Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Browsing Posts tagged Luke Hochevar

Knowing that Luke Hochevar was on the mound for the Royals in their second game of the Astro series, I prepared two leads:

Luke Hochevar was awful on Tuesday.

Or…

Luke Hochevar was brilliant on Tuesday.

It just seems like there’s no middle ground with this guy.

And by now, you know he was brilliant. Brilliant, as in, best start of the season, brilliant.

His curve was just outstanding. While his fastball was averaging 92 mph his curve was the perfect compliment, coming in at 79 mph with a ferocious break. Hochevar weaved both pitches in and out, throwing 33 fastballs and 32 curves. He got 22 strikes with each pitch. Excellent. Just excellent.

Hochevar is featuring his curve more than ever. It’s accounted for 16 percent of his pitches this year, compared to around eight percent two seasons ago.

In his post game presser, Yosty said that Hochevar was “getting back to being the pitcher we know he can be.” Yosty stressed Hochevar has three “core” pitches: Fastball, change and curve. And with those three working, Hochevar can be nasty.

Then, Yosty dropped this nugget: “He was relying too much on his cutter which was burning him.”

Oh, really?

I know we want to believe and buy into the “New and Improved” Hochevar, but please… The Royals keep throwing crap against the wall and hoping it sticks.

From the “he’s tipping his pitches” claim to the issues with runners on base, the Royals have identified (or made up) myriad reasons for why Hochevar has been awful. Have they addressed how his eyelids get jammed? It’s hysterical how many different ways the Royals have approached the guy.

So about that new, over-reliance on the cutter…

In Hochevar’s start for the Royals in the home opener – you know, the one where he stunk up the joint in the first and exited after giving up seven runs in four innings – he threw 70 pitches. Seven cutters.

In his start on May 1 against the Tigers where he allowed nine runs in four innings – and finished with a Game Score of 1 – he threw 75 pitches. Four cutters.

And in his start in his next turn in the rotation where he was knocked around by the Yankees in 2.1 innings to the tune of nine runs, Hochevar threw 51 pitches. Five cutters.

Look, I was fooled too. I thought it was his slider and his arm slot when throwing said slider. He’s not doing that anymore and seems to have moved away from his slider in his recent starts. He’s done pretty well in a couple of those. Hell, Hochevar has frustrated me so much, I don’t know what to think anymore.

And neither do the Royals.

What just kills me about this organization is that they think they can throw some BS out there and just because Yosty or GMDM says it, it’s true. Cutters? My ass. That has as much to do with Hochevar’s struggles as the financial problems in Greece and Spain.

(Although I would love for Yost to say something like, “Hochevar’s really been troubled by his investments in the Euro zone, particularly the south. Hell yes, it’s affecting his performance.” Don’t think that can’t happen.)

Hochevar has been fixed more times than Joan Rivers’ face.

Yet the Hochevar fix is never permanent. Rivers is frozen in time. Both scare the hell out of me.

I’ve come to accept Hochevar for what he is: A maddening starting pitcher where he’s liable to be brilliant in one start and awful in the next. On Tuesday he was brilliant. His best start of the season. It saved the bullpen and got the Royals the win, pulling them closer to .500. Huge.

And he did it on the back of 17 cutters.

He gets the gold star, but don’t try to sell me that he can do this on a consistent basis. Because he can’t.

On contention

Shortly after the final out was recorded, my Twitter feed exploded with celebratory notes about being 4.5 games out of first.

Hold on…

I understand where we’ve come from with this team. All these years of losing baseball wears you down. When you’re within sniffing distance of first, you tend to get giddy.  Excited. However, there’s a couple of issues we have to deal with before we can discuss contention.

For starters, the Royals current .455 winning percentage is the third worst in the AL. Yes, the Central sucks, but there’s a certain crazy amount of parity going on in the league. That will happen with the unbalanced schedule and the three division setup.  They have to leapfrog three teams. Not an easy task. Besides, entering play on Tuesday, the Royals playoff odds stood at 0.8 percent. There’s still a ton of baseball to be played.

Also, the starting pitching still has a long, long way to go. If you are throwing Sanchez, Mazarro and Mendoza out there you’re fighting an uphill battle. We’ve beaten this dead horse until it became reincarnated and died again, but this is a huge issue. You can’t win without decent starting pitching.

And finally, the offense has been… Not good. They rank ninth with a .318 OBP and ninth with a .394 slugging percentage. They’ve brought home 13 percent of all baserunners, among the worst rates in the league. They’ve also run into 28 outs on the bases, the most in the league. The Royals are scoring 3.9 runs per game, second worst in the league. I know everyone thinks Sal Perez is going to be some sort of offensive savior, but that’s not likely. Nor is it likely Wil Myers can rake in Kansas City the way he’s doing in Omaha. At least initially.

There are some serious holes with this club. Yes, they are 4.5 games out despite these problems. But baseball has a way of leveling the field, so to speak. Teams can’t survive the full 162 games on smoke and mirrors.

So ask yourself… Is this team developing, or are they built for contention? Answer honestly.

The stakes are enormous. You can’t afford to be wrong in your assessment. Most of us should remember 2003 when the Royals effectively went all in. We convinced ourselves we were close. Allard Baird was convinced. David Glass was convinced. Turns out we weren’t so close. And it set us back in a bad way. We thought they were built for contention.

