On Monday, Luke Hochevar sat inside a clubhouse at Angel Stadium and tried to define the razor-thin line between success and failure, the difference between pinpoint command and sharp offspeed pitches and something else altogether. For him, it all came down to the final 5 inches.
A year ago, as he returned from a Tommy John surgery that delayed his career, Hochevar battled though the usual phases of rehab and recovery. He had to relearn to use his right arm with a tendon graft in his right elbow, taking the place of a failed ulnar collateral ligament. He suffered from routine bouts with dead arm and fatigue. As the 2015 season began, he required additional reps to knock off the rust that had accumulated after missing all of 2014.
But the most difficult part, Hochevar says, was not the dead arm or the year away from pitching. It was conquering the final 5 inches before his release point; it was the touch and feel of finishing his pitches.
“It’s hard to explain,” Hochevar says. “But from the 5 inches before release, it was like there were times I didn’t even feel the baseball out there.”
The feeling — or lack thereof, depending how you look at it — finally subsided in the final weeks for the 2015 playoffs. His arm began to feel normal again, he says. Something clicked with his command. He would throw 10 2/3 scoreless innings in the postseason as the Royals rolled to a World Series championship.
So far in the 2016 season, Hochevar has picked up where he left off last fall. Entering Monday, he had allowed just two earned runs in nine appearances. He had posted a 0.783 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched). He is excelling in his role as the Royals’ fireman, a reliever called upon to snuff out a threat with the game hanging in the balance.
In five of Hochevar’s nine appearances, he had entered a game with at least two runners on base. Entering Monday, he had allowed just one of 11 inherited base runners to cross home plate.
“I’ve learned to really relish that spot,” Hochevar said. “I like being in therewhen the game can pivot.”
The numbers, of course, are in stark contrast to the past, when Hochevar was a struggling starter who appeared to fold with runners on base. In 2012, his final season as a starter, Hochevar allowed opponents to hit .312 with an OPS (on-base-plus slugging percentage) of .867 with runners on base.
“It’s like anything else,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “It’s experience. When we put him in the pen, all of a sudden he started having success just full-bore attacking. He realized, ‘Hey, my stuff is good enough. In any situation, I can come in an attack and gets guys out.’ ”
The depth of the Royals’ bullpen allows Yost the luxury of deploying Hochevar in almost any situation. Wade Davis is cemented as the closer, and Kelvin Herrera has ascended to the de facto eighth-inning role. That leaves Hochevar at the ready if a starter runs into the trouble in the sixth or seventh inning.
“I like that situation,” Hochevar said.
His elbow fully healthy again, his touch and feel back, Hochevar is also relishing the opportunity to attack a season fresh, without the lingering effects from the scar on his right elbow.
“I think it was like close to two weeks before the postseason started that I just hit a stride,” Hochevar said. “And it was like: ‘This is what it’s supposed to feel like again. The command. The sharpness of my pitches. All that.’
“I didn’t realize how bad I felt last year until I saw how good I felt this year.”