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Brushing Up On Luke Hochevar

Seems like the afternoon slot on game day's a pretty good one to get in a pitcher preview.  Though I wouldn't be upset if a reader were to skip out on Luke Hochevar 101.  He's a Royal, how good can he be?  To this hypothetical reader's credit, it's not like he's impressed much to this point.  Anybody else really scared of a 5.58 ERA in 393 career innings?  Me neither.  But I'll argue he's probably better than that at this point in his career.  All of the relevant projection systems have him pegged for a sub 5.00 ERA.

Meanwhile the Sox main lefty power threats are Adam Dunn and, I guess, AJ.*  There's plenty of pop in the lineup, but it all comes at a platoon disadvantage.  This Sox offense will be vulnerable to mediocre righties who happen to be spotting their stuff that day, same as most recent vintages.  And yeah, Hochevar can do that.  For his career, he's been right at average with about 3 walks per nine and like most righties, he's better than that against RHB.

Then again, Luke doesn't force** many whiffs.  He tries to make up for it by groundballing enough with his myriad fastballs.  Even though Royals Review insists he's only got four pitches, I think the default pitch f/x algorithm is closer to correct.  My count is six: two-seamer, four-seamer, cutter, slider, curve and change.  He likes to add and subtract, mix and match, which makes it tough to really tell what's what.  None of the pitches are exceptional to my eye.  If they were, you'd think he'd cut a few from his arsenal to focus on what he's actually good at.

Against lefty hitters, he stays inside more than a righty pitcher would like because his change isn't much more than a show-me.  So he relies on his fastball medley, each of which are complementary as long as the location is good.  On top of that, he likes to get freebies early in the count with unexpected changes and curves.  On opening day, he froze Bobby Abreu on a two seamer inside after setting him up with a cutter in and a show-me curve. That's Hochevar at his best.  He hit his spots well enough to get ahead and had Abreu off-balance with all those pitches to keep in mind. 

But even at his best, the cutter wasn't where it belongs, under the hands.  In fact, it was very hittable if Abreu had recognized it.  Down and in is not a great place to be against major league hitters if they have any idea what's coming.

With righties, the slider becomes more of a weapon, but again: if it was great, he'd throw it more.  Instead, he's able to mix it up enough that the pitch gets more whiffs than it might otherwise.  The cutter is less useful against RHB, so the two-seamer and four-seamer get more time and he moves them back and forth, trying to keep the four up and the two down.  With the hitter in a hole, he'll look for the K with the slider away or four-seamer above the hands.  Otherwise, the idea is to get groundballs with the two-seamer.  When he hits his spots, he'll look great.  But if he can't get the umpire or the count on his side, he becomes a nibbler without an out pitch.

Which is more or less what happened to him in the 4th of the opener against Torii Hunter.  Hochevar started the AB moving in and out, even getting a swing-and-miss on a sinker that had really nice bite.  After that he tried to get Hunter to chase and ended up full when Torii wouldn't bite.  Truth be told, they weren't that close and a better pitcher would have made a good strike and forced a swing.  Having shown all of his best pitches, he went back to the trusty two-seamer, found too much plate and Hunter got all of it.

The Hunter AB was textbook if you're trying to beat Hochevar as a right handed batter.  Don't chase and try to see as many pitches as possible.  Once you've seen the arsenal, the repeats aren't nearly as hard to handle. 

And fortunately, if you wait him out, he's very capable of missing over the middle of the plate.  Which brings us to Jeff Mathis, he of the .199 career batting average.  Mathis hit a bomb of his own in the 6th off a hanging curve that Hochevar never should have thrown.  Fastballs would have been plenty for a guy with Mathis' bat speed, but the Hochevar I saw seems to be thinking about how he can steal strikes and get up early in the count.  So that's the other salient in the right handed offensive: crush the mistakes.  Once he gets ahead, he starts to nibble. Early in the count he'll try to be sneaky but safe since he knows what happens when he falls behind.  Hence the unnecessary curve on 0-1 to Jeff Mathis.

If the Sox ever acquired him, I'm almost positive Coop would make him ditch two pitches and focus on really getting the most movement and location out of his best stuff.  But he doesn't, so you get flashes of greatness.  Great stuff at times.  Great location at times.  But mostly he's always trying to compensate for his perceived weaknesses rather than create a true strength for himself.  He's the old cliché come to life to pitch in the bigs: jack of all trades, master of none.



*Career .434 SLG against RHP; if that's the standard Mark Teahen qualifies.

**Without the stupid pun, that'd read "induce" but here we are.