Myself, I think this team is still developing. They need to get Wil Myers up sometime in July and – this is tremendously important – they need to get some starting pitching. Internal, free agent, trade… Whatever. This has to happen. If Dayton Moore attacks the market this winter (a prospect that makes me tremendously nervous) the timetable could be bumped to 2013. If Moore chooses to wait on his internal options (which appear to be shrinking) the timeline moves to 2014.

I still have the Tigers as the prohibitive favorites in the division. They’ve won seven of their last 10 and are showing signs of life. Someone is going to go on a roll and move ahead of the rest of the teams in this division. That team will have to have power and starting pitching. I don’t think that team will be the Royals. My money is still on the Tigers.

I know my opinion won’t be popular with some of you. Don’t confuse my thoughts of contention with a dislike of this team. I love the way they’ve battled back recently. And I love the way they’ve seemingly erased the brutality of that 12 game losing streak. There’s plenty to like on this team. But there’s still some epic holes.

I’m still with my team. I just think they’re still a year or two away.

Mitch Maier leads off the inning against John Axford and makes like a cricket batsman.

Axford threw a wicked googly. A little too wicked.

Really, no clue what Maier was doing, but whatever… Down a run in the ninth you have to do whatever it takes to reach base. That qualifies.

Mike Moustakas follows with a rocket down the first base line that first baseman Cody Ransom kicks and his only play is at first. Not an error because he got an out, but it had the makings of a 3-6-3 double play. Moose hit it hard enough and Ransom could have stepped forward to make the throw – he’s left handed, so it would have been a quick transfer – and returned to the bag in time to get Moose. Maybe, maybe not.

So the tying run moves to scoring position. Wednesday’s hero, Alcides Escobar can’t do it two nights in a row and strikes out on a nice slider.

That brings up Jarrod Dyson. I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Dyson is a nice player if he’s your 25th man on the bench. I can live with him as a pinch runner and a defensive replacement for a Melky-like outfielder. The dude is striking out looking in 54 percent of his strikeouts. Not good. Tells me the guy isn’t seeing the ball worth a damn. Or isn’t confident in his abilities to make contact.

Thankfully, the bat didn’t leave his shoulder. I mean, if I’m a Brewer fan, that would kill me. Axford has to throw strikes in that situation and the game is over. No way Dyson is making contact and the odds are strong he won’t even attempt to swing. And Axford wasn’t even close.

Which is key because the Royals speed merchant is the winning run.

Thankfully the Royals pinch hit Brayan Pena for Quintero. Pena swings at a high strike, then goes with a fastball and lines it into right left. Maier scores easily, but Pena is going to get hung up between first and second. That was going to be a base running blunder to send the game to extras. Except the Brewers second baseman can’t handle the throw… Dyson had stopped at third and breaks for home. Late throw…

Pandemonium.

Awesomeness.

(I had a moment of clarity this morning on my daily run… There were two outs in the inning and Pena’s run didn’t mean a thing. Maybe the correct play there is for the shortstop to put the ball in his back pocket. To not force the play. Sure, they could have gotten the out, and sure the top of the order was due up for the Royals, but the risk was going to be there that they couldn’t make the play. Which is exactly what happened… However, with first base open, the Brewers could have walked Gordon to pitch to Getz. Pena forced the issue… As I’ve always said, there’s a fine line between aggressive and stupid. There wasn’t going to be any grey area on Pena’s going to second. Turned out aggressive worked… For once.)

It’s possible the end overshadowed a fine performance by Luke Hochevar. I’ve dissected and given up on Hochevar, but give credit where credit is due… His performance was outstanding.

And he did it without his slider. According to PITCH f/x, Hochevar threw a total of three sliders on Thursday. Three. It was his curveball that did the heavy lifting.

He threw 23 curves, 17 for strikes. Five of those were put in play and he recorded three ground outs (one was a double play), one fly out and one lonely single. Yes, he coughed up a couple of home runs, but I’m going to cut him some slack. He was pitching so well and keeping runners off the bases that those bombs were solo shots.

In innings one through six, the most pitches he threw in an inning was 13. The model of efficiency.

His final line:

7.1 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 SO

That 7.1 innings pitched represents the longest outing by a Royals starter this year. Five times had a starter thrown seven innings (Bruce Chen has done it three times. Felipe Paulino and Hochevar each have one outing.) That’s unreal. This rotation…

And now that the bats have gone back into hibernation, starts like Hochevar are necessary to keep this team in the game. Yeah, I’m Captain Obvious, but if Hochevar has one of his patented meltdown innings, this walkoff doesn’t happen.

But it did.

So there.

Sweep.

Sure, it’s nice to take two of three from the White Sox, but the last thing you want to see is Danny Duffy exiting just three batters into the game.

Not good. Not good at all.

According to the Royals website, Duffy felt a “twinge” in his elbow on his second pitch of the game. He lasted 11 more pitches before he was pulled.

The warning signs have been there… He had a start skipped at the end of April and in his return against the Yankees on May 3, Ned Yost said Duffy, “couldn’t command his curveball at all, but he was overpowering with his fastball.” This jives with an elbow problem… The pitcher with a sore elbow has issues with location. Velocity isn’t usually affected. Indeed, much has been made of Duffy’s velocity this season. According to PITCH f/x data collected by FanGraphs, Duffy’s fastball is averaging 95.3 mph this season. That’s second only to Stephen Strasburg. (Impressive, although we have to note prior to Sunday, four of Duffy’s five starts have been at home, where the radar gun runs a little on the warm side.)

