It was “a miracle,” the devout Luke Hochevar said then, to be chosen No. 1 overall by the Royals in the 2006 draft.
But maybe it was a burden, too.
Hochevar to this day insists he never “got caught up” in the massive expectations of others because his own expectations were deeper than anyone else’s.
But that logic doesn’t so much erase the heaviness of expectations from the equation as it does merely reroute the source of it.
And “learning to manage expectations” still is a term that Royals general manager Dayton Moore uses when it comes to Hochevar, the only overall No. 1 pick in Royals history.
“Everybody’s shooting for you, everybody wants to beat you,” Moore said, nodding that fans “expect a lot, too, and they should.”
Whatever the reasons, and they’ve ranged from injuries to philosophical differences with coaches to a tendency to implode when things go awry, Hochevar has been unable to keep his anointed rounds since. Instead, he has come to be one of the symbols of the franchise’s generation of frustration: exhilarating potential eclipsed by exasperating performance.
And now he is left to contend with a new standard, from fans, anyway: the absence of any real anticipation at all as he is mired in middle relief, a role Hochevar won’t concede is his future.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “If I did, I probably wouldn’t have a job right now.”
But it’s the job the one-time wonder projected between ace and savior has now, a long way from being a lightning rod who could stir the Kauffman Stadium crowd to chants of “LUUUKE” during a spectacular 80-pitch complete game against Cincinnati in 2009 and stoke it to boo him in the first inning of the home opener last season.
“It’s not the script that Hoch had for his career,” said Moore, who officially took over two days after Hochevar was drafted. “It’s not the script that the Royals had when they drafted him No. 1.”
Still, Moore says the script isn’t indelibly etched, and it has a prescription attached: “A chance for him to slow things down a little bit.”
You might have figured it had slowed down enough that he’d be out of a job, at least in Kansas City, after he absorbed 16 losses and allowed a 5.73 earned-run average last season.
The Royals, though, couldn’t quite let go of their investment.
They weren’t blind to the seven demoralizing outings in which he got clobbered, of course. Yet they apparently still were beholden to his flickering promise, which had surged in the eight-inning one-hitter he threw — among 25 starts last season in which he compiled an encouraging 3.65 ERA — and crackled in his 144-61 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
So, shazam, Hochevar was granted a $4.65 million contract in January just before being relegated to the bullpen in spring training.
On the surface, and seemingly below it, too, those developments appear to make him a lame duck with the Royals, who can’t afford to pay him that much to do that job.
But part of that label unfairly implies that Hochevar is just idling, and no one thinks that.
Moore and manager Ned Yost, in fact, say the opposite, praising his resolve and work ethic and willingness to take on the new task.
“I can’t help but think this is just growing him,” said Moore, who said part of the idea of the move was that Hochevar’s power could make him “dominant” in a relief role.
And certainly there are no signs of surrender or contentment from Hochevar, even if he obviously misses starting, as he’d done in 171 of his 176 professional games before this season.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that, but the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter,” said Hochevar, who was 1-1 with a save and a 2.54 ERA in 22 appearances heading into Friday’s game at Minnesota. “I don’t get a vote, and, you know, I’m where I’m at and I’m enjoying it. It’s fun. I’m still getting to play the game I love and helping this club win.
“It was a tough year last year, and this is the role I’m in. If you sit back and you look at something as a failure, or however you view something, your perception of the situation is what it’s going to end up being. That’s why you don’t view it as anything negative. You view it as an opportunity to help your club, an opportunity to get better and go out and work.”
As for what’s next?
“You don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t have a crystal ball; I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
“So what you do is you take the situation you’re in, you deal with it and do the best you can. Because the main thing is, is this club getting to the playoffs? Is this team winning? That’s the bottom line.”
Ultimately, though, the bottom line will be the bottom line for Hochevar.
“There’s no doubt that economics are part of this game,” Moore said.
So while Moore says Hochevar “could certainly return to the rotation” and calls him “an absolute winner” and “a kid that you root for,” the kid also is 29 now and will be 30 by season’s end.
It’s now or never here, really, but if there is to be a rewritten script, it will have to come through an improbable twist: earning his way back into a rotation that is thriving.
Not that that can’t happen. Yost pointed to the experience of Wade Davis, who in 2012 pitched exclusively in the bullpen for Tampa Bay after starting 58 games the previous two seasons and has since resumed starting.
But Davis’ return to a starting job came with the clean slate of a new team, the Royals, and it bears noting that Yost prefaced his answer to the question of whether Hochevar’s future is in the bullpen by throwing his hands up and saying, “I’m not a fortune-teller.”
No one has been yet when it comes to Hochevar, whose career remains to be defined as he learns to work from behind instead of from the pinnacle.