Once, Luke Hochevar stood for the future of the Royals as the only overall No. 1 pick in franchise history.
Alas, Hochevar sputtered as a starter as the Royals struggled to gain traction. And it wasn’t hard to link the two trajectories, at least symbolically, since he was drafted in 2006.
Then came 2013, when he was repurposed to the bullpen. And how he embraced what could only be considered a demotion says a lot about what came next.
“In life, or really in anything, if you view something as a bad thing, it’s probably going to end up being a bad thing,” Hochevar said Monday after he worked two scoreless innings in his first appearance of the spring against the Chicago White Sox at Glendale Stadium. “That’s the power of our minds. Whatever it is, you just view it as a good thing and just rock and roll with it.”
After being nurtured on a diet of low-stress situations, Hochevar came to thrive as a setup man in the Royals’ best season in 25 years.
So he is part of their resurgence. Just in a different way than had been anticipated.
The same man who entered the season with a career 5.39 ERA whittled that to 1.92 in 2013, sixth among American League pitchers who threw at least 60 innings.
Opponents hit just .169 off him, the third-best mark in the league, and in his 58 appearances he never was more unhittable than when he struck out all five batters he faced Sept. 10 in Cleveland.
This was an identity-changing transformation, really. Hochevar found a nice niche and rehabilitated his career.
But it’s at a different sort of crossroads now as the Royals consider him a contender to rejoin the rotation.
And that gets complicated if you accept that he’s rejuvenated himself in a way that may or may not be any indication he could do so successfully.
Maybe nobody said it better than pitching coach Dave Eiland late last season.
“I’m not saying he couldn’t, but it’s a stretch to assume that,” Eiland told The Star then. “I don’t think there’s anybody who can answer that question. People might try and think they can, but it’s a guess.”
Part of the radical change in Hochevar was simplifying his pitching repertoire, in some measure merely to conform to the role.
He largely let go of his change-up, throwing perhaps two all season, and he ditched his slider in favor of renewed emphasis on his cutter that he felt had become too similar to the slider.
Hochevar also found himself less apt to overthink.
“When you’re coming in in the later innings, and you’ve got to get three outs and there’s guys on base, you’re not trying to set anybody up, you’re not doing anything other than trying to throw the pitch at that exact time to get that hitter out,” he said.
Then Hochevar said he’d take the same approach now whether he was starting or relieving this year, that he’s learned better how to pitch to the situation, the hitter and his own strengths.
And not that he still doesn’t have a future as a starter.
But the great unknown is that it’s hard not to think a major part of his turnaround was psychological.
On one hand, last season could be seen as his bridge back and going to the bullpen just got him over a hump.
On the other, last season looks a lot more like nothing with which to be trifled and that he found himself in that role.
It’s not altogether clear how the Royals could develop conviction that it’s better to start him again.
Manager Ned Yost stayed generic when asked Monday about how to weigh Hochevar’s last season in the competition for the fifth staring job that includes Wade Davis and youngsters Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy.
“I look at it (as) give him the opportunity to see if he can start again,” Yost said.
While he said he believes Hochevar and Davis can be productive starters again and wanted to give them a legitimate chance, Yost added, “We’ll see how it all plays out for the benefit of our team
“If it’s in the best interest of our team to have them in the ’pen, and our team bullpen works out that way, that’s what we’ll do.”
To be clear, Hochevar has this in mind first and foremost:
“It’s really not up to me,” he said. “So whatever decision is made, I’ll take the ball and try to help the team in whatever role I’m in.”
That might sound hollow if he hadn’t made good on it last year, and you can bet Hochevar will do just that.
Still, Hochevar, 30, insists his mentality entering this season is little different from what he felt after his turbulent first five-plus years with the Royals.
“That goes back to, is it the chicken before the egg? What comes first, success or confidence?” he said. “And I’ve always felt like I’ve been a confident person. If things aren’t going my way, its not, ‘Poor me,’ or anything like that.
“You just keep grinding and fighting and figure it out.”
Even if he wants more, it seems he already has. And why mess with success, especially one that was so hard-earned as the Royals’ future at last seems to be arriving?