Anyway, after having difficulty commanding the curve in his first start since being skipped, Duffy really struggled in his next outing. Against the Red Sox on May 8, he walked five and consistently missed his spots up in the zone. He threw 102 pitches, but couldn’t get out of the fifth inning.

Then Sunday happened.

Now Duffy is back in Kansas City where he will get an MRI on the elbow. We hope for the best, but it’s likely he’s been dealing with this issue since his start against the Blue Jays on April 22. That start was like his outing against the Red Sox… Duffy walked five and couldn’t get out of the fifth inning while throwing 113 pitches.

I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think the MRI is going to bring good news. Best case scenario is a DL stint where rest is the prescription. Worst case… I’m not going to go there right now.

— The Duffy issue overshadows a late inning outburst where the Royal bats went berzerk hanging nine runs on the Sox in the final third of the game. Is it weird that the Royals have yet to have a double digit scoring game this year? Seems so. On Sunday, a ninth inning explosion where the Royals scored six runs and pushed their game total to nine, matched their previous high scoring game – a 9-11 loss against Cleveland. That was in the season opening homestand we no longer discuss.

The Royals didn’t have much life before Johnny Giavotella pinch hit for Chris Getz in the with two on and two out in the seventh.

For the record: I would much rather see Gio in the lineup instead of Getz. However, Getz has provided some value at the plate this year. He’s not a long term answer, but why not let him play everyday – even against the lefties. On the other hand, it doesn’t make any sense to call Gio up and not play him at least five or six times a week. But this is the Royals we’re talking about. Hardly any of their roster moves make sense. You already have Irving Falu up as your utility infielder, so why bring up another second baseman? It seems you either play Giavotella or find another platoon partner for Getz.

(Meanwhile, doesn’t all of this render The Yunigma irrelevant? Just a dreadful signing by GMDM and company. Actually, to call it dreadful doesn’t do it justice.)

— Yosty finally got around to shoving Eric Hosmer down in the batting order. About time. Hosmer got the day off in the finale of the Red Sox series to allow for two consecutive days away (the off day between Sox series) which made sense. Give him a mental break and a chance to simply think about getting in some work. Just like it makes sense to drop him in the order. Give him a few days with a different kind of look in the lineup and see what happens.

I know there’s a growing set of the fan base that advocates a trip to Omaha for Hosmer. I disagree. He showed last summer he’s a major league first baseman. Yes, this is a painful slump, but he needs to figure out how to work himself out of it at the major league level. He scorched Triple-A pitching last year for a month or so and more than held his own in the bigs.

Besides, don’t forget the guy still has a .171 BABIP. That number hasn’t moved in the last week. His strikeout rate is down. His walk rate is up. He just needs to have some of these hits fall in. They will.

— Jeff Francoeur hit his first home run of the year. Our long, national nightmare is over.

— Naturally, Luke Hochevar went out on Saturday and tossed seven innings of three-hit ball, walking a single batter while striking out five.

In my post from Friday, I noted that Hochevar’s issues were with his slider and how his release point shifted from the second half of last year. In the game on Saturday, his release point was fairly consistent with where it has been all season. And according to PITCH f/x, that was a relatively flat pitch. In fact, of the 21 sliders he threw, seven were put in play and five were fouled off. Hochevar didn’t get a single swing and miss with this pitch.

In this start, he recorded nine ground ball outs against seven fly balls. Hochevar lived around the plate and the Sox were up there hacking. On Saturday, it was a perfect storm of location, aggressive plate appearances and the damp, rainy afternoon.

— The Royals are 10-6 since that losing streak we don’t discuss.

Toward the end of last season, I wrote about Luke Hochevar and how I felt he turned the proverbial corner in his underwhelming career. Success, I thought, hinged on the development of a slider as his out pitch. It was so impressive, I dubbed it the Atomic Slider.

Players go on streaks. They can fool fans into thinking a player is better (or worse) than he really is. Given Hochevar’s underwhelming career up to July 2011, it was easy to look at his solid second half and dismiss it as just a hot streak. A guy who made some quality pitches, got on a roll and rode it to a higher strikeout rate and a lower ERA. As someone who likes to look beyond the numbers, I thought there was more to Hochevar’s hot streak than just blind luck. It was the slider, damnit.

In the post from last year, I noted Hochevar began dropping his release point on the slider. This accomplished two things. First, it provided deception as it was leaving his hand at the same point as his sinking fastball. Second, the pitch had a tighter spin, therefore a stronger break.

The results were amazing. After getting a swing and a miss just 12 percent of the time on his slider in the first half, his swing and miss rate leapt to 23 percent once he dropped his release point. Even more impressive was that when Hochevar threw his slider in the second half, he threw it for a strike 74 percent of the time. It was a devastating pitch where his strikeout rate jumped from 4.6 SO/9 in the first half to 7.7 SO/9 in the second half.

So you can understand why I dubbed it the Atomic Slider.

