J35J said...

Dickey has actually been good the last 3 years. What made him Cy Young caliber was his rise in strikeouts.

And you are looking at the wrong numbers when trying to say Davis was good before we got him...wins is probably the worst stat to look at when evaluating how good a pitcher may be going forward. The easiest one to look at for Davis was, aside from his rookie season he never had a season with a K/BB rate of 2 or better...that's terrible! His WHIP those previous 2 years was also terrible, both being over 1.50. Davis wasn't ever a good pitcher.

kcghost said...

It is time for Hochevar's career to take one between the eyes. There's no doubt someone will sign him after we cut him, but the odds are really low that he will turn into anything.

I don't see him doing much in relief since middle relievers tend to come in with men on base and he could never pitch with men on base. Maybe that's why the Royals talk about him being a setup man.

Sid Meier said...

Rany - thank you for all the writing you do. I don't always agree, sometimes I scratch my head, but you do put your opinions in front of the world, and that is to be respected.

Whatever 10 yrs brings you, I hope you still are passionate about the Royals and writing.

John said...

The Storm Davis contract was totally indefensible. The guy won 19 games in 1989, but he threw less than 170 innings and had a 4.36 ERA in a pitcher's park, in a pitcher's year--playing conditions in 1988 and 1989 heavily favored the pitcher. A 4.36 ERA in Oakland in 1989 is about like 5.50 in a neutral park today. Davis wasn't even all that good in 1988 (16-7, 3.70). He was the first of many Dave Duncan reclamation projects who regressed badly without Duncan--buyer beware to anyone looking at Kyle Lohse right now.

Rany is giving them a free pass on the Mark Davis signing that same year, and he shouldn't. Mark Davis was a good pitcher, at least prior to 1990, but they didn't need him. Jeff Montgomery pitched better than Davis did in 1989, and they already had him. I remember telling people that Montgomery would eventually win the job back. I didn't think it would happen within a month.

Gaines Arnold said...

I thought your commentary was timely (a la the Matt Cassel snark) given that as soon as the Chiefs released him the Minnesota Vikings picked him up. Just goes to prove what you are saying. If the Royals release Hochevar he won't have to wait long for someone to pick him up. As PT Barnum said a sucker is born everyday.

Jayboid said...

Rany, excellent article on the Yanks, yes some of we readers remember when they were toothless. Hope to see it again.

The Royals are like the gal who dumps you and dumps you, always with a promise this year is different. All those bandwagon years, especially last year keep creeping back in my mind.

Just wanted to mention, when I read your articles I always wonder if you have family back in Syria. If so pray they are as safe as can be.