Luke Hochevar will be a fascinating component of the Kansas City Royals’ plans this upcoming season. Before Wade Davis set the bar for starter-turned-reliever experiments, Hochevar had his own successful reinvention. He then missed the Royals’ magical 2014 year in its entirety due to Tommy John surgery.
Before finding form in relief, though, Hochevar was one of baseball’s least effective starters. His most dismal run was a 6.55 ERA campaign in 2009. That number was 5.73 in 2012 on top of allowing 27 home runs. His best season featured a 4.68 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP in 2011. It’s as if Kansas City was clinging to the 2006 No. 1 overall pick discovering any sort of rhythm.
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He finally established rhythm in 2013. It just happened to come out of the bullpen. In 58 games, Hochevar ate 70 1/3 innings. His numbers included the following: 1.92 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 41 hits allowed. Opponents only batted .169 against the righty, down from .281 the year before as a starter.
Hochevar’s absence in 2014 opened the door for Kelvin Herrera to have a larger role. As Hochevar dominated in 2013, Herrera battled bouts of inconsistency. This changed during the Royals’ unpredictable turnaround as Herrera sported a 1.41 ERA and didn’t surrender a home run. His seventh inning spot isn’t being taken away.
Hochevar’s elbow injury also signaled a role change for the aforementioned Davis. He went on to rock a 1.00 ERA and be selected as the game’s top reliever by MLB Network’s “The Shredder.” No one’s replacing him in the eighth inning. The former starter is the scariest bullpen weapon alive.
For the ninth, there probably isn’t a better closer than Greg Holland. His ERA has been 1.21 and 1.44 over the last two seasons. He was 46/48 in save opportunities and had 90 strikeouts in 2014. Any of Kansas City’s three beasts could realistically close, but no one’s upending Holland so long as he’s on the roster.
Then there’s Hochevar. And Jason Frasor. Both were given short-term deals to be, what we can only assume, middle relievers. Or perhaps late-inning options when any member of the three-headed monster requires rest. Amassing a slew of bullpen arms is wise, but Hochevar, a pitcher who partially thrived in 2013 because of a structured role, might not enjoy a fluctuating presence.
That’s part of what makes his relationship with the Royals fascinating. The biggest curiosity resulting from a surprisingly good season is whether or not the individual can repeat similar success. Tommy John surgery robbed Hochevar of that chance in 2014. Now, as he returns, a crowded field of established relief pitchers also threaten that chance.
With Spring Training on the cusp of arriving, the Royals appear set bringing back Herrera, Davis and Holland. Talks of trading any member have quieted. With each individual becoming extremely expensive for a financially limited organization, the talks had justification. Don’t be surprised if whispers resurface at a later time.
For now, all we know with certainty is that Kansas City’s bullpen is extraordinary. The two primary questions within this group both center around Hochevar. What’s his role and can he duplicate 2013’s success? Barring a surprise, the role should be a reliable middle reliever and occasional late-game option.
No matter where Hochevar finds himself, there’s no doubt that injuries and unforeseen circumstances always harm seasons. If Herrera or any teammates struggle with health or performance, Hochevar will be around for assistance. That is, he’ll be around if his health and performance allow him to. Best of luck in predicting either.