Even better, because this was a mechanical change, I figured it was something he could repeat. This wasn’t blind luck. There was something concrete we could point to as a reason for success. Maybe he wouldn’t throw the slider for a strike three quarters of the time, but if he could keep that whiff rate above 20 percent, he would evolve into an anchor of what figured to be a shaky rotation. I never went so far to think Hochevar was a number one type (an ace, if you will) but I figured he could be a decent number two.

I was wrong.

Before we go further, let’s look at some charts from Texas Leaguers. The first one, is the release point of his slider in the first half of 2011.

Contrast that to the release points from the second half of last season:

You can see how he lowered his release point. Again, it was the key to his second half surge.

Now, we know how brutal Hochevar has been in 2012. Awful. Terrible. Pick a negative adjective and that’s our Hochevar.

That Atomic Slider? It’s a dud.

Here’s his release point in his starts so far this year.

He’s back to where he was to open the 2011 season. For the love of Steve Carlton, what has he done to his slider? Here are the vital stats on his Unatomic Slider:

The key takeaway from the above table is the horizontal movement – or the “slide” of the slider. Hochevar was getting a little over 2 feet of movement from release to the catcher’s glove at the start of 2011. When he dropped his arm angle, he added a half foot of movement. A huge jump. It should be noted that the average major league slider has a horizontal break of around 2.5. Suddenly, Hochevar possessed a pitch that hitters couldn’t reach.

This year, he’s lost his second half gains from 2011 and knocked off another quarter foot of movement for good measure. His above average slider is now decidedly below average.

Don’t believe me? Check the results on his slider:

Yes, he’s throwing his 2012 slider for strikes, but that’s because they’re catching more of the plate because they lack horizontal movement. His percentage of sliders fouled off and in play has increased. According to FanGraphs Pitch Type Linear Weights, his slider last year was worth 3.42 runs saved, making it his best pitch in his arsenal. This year, that number is 0.41.

This chart from FanGraphs puts the issue into a broader perspective. The red dots are the average horizontal movement per start of his slider. Note how low his movement was in 2009. Further, find the uptick in movement in the middle of 2011. Finally, look where he is in 2012. Not good.

Hochevar just can’t find the consistency of his slider, and it seems to be affecting the rest of his game. He doesn’t have the mental fortitude to battle through an outing where he struggles with what should be his best pitch. To me, it all falls back on the release point. And for some reason, looking at the above chart, if Hochevar’s slider is flat, all of his pitches are flat. If one pitch is crushable, all his other pitches are crushable. Awful.

While I’ve highlighted the decline of Hochevar’s slider, that’s not the only pitch he’s “lost.” His fastball and his change are getting hammered. His batting average on balls in play is an astronomical .385 and his strand rate is an abysmally low 50%. Obviously, those numbers will regress to the mean over the course of the next five months. But that’s dependent on Hochevar not pitching with his head jammed up his backside. Besides, in his case the mean is still a below average pitcher.

I’ve officially thrown in the towel on Hochevar. He found success, but can’t figure out how to repeat it. One step forward and two giant leaps back. It’s maddening. And frustrating. And just a pain in the ass. He’ll have a decent start at some point and the Royals PR machine will stumble into overdrive to tell us how Hochevar has turned the corner or some such nonsense. Don’t believe it.

Sadly, a winter where the largest addition to the rotation was Jonathan “Ball Four” Sanchez, there’s little alternative the Royals have but to keep throwing Hochevar and his Unatomic Slider out there every fifth day. I figure for the rest of the season we’ll see a pattern of one decent start, one of average quality and two stinkers. He just doesn’t have it within himself to be a consistent, successful starting pitcher.

When Luke Hochevar stepped to the mound yesterday afternoon to start the third inning, it was the beginning of his 614th career major league inning.  Six runs and just two outs later, Hochevar’s day was done and it marked the end of this writer holding out hope that Hochevar will ever be something more than what he basically is.

Through 613.2 innings, Hochevar has a career 5.46 earned run average.  He has allowed 662 hits and 70 home runs, while striking out 5.9 batters per nine innings and walking 3.1 per nine.   Through 706 innings (which is everything but his truly horrible 2011 campaign), Kyle Davies allowed 792 hits, 92 home runs, struck out 6.3 per nine and walked 4.3 per nine; pitching to a 5.49 earned run average.   Davies was a very poor major league starting pitcher and Luke Hochevar is better than him…but not by a wide margin.

To be fair, Hochevar’s career FIP is 4.40 and his xFIP is 4.29, which would seem to indicate that he is, or at least should be, a better pitcher than his traditional numbers imply.   That said, Hochevar does not pass the eye test any longer.   He is an inconsistent pitcher who, after 600 major league innings, does not look much different than he did after 129 major league innings.

Hochevar has made six starts this season and in three has failed to get past the fourth inning.  In those three starts, Luke has allowed SEVEN earned runs twice and NINE another time.   This is not a ‘rut’ or a ‘rough patch’, this is bad, bad pitching. 

Last year, after the All-Star Break, Hochevar threw 79 innings, allowing 66 hits, struck 68, walked 24 and posted a 3.52 ERA.   That run came on the heels of two starts where Luke allowed 11 runs over 8 innings.   He has been awful before and gotten better.   Heck, pull the game logs from any of Luke’s seasons and you can find a string of bad starts and a string of good starts.  You can find some truly masterful games and some truly horrific outings.   You can find them in each and every season and that’s the point:  it isn’t getting any better. 

