We have seen last night’s Luke Hochevar before.   He is the guy that gives Royals’ fans hope that the former number one overall pick is about to or already has turned the corner into becoming, if not an ace, a solid major league starter.

Despite not striking a batter out, Hochevar induced 13 ground ball outs and exited the game after allowing just single runs in the sixth and seventh innings.   Two runs, two walks, five hits over seven innings:  we will take that most any time out from Hochevar.   In fact, the Royals did get virtually the same performance in Hochevar’s previous start against Toronto, but therein lies the problem.

Hochevar will string together two, three and sometime four solid to good starts only to then fall back to simply not very good.   Take a look at just this season:

  • First two starts:  8 runs in 11.2 innings
  • Next two starts: 4 runs in 14 innings
  • Next two starts: 12 runs in 12 innings
  • Next four starts: 8 runs in 28 innings
  • Next three starts: 17 runs in 18 innings
  • Last two starts:  4 runs in 14 innings

Every starting pitcher, even the aces, have off days and certainly Hochevar, miscast as the Royals’ number one starter, falls under more scrutiny than others, but a good pitcher (even an average major league starter) does not follow four good starts with THREE bad ones.   That is the simple truth and a feat that Hochevar has never managed to avoid in what is now an 84 game career.

That four start streak above (8 runs in 28 innings) marks the longest ‘good’ start streak of Hochevar’s career and then was followed by a horrific three start run.  Yes, I know one of those three starts was six perfect innings sandwiched around an 8 run fourth in Baltimore, but that inning did happen, so it counts.  

Advanced metrics are not much kinder to Luke.   His 2011 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) stands at 4.84, up almost a full run from 2010 and exactly where it was during the 2009 season.   Luke’s xFIP is 4.25, up from 4.09 in 2010 and, you guessed it, almost identical to that of 2009.     Is Luke Hochevar treading water, getting worse or getting better?  

Hochevar is inducing ground balls this season at a higher rate (53.2% career high) and after allowing an almost freakish amount of home runs early in the season, he has not allowed a single dinger over his last five starts (32 innings).   At the same time, however, Luke has struck out just eight batters and currently is averaging less than four strikeouts per nine innings.   That is almost two strikeouts less than his career average.

While the Royals’ infield defense is much improved and Hochevar is generally at his best as a ground ball pitcher, I am not sure you can make a consistent living with a strikeout rate as low as his is this season.   The declining strikeout rate coincides with Hochevar’s injury last June.

Prior to that time, Luke was on a bit of a strikeout binge:  getting 31 strikeouts in the 35 innings leading up to his nearly three month stint on the disabled list.   He came back in September and struck out 14 over 25 innings and the decline then continued as the calendar turned to 2011.

Is this a warning sign or a change in approach?  Is it good or bad?  Who knows?   We are talking about Luke Hochevar here.   He could give up five runs in five innings the next time out or throw a shutout, neither would surprise me.