OK, so what the hell’s happened to Luke Hochevar? Last season, as a starter, Hochevar was 8-16 with a 5.73 ERA. This season, as a reliever, Hochevar is 4-2 with an ERA of 1.70. In Tuesday night’s game against the Cleveland Indians, Luke came into the game in the seventh inning with one down, a runner on second base and the tying run at the plate.
Hochevar faced Nick Swisher and struck him out. Luke then faced Jason Kipnis and struck him out. Luke came back out for the eighth; faced Carlos Santana and struck him out. Michael Brantley came to the plate—Hochevar struck him out. To end the eighth inning Hochevar faced Asdrubal Cabrera and—you guessed it—struckhim
out. Five batters up, five batters down; all by strikeout.
So what the hell’s happened to Luke Hochevar? How did he go from a struggling starter to a dominant reliever?
Start with his pitch selection: Hochevar’s cut down on the number of pitches he throws. Now he mostly throws four-seam fastballs, cutters and curves. Luke canned his slider in spring training; he thought it was "blending" with his cutter—the two pitches are similar and that wasn’t helping.
By junking his slider and throwing his cutter more often, Luke’s gotten better control of it. He says he’s developed a couple versions of the cutter and feels comfortable "front-dooring" it (throwing it at right-hand hitter’s hip and letting the pitch’s movement catch the inside corner) or "back-dooring" it (throwing it outside to a lefty and letting the pitch’s movement nip the outside corner). Hochevar will also throw what amounts to a "back foot" cutter (throw it down and in to a left-hander and about the time the lefty starts his swing, the cutter dives toward the hitter’s back foot). The pitch has a lot of movement, but Luke can still throw it around 91 miles an hour.
Hochevar’s curveball also acts as his changeup—it clocks in around 80 miles an hour—and his fastball can get up to 98. Three different pitches, three different trajectories, three different velocities; hitters have an awful lot to cover.
Back to that 98 MPH fastball: now that he pitches an inning or two at a time, Hochevar can really let it go. He’s not saving anything or working around anybody or trying to set up a hitter for a later at-bat. When asked if starting was like running a marathon and relieving was like sprinting, Luke agreed: it’s his best stuff, right now—the game has been simplified. Ned Yost has said that last year, when everyone was complaining about Luke Hochevar, the Royals knew he had this in him.
Now he’s getting it out.
The bridge innings between the starting pitcher and the closer can be the toughest innings in a ballgame. Tuesday night, after Jeremy Guthrie left after six innings and Kelvin Herrera wobbled in the seventh, Luke Hochevar took over and got the ball to Greg Holland in the ninth.
The Royals won this one 6-3 and Luke Hochevar had a lot to do with it.
• With Guthrie on the mound, the Indians loaded their lineup with left-handed hitters. Coming into the game, lefties had hit .328 against Guthrie, righties .223. Afterwards Ned Yost said Guthrie did not have his best stuff, but battled. Jeremy went six innings and gave up one earned run.
• The one run he gave up came in the first inning: Guthrie shook off several Salvador Perez signs to get to a curveball and hung it to Jason Kipnis. He fell behind Carlos Santana 3-1 and gave Santana the fastball he was expecting and Carlos singled. Finally Guthrie threw a change up to Michael Brantley and the changeup was up in the zone and hittable
• With Jarrod Dyson on first base, Cleveland starting pitcher Zach McAllister balked. Speed is a distraction: with a runner on, pitchers can throw the ball to first base or home, but whichever way they go, they need to do it with 100 percent of their concentration in that direction. Start to go home with 30 percent of your mind distracted by the runner on first base and you might balk.
• Alcides Escobar hit a 417-foot home run to tie the game—but watch out: when a guy who should be thinking about opposite field singles pulls a home run, they can get off track. They want to repeat that good feeling and get pull-happy.
• After Esky’s home run Dyson bunted for a single and an off-target pick-off throw moved him to second. With Alex Gordon at the plate, Dyson did not attempt to steal third. It can be done—Chris Getz did it later in the game—but stealing third with a left-handed hitter at the plate gives the catcher an open throwing lane.
• OK, this one’s weird, but just in case you wondered: Asdrubal Cabrera fouled a ball back and sniffed his bat. If you hit it just right, the friction from a ball fouled straight back will cause the smell of burning wood. Asdrubal appeared to be enjoying the moment.
• A hit into the right field corner with one down has triple written all over it—the right fielder has a long throw to third and one down is the right time to try. Nobody down you don’t want to get thrown out at third to start an inning, with two down you’re already in scoring position—as long as the run matters, one down is the time to go for it.
David Lough tripled with one out in the eighth inning and that brought Alcides Escobar to the plate. The Royals put on a suicide squeeze—Lough was coming down the line toward home plate—and Escobar’s backside deserted him. Somehow Alcides fell over backward and jabbed at the ball at the same time, fouling it off. Esky got back up and, with the infield in, shot the ball past the third baseman for an RBI single.
• Marc Rzepczynski come up an in on Eric Hosmer, but it was an 81 MPH slider, not a purpose pitch. If a pitcher is coming up and in on purpose, he’ll do it with a fastball. A breaking pitch up and in is just a mistake.
• With two outs, ex-Royal Blake Wood came on to pitch to Billy Butler in the ninth and Butler singled. Chris Getz pinch ran for Billy and Getz seemed likely to take a shot at stealing second—Blake was very slow to the plate when he pitched here in KC. But Wood appeared to have worked on his slide step and was getting the ball to the plate more quickly Tuesday night. Getz started to take off for second base, appeared to read a slide step and pitch out and shut it down.
Getz eventually stole second and then guessed right on the next pitch; it seems likely that Chris figured with a runner on second base Blake would go back to his old, slow delivery—a high leg kick—and that would make stealing third possible. It was: Getz stole second and third on back-to-back pitches.
• The second pitch Greg Holland threw to Jose Ramirez—the final batter of the game—appeared to be a strike, but Holland didn’t get the call, probably because Salvador Perez was set up outside and the pitch was more inside. If a pitch stays within the framework of a catcher’s body—between the knees—the pitch is more likely to be called a strike. If the pitch is caught outside the catcher’s knees, it’s less likely to be called a strike; even if it’s still within the strike zone.
Seventeen games left
The Royals are now 76-69 and there are 17 games left in the 2013 season—and they’re still not out of it. Post-season remains a long shot, they’ve got too many teams between them and the wild card, but it’s September 10th and they’ve still got a shot—a long shot, but a shot.
By the way
If you want to read Ned Yost’s reasoning on pinch-hitting Carlos Pena on Monday night, you don’t need to wait for me to talk to him after this road trip. Kansas City Star columnist Vahe Gregorian talked to Yost about Monday night’s game and the story is on the Kansas City Star’s web site—kansascity.com.