In fact, it might be getting worse.

Short of the three season ending starts for Hochevar way back in 2009, where he allowed 21 earned runs in a combined 14 innings, this stretch of three awful starts in six tries might well be the worst of Luke’s career.   They come at a time when many of us believed that Hochevar had or at least should be turning the corner and becoming a consistent middle of the rotation starter.

He is 28 years old and 600 innings into his career, coming off a 2011 season where he made 31 starts and threw 198 innings.   THIS was the year.     Apparently, 2012 is the year we all become convinced that Hochevar will never be more than a fringe rotation contributor.   The guy at the front of the line to be replaced if Mike Montgomery and his new release point come of age in Omaha.

I know what you might be saying.   Just a couple weeks back I was still on the Hochevar bandwagon.  He had three decent starts out of four and seemed to have discovered increased effectiveness through the increased use of his off-speed pitches.   You might also offer that as bad as Luke’s three starts have been, he has given his team a chance to win half the time he takes the mound and that every starter has bad starts.

Every starter does have bad starts and they might well end up being tagged for seven runs at times, but consistently all in one inning?  Three runs in the second, one in the third and two in the fourth add up to six runs and a bad outing, but six runs in the third buries your team.  Chances are six runs however you slice them ends up in a loss, but I like my chances a lot better if they don’t come in one demoralizing inning.  Down 3-0 in the second and 4-1 in the third is not the Mount Everest for your hitters to climb that 6-1 in the third is.

At one time or another, at one level or another, we have all played baseball.   Three to nothing is a walk, a double and a single away from being back in the game.   Six to one is forever and back to get into the game.   It affects how your hitters approach their at-bats and how your fielders play their positions. 

Three times out of six, Luke Hochevar has buried his team.   Three times out of six, he has given the Kansas City Royals virtually zero chance to win a game.   Bruce Chen was tagged for six on Friday night, but he gave the Royals six innings to try to do something against C.C. Sabathia.   Hochevar gave his team just two innings on Sunday to try to master the struggling Phil Hughes before the game became academic.

So, Luke my friend, I am done.   Done analyzing your cutter and your pitch selection and getting hopeful when you string together two or three good starts.  I’m done because I know for every start where you go seven strong innings, there is a four inning/five run outing just around the corner (or worse).   I am done, because after six hundred innings you probably are who you are.

Now, the Royals don’t really have an option at this point and likely would not use it to replace Hochevar even if they did.   I am not calling for Luke’s immediate removal from the starting rotation because Mike Montgomery is not ready, Jake Odorizzi is in AA, Nate Adcock is not likely (at this point) to be any more consistent and neither is Everett Teaford.   Vin Mazzaro?  Well, would he be an upgrade?

Nope, Hochevar will make more starts for this team.  He might well make about 25 more this year and some of them will be quite good.   When 2012 ends, some may still believe that Luke Hochevar will be a valuable member of what is hopefully a contending rotation in seasons to come.  I think that is wrong thinking.  Hochevar is who he is and, should Luke get on a run in June or July, Dayton Moore would be wise to shop him for something…anything to a team with pitching woes and high hopes.

xxx

 

 

It was over almost before it began. It took Luke Hochevar eight batters to record his first (and second) out of the game on Tuesday. It was the second time in five starts he’s allowed the opposition to put up a crooked number in the first frame. It’s almost becoming habit.

Here, for your reading pleasure, is a batter by batter breakdown of the carnage.

1 – Austin Jackson

Hochevar starts with a slider and falls behind 2-0 and 3-1 to the Tigers leadoff man. Once he fell behind to Jackson, Hochevar went exclusively to his fastball, except for a 3-2 cut fastball. That is pitch number six down the heart of the plate. I’m thinking Jackson fouled it off because he was looking fastball. That pitch was 88 mph, instead of Hochevar’s typical 92 mph heater.

The next pitch was thigh-high fastball that was grounded back up the middle for a single.

2 – Brennan Boesch

Hochevar actually makes a decent pitch – an 0-1 change that was low and away in the strike zone. Boesch was out in front and dribbles a ground ball to right. Yuniesky Betancourt was shading up the middle, but shows his amazingly horrible lack of range going to his left and can’t make a play. He should have made the play. Hochevar probably knows this. Instead of one out and a runner on second, we have two on with nobody out.

I cannot understate this – Yuniesky Betancourt is Public Enemy Number One.

3 – Miguel Cabrera

How dumb of a pitch is this?

The answer: Exceptionally dumb.

4 – Prince Fielder

As bad as the pitch was to Cabrera, the pitch to Fielder wasn’t bad. It was a curveball, down and out of the strike zone. And it should have resulted in an out. Except Eric Hosmer decided to make a play at the plate and airmailed the throw. Two runs score. Still no outs.

A really dumb decision from Hosmer. He double-clutched pulling the ball out of his glove and still tried to come home. And he was playing back. The correct play would have been to take the ball to the bag for the easy out. This isn’t hindsight, this is fact.

5 – Andy Dirks

A sinking fastball that hangs in the upper half of the strike zone. Dirks squares it up and Jarrod Dyson misplays the liner allowing Prince Fielder to score from second.

Going back, that was a big error by Hosmer. Had he gone to first to get Fielder out, a run would have scored but the Royals would have had an out in their back pocket. Another run would have scored on the Dirks liner, but at that point the Royals would have been down by three with one out. Instead, they were down four with no outs.

