If you sort the qualified American League starting pitchers by ground ball rate, this is the list you end up with:
1. Trevor Cahill
2. Justin Masterson
3. Fausto Carmona (His fake name is too cool to stop using it)
4. Ricky Romero
5. Ivan Nova
6. Rick Porcello
7. Carl Pavano
8. Jon Lester
9. Felix Hernandez
10. Luke Hochevar
It’s not exactly a who’s who of AL aces, but it’s a list of some pretty solid pitchers. For the most part, guys that nearly any team would love to have on their staff. Our own Luke Hochevar makes the list along with a couple of elite pitchers. So why is it that Hochevar ranks 8th on the list in ERA and 7th on the list in xFIP? We all know that Hochevar is good at inducing ground balls, but he isn’t utilizing that skill to help him become a more elite pitcher. What makes him different from the guys on that list who are putting it all together.
One thing that jumps to mind is that he might be walking too many guys. While Luke isn’t exactly the stingiest with his walks, on this list he ranks 5th. Right in the middle. Sure he’s below Felix Hernandez, but he’s just below Justin Masterson and well above Jon Lester. It’s something I’d like to see Hochevar improve upon, but it isn’t absolutely critical.
The best way to ensure an at-bat ends in an out is to not let the guy leave the batters box. Strike a man out and there’s almost no chance he scores a run. Once the list of 10 is sorted by K/9 ratio, you start to see a more organized list of who is the most effective. Felix Hernandez and Jon Lester top the list and Luke Hochevar ranks 6th. Not terrible, but he’s hanging around a few too many 4+ ERA guys, it’s not the kind of company we wish our man to keep.
The comparison to Justin Masterson seems good for Hochevar. I’m pretty sure he isn’t turning into Hernandez or Lester, but can he be Masterson? I don’t see why not. They seem very similar in styles of pitching and Masterson is just a tad better than Hochevar in all of these important categories. In terms of strikeouts, once again Hochevar is only 2 slots below him, however Masterson strikes out 0.75 more men every 9 innings than Hochevar. That is significant. Hochevar has a 5.82 K/9 rate and it seems that there is a real inflection point at about 6 to 6.25 K/9 for these players. If you can surpass that mark, combined with a great ground ball rate and effectiveness takes a giant leap.
What I’ve been looking at though so far is the entire season of 2011 and if you watched last year you know that there were two distinct versions of Luke Hochevar. The first half, aka “not good” version and the second half version. How does 2nd half Luke compare to the guys on this list?
The first thing is that his ground ball rate dropped precipitously in the 2nd half of the season. It’s possible that he took a look at the rather large dimensions at Kauffman and decided that he could allow more fly balls, but only if it helped him in another area, likely strikeouts. Did it work?
Luke Hochevar’s K/9 during the first half: 4.6
Luke Hochevar’s K/9 during the second half: 7.7
Yeah, I’d say that the tradeoff worked handsomely. The results bear it out as well since he dropped going into the All-Star game he had a 5.46 ERA and in the second half he posted a 3.52 ERA. A 7.7 K/9 rate would have crushed Justin Masterson’s 6.57 and would have surpassed guys like Dan Haren and Jared Weaver as well. That kind of strike out rate is bordering on elite, particularly combined with a high ground ball rate.
Unfortunately, the Luke who has found the Force and is able to strike guys out also came with the whiney ineffective Luke from Tatooine who allowed his family to get slaughtered by the Empire. We need the confident Luke who has the ability to fool is enemies into swinging and missing. Can he be that guy in 2012 or will he revert to his old self?
I don’t think Luke Hochever an important guy in the teams ability to contend in 2012. I think he’s THE most important player on the team. If Luke has the Force, the Royals can absolutely contend. If he doesn’t they might not stand a chance.
– Nick Scott