The problem with the Royals publicly declaring their long-term commitment to Luke Hochevar isnt just that its a wildly unpopular move with an increasingly frustrated fan base thats been more patient than should be expected.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
The problem isnt just that hes working on a historically inept pitching career for a franchise in desperate need of improving its pitching staff. And the problem isnt just that keeping him around is a waste of money for a cash-strapped organization and a sign that the Royals have run out of ideas.
Those are all problems, of course, and well talk more about them soon, but heres the stank-est part of the whole thing:
The Royals talk about needing to change a losing culture while promising to bring back the one player who by circumstances both in and out of his control has come to represent losing more than anyone else in that clubhouse.
In other words, if you say you want to lose weight, you should stop eating junk food.
Hochevar is wildly talented. He works hard. Cares. Comes from a high-achieving family and has a commitment the Royals have come to trust. Those are all good things. But its a bad sign when people around a Scott Boras client drop hints theyre open to a long-term contract extension and the team passes.
Hochevar has had five years to prove it in Kansas City, and all hes done is make an argument as baseballs most frustrating pitcher to follow. He once threw an 80-pitch complete game. He matched David Prices best last month. He has more starts giving up two or fewer earned runs than CC Sabathia this year.
He also has seven starts giving up six or more earned runs. Only two pitchers in baseball have been worse. Only three others have started as many games with as bad an ERA as Hochevars. (Bruce Chen is one of them.)
Hochevar needed 16 minutes of the home opener to get booed, which is a pretty good encapsulation of his career so far and the Royals recent history.
Tonight will be Hochevars 125th start, and only three pitchers since 1901 have been given that many chances and done worse than his 5.30 career ERA. It will neither reassure or surprise you to read that one of them is Kyle Davies.
Over five years of frustration, the Royals have tried to help Hochevar overcome a list of supposed issues: tipping pitches, not being aggressive enough, thinking too much, not pitching inside, too many breaking balls, too many cut fastballs and more. Nothings worked. Let someone else try, and let Hochevar work it out somewhere else.
This isnt about the Royals not having other options, even though they do. They are in position to sign or trade for their next opening-day starter, keep Jeremy Guthrie for next year and fill out the rotation with some combination of Chen, Luis Mendoza, Will Smith, Everett Teaford, Jake Odorizzi, Ryan Verdugo and, once theyve recovered from arm surgery, Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino.
This doesnt account for relievers Kelvin Herrera or Aaron Crow to be converted, Nate Adcock to get a chance, or the Royals to acquire cheap options without historically bad track records over the offseason.
Its about the Royals moving on from whats been a rotten investment. This all comes up after Star beat writer Bob Duttons insightful article that includes some additional reasons for concern, the most obvious being that Hochevar and pitching coach Dave Eiland cant agree on whats wrong. Eiland wants to eliminate Hochevars cut fastball because it leads to bad habits, while Hochevar likes the pitch and wants instead to address the bad habits.
The other thing that sticks out is manager Ned Yost using Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Schmidt and Kevin Millwood as models for Hochevar guys who struggled early, then became good pitchers.
Except Millwood had a 2.68 ERA and allowed the fewest base runners per nine innings in the National League as a 24-year-old. By the time he turned 29 Hochevars 29th birthday is Saturday Millwood was clearly established as one of the better pitchers in baseball.
Schmidt had some Hochevar-like struggles when he first came up, but by 25 had a better season than Hoch has had so far. When Schmidt was as old as Hochevar is now, four of his six big-league seasons were better than Hochs best.
De La Rosa isnt an awful comparison, but he always had a much higher strikeout rate and went 16-9 with a 4.38 ERA at Hochevars current age.
Hochevars best season so far 11-11 with a 4.68 ERA in 198 innings last year was 13 percent worse than the league average.
Hes making $3.51 million this year, and because of how baseballs salary structure works, figures to make around $5 million through arbitration. The Royals are right that theres value in a guy who can be reasonably counted on to eat innings, but how many teams would use a significant part of their limited resources on a guy whos yet to do it at anything approaching even the league average over a full season?
Actually, with the Davies precedent, the Royals have proved themselves to be rare in this way.
Look, the Royals are closer to competing in a weak division than a lot of people think. But holding on to such a major part of the last five years of disappointment is an awful way to go about it.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.