Tiger announcers were discussing how they thought Hochevar’s ankle was bothering him. He wasn’t comfortable landing on his left ankle and that was leading to him keeping the ball up in the zone. I’ll buy that.

6 – Alex Avila

Hochevar starts Avila out with a change-up taken down the heart of the plate. Good pitch because he had yet to throw a change to start an at bat. I say good pitch, but the location sucked. Had Avila been able to pull the trigger on that, he would have put it into orbit. The selection is what makes it a good pitch. Then he followed that with a cut fastball down the middle that Avila was able to drive into center.

The cutter was in Avila’s wheelhouse. He’s a low ball hitter, especially pitches down the center of the plate. Here is Avila’s chart detailing his hitting zones:

Just a horrible location for Hochevar.

7 – Jhonny Peralta

Discouraging because Hochevar had him down 0-2 with back to back curveballs. He went with a belt-high slider that Peralta went with and took to right field for a single and a five run lead.

Ahead 0-2, Hochevar controlled the at bat. By hanging a slider on the outer half to a right-handed batter, he essentially surrendered control.

8 – Ramon Santiago

Finally. Solid execution. Santiago can’t lay off the pitches high and away. And when he makes contact on those pitches, he doesn’t do much with them. Hochevar delivers two pitches up and away. Santiago takes the first one, but can’t resist the second.

Double play. I’m sure in the pregame planning session, the Royals told Hochevar to attack Santiago up and away. (At least they should have… As I said, that’s his weak spot.) Locate your pitches and good things can happen.

9 – Don Kelly

Nice sequence here from Hochevar. Starting Kelly high in the zone with a curve for a strike. Then following that with a pitch in the dirt. His 22nd pitch of the inning was popped to Mike Moustakas for the third out.

For the inning, Hochevar threw 17 strikes and five balls. Two of his strikes were actually hits on swings that likely would have been called out of the zone – the curve to Fielder and a curve to Peralta. Regardless, he was leaving just a ton of pitches in the meat of the plate. Just awful location.

The worst pitch was probably the meatball served to Cabrera. I really, really hate how the Royals announcers mention the small sample size of hitter versus pitcher matchups. But in the case of Hochevar versus Cabrera, it may be worth noting that in 31 plate appearances, the Tigers third baseman has collected 15 hits and owns a 1.376 OPS. If a good pitcher makes a mistake like Hochevar made to Cabrera, he’s going to punish the ball. And when he already has strong numbers against that pitcher… Yeah.

The best pitch was the double play ball delivered to Santiago. As I mentioned, that was the one plate appearance where Hochevar had what resembled a game plan.

The bad break was on the curve to Fielder. He got him to chase – which was what he wanted – and his defense let him down.

I’ve written about Hochevar at length and bought into the fantasy that he had altered his delivery in a manner that would bring him continued success. Cliff’s Notes version: He dropped the arm angle when he threw his slider which resulted in a tighter spin, which meant more break, which equalled second half success. The arm angle is still there. The results are not.

This is now the second time in five starts Hochevar has plunged his team into the depths of a first inning hole. It was as if the seven pitch at bat to Jackson took something out of him… It was the first seven pitches of the freaking game. Check out Hochevar’s velocity chart (courtesy of Brooks Baseball) and see how his speed dips immediately following the first batter.

How does that happen? He delivers three pitches to Jackson 92 mph or higher and can’t reach that speed until he gets the double play ground ball against Santiago. Meanwhile, Tiger batters are having their way with him. Again, how does that happen?

Yes, there was some bad luck involved in this inning. But a good pitcher can overcome something like that to regain control. Hochevar needed eight batters to right the ship on Tuesday night. By then, the ballgame was over.

Unacceptable.

Eight runs last night for the Kansas City Royals on four home runs.  That’s pretty much what one might have expected before the season started, right?  Billy Butler with two blasts, Eric Hosmer with his fifth of the year and Alex Gordon with the bomb to put the game away while the bullpen polished off the last two plus innings:  pretty much the pre-season gameplan.

While the offense stole the show in the streak stopper last night, Luke Hochevar had a fine outing.  The home opener disaster that Luke provide Royals’ fans on April 13th has tainted the view of him thus far in 2012.   Last night was his second very good start and third decent start out of four this season.  He’s no Bruce Chen, mind you, but Hochevar has actually been alright.

Luke opened the season throwing 6.1 innings against the Angels, allowing five hits and two runs.   After being knocked out, in more ways than one, in the home opener, Hochevar game back the following Friday to allow just two hits and a run in five innings of work.   Then last night, Luke tossed another 6.1 innings, allowing just four hits and two runs.  We may all want Hochevar to live up to that first overall draft pick status, but truth is that three out of four ain’t bad.

Let’s go back to last night. 

Pitch F/X via Brook’s Baseball classified Luke as throwing five different pitches last night (six in his first three starts):  four seam fastball, sinker, changeup, slider and curve.   The sixth pitch not used last night but used quite a bit by Hochevar in his first three starts was the cutter.   Now, you can call the sinker whatever you want (two seamer maybe?), but it is as fast or faster than Hochevar’s four seam fastball, and for the purposes of this column they are all fastballs.

Last night, Hochevar threw 47 fastballs, 29 sliders, 13 curves and 8 changeups.    Off his fastball offerings, 28 were strikes, and 22 of his 29 sliders were strikes with six of those being whiffs.   Luke only found the strike zone once with his change and half the time with his curveball.  

This season, the changeup has mostly been a ‘here’s something to think about pitch’ for Hochevar.   In his four starts, Luke has thrown it 4, 9, 9 and 8 times and hence it is not a huge part of his game.    So, let’s take that out of the equation for now as well.

The cutter, not used at all according to the data last night, was a good pitch for Hochevar earlier.  He threw it 14 times for 8 strikes (2 whiffs) on April 7th and threw it for virtually identical numbers in his third start.   In the debacle that was Friday April 13th, Hochevar offered it up seven times for five strikes.  An effective cutter helped Hochevar in his good start on the 7th an decent start on the 20th, but was not a part of his good outing last night.    Now, it is also possible that the cutter gets classified as a slider or vice-versa, but we could add them all together and only add more to the point that I am about to make below.

So, now we’re down to fastballs, curveballs and sliders. 

Compare the pitch counts of these pitches from Hochevar’s starts on April 7th (shown first) and last night:  two very good and very similar nights.

  • Fastballs – 43/47
  • Sliders – 21/29
  • Curves – 13/13

Okay, now look at the pitch usage from the awful start on the 13th:

  • Fastballs – 41
  • Sliders – 6
  • Curves – 7

Here is the interesting thing about the dramatic disparity in pitch selection:  the strike percentage of those three pitches is actually almost the same between the starts on the 7th, 13th and last night.   While Luke was getting lit up in Kaufmann Stadium, he three five of six sliders for strikes, 29 of 41 fastballs for strikes and three of seven curves.   Of course, ‘hits’ are considered strikes, so it is possible that Luke threw some pretty crappy sliders and fastballs (well, it’s not possible, he DID) on the 13th.

What should not be lost in this equation is when Hochevar offers up sliders somewhere at or above 20% of the time, he has been very effective this season.   Looking back at 2011, Hochevar barely threw the slider at all in April, May and June of that season (less than 5%), but gradually started using it more and more after that and was throwing it 18% of the time in September.

If want to lump the slider and cutter together as one ‘genre of a pitch’, Hochevar threw 35 on the 7th, 33 on the 20th and 29 last night, but only 13 on April 13th.  Call it what you want, but Hochevar need to command it and throw it often to be successful.

You can go back into 2011 and note that in the first three months and find that twenty percent of Hochevar’s pitches were being classified as cutters.   If you add that to the sliders, the percentages really don’t change that much over 2011, but something did change.   Starting in July of 2011, Hochevar either threw the slider more or changed his cutter enough to make the data reflect a change in pitch.  Hey, if the computers see it different, so do the hitters.

The change worked last season and, through four starts this year, when Hochevar uses that pitch often he is effective.   It was not used often or effectively on April 13th and we all saw the results.   Throw the slider, Luke, throw it often.

xxx

 

 

 

A minor Twitter kerfuffle erupted on Tuesday when Deadspin published excerpts from each of the 30 team chapters of the latest Baseball Prospectus Annual. Publishing excerpts isn’t exactly noteworthy. Except in this case, they were accompanied by a projected win/loss record.

And the Royals were projected to finish with a 68-94 record.

Ouch.

That’s three wins less than last year’s total. And the lowest projected total in the American League.

PECOTA hates the Royals. And PECOTA probably hates you.

Full disclosure: You may know, I’ve written off and on at Baseball Prospectus for the last two years. This year, I wrote the player profiles and the team essay for the Royals. Undoubtedly the highlight of my blogging career.

Many Tweets encapsulated anger and a feeling of injustice. (As much as you can in 140 characters, counting hashtags.) It was like watching someone mourn a lost loved one. All the stages of grief were there:

Denial – Oh, no… Baseball Prospectus released some projections. They hate the Royals… I’m not going to click that link. If I don’t click, maybe it will go away.

Anger – 68 wins? Who the hell do these geeks think they are? I will kick their collective, scrawny ass. Then, I will trash them anonymously on Twitter. Screw Baseball Prospectus.

Bargaining – Maybe the projections are wrong. I mean, they’re not always right, are they? I’ll give someone my All-Star Game ticket if we could just finish at .500.

Depression – Players are hurt, Chris Getz is starting and we still have no starting pitching… we’re going to suuuuuuuck.

Acceptance – If the Royals only win 68 games, there’s no way Ned Yost returns in 2013. Maybe that’s no so bad.

Really, there are gajillion different variables that go into the PECOTA projections. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I kind of doubt it. Even though I’ve written at BP, I’m not allowed in the secret room with the formula. If I nudge a decimal, the Earth shifts off it’s axis and becomes one of Saturn’s moons.

Here’s a brief explanation as to why PECOTA hates the Royals.

– The starting pitching will be awful. PECOTA pegs the Royals staff as allowing 855 runs. That’s epically awful. Last year, Baltimore coughed up more runs than any team in baseball with 860. The Twins were second worst at 804 runs allowed. No other team surrendered more than 800 runs. There’s no way the Royals can compete for anything but a high draft pick if they land anywhere near this number.

Among starters, PECOTA feels that only Jonathan Sanchez and Bruce Chen will be above replacement level. They have Chen at a 0.0 WARP and Sanchez at 0.3 WARP. For reference, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander had a 6.0 and 5.8 WARP, respectively. Danny Duffy had a 0.5 WARP.

The starting five rounds out with Duffy at -0.1 WARP, Luke Hochevar at -0.3 WARP and Luis Mendoza at -0.7 WARP. That’s just a really bad starting rotation.

The funny thing is, I don’t agree with any of it.

First of all, PECOTA thinks that Sanchez will be the Royals top starter. No way. In fact, I’d wager of the five listed above, he’s the fourth or fifth best. They expect a steep drop from Chen and virtually no improvement from Duffy. I’m betting that Chen takes a step back in ’12, but I think it’s a small one. And Duffy… Man, I just don’t see how he doesn’t pitch better this season.

This is something that gets all the Lee Judge acylotes in an uproar… Projections don’t account for changes of a mechanical nature. Take Hochevar, for example. Last summer, Hochevar shifted his arm angle on his slider and developed that pitch into something that could be called above average. As I said before, I’m not privvy to the secret sauce of PECOTA, but I’m fairly certain it’s not taking into account his new arm angle, or the fact he upped the percentage he threw his slider. Instead, it’s looking at things like ballpark, age and past performance. I think if a player struggles in the first half, but has a strong second part of the season, but his overall numbers are weak, projections systems have a difficult time with that player.

– Six of the nine Royal regulars are projected to have a sub .325 on base percentage. Last year the league average was .321 OBP. Of the lineup, only Hosmer, Butler, Gordon and Chris Getz will top that mark. (Relax, Getz is the lowest of the four with a .324 projected OBP.) That’s a reversal from last summer, where six regulars topped a .329 OBP.

Gordon is projected to drop 24 points, which isn’t surprising given his past performance. Last year was his breakout, and projection systems have a difficult time buying into a guy who had over 1,600 plate appearances and outperformed his career averages by a large margin.

Meanwhile, Butler is projected for a .360 OBP, just one point below his 2011 mark. The last three seasons, Butler has been Mr. Consistent. His projected slash line of .294/.360/.453 almost exactly matches his career line of .297/.360/.458. While a player like Gordon is difficult to project due to the circumstances surrounding a “breakout” season, a player like Butler is the opposite. He’s so steady, it’s difficult to miss by much.

– Kansas City is going to experience another power outage. No Royal is projected to top 20 home runs. Hosmer and Gordon are the team leaders with 19 bombs and Butler and Moustakas are right behind them with 17. Last year, the Royals had five players top 18 long balls.

That combination of sub-par on base percentage and almost non-existent power means the Royals will struggle to score runs. PECOTA has them for 716 runs scored. That’s actually just off the 730 they scored last season.

Again, I don’t agree with all of the offensive projections. Butler aside, most of them seem very conservative.

Any projection system has hits and it has misses. And if you search hard enough, there are tons of projections available this time of year. If you must, look until you find one that fits your selection bias. In the meantime, take PECOTA for what it is… A projection. It’s something that can be fun to look at, but don’t take it at face value. Investigate. Try to decide if you agree or disagree. Dig around and see how they arrived at their projection. Most of all, be constructive in your criticism. “PECOTA sucks because they say the Royals are only going to win 68 games,” isn’t helpful. But if you say, “I disagree with PECOTA because I think our pitching is going to be better than they project, because…”

Do I think the Royals are better than a 68 win team? Yes. Do I think they’ll win 80? No. I’m still kicking around some win totals in my mind. That post comes on Friday… Opening Day, when we call our shot.

Play ball.

Hang on everyone, we are finally, FINALLY in the final week of spring training.  It is a good feeling to know that next Monday I will have actual regular season games to write about!  I am pretty sure that there is not a Royals’ fan out there who isn’t tired of debating roster moves, nicknames, and what spring training really means, so let’s have a little fun today and throw out some over/unders for the coming season.

Eric Hosmer Home Runs

Anyone not think Hosmer is the real deal?  We have all fallen prey to overestimating the potential of more than one prospect over the years, but I am not sure any one player has seemed so destined for stardom in a Royals’ uniform since we saw Carlos Beltran come up.   There has been a lot of talk about Hosmer threatening Steve Balboni’s club record of 36 homers and I think that one year either Hosmer or Mike Moustakas probably will bust through that long standing number.  However, I don’t think 2012 is going to be the year.

The over/under on Hosmer homers is 29.

Alex Gordon’s OPS+

I know some of you are not all that keen on sabermetrics, but it is a tidy way to quantify a player’s offensive contributions relative to the rest of the league.  Last year, Gordon posted a rather impressive OPS+ of 140.   For reference, his OPS+ from his rookie season forward were: 90, 109, 87 and 84.

Was 2011 a freak occurrence or the long awaited realization of Gordon’s potential?  I think the latter, but I also know that Gordon had a little bit of good fortune when it came to the beloved BABIP.   He might regress, but not a lot (at least I sure hope it is not a lot!).

The over/under for Gordon’s 2012 OPS+ is 129.

Luke Hochevar’s Innings Pitched

A couple of things come into play here.  The first is that 2011 was basically the first year Luke managed to go through the entire season without an injury.  The second is that unless you are the late Jose Lima, it is hard to pile up a lot of innings if you are not effective.   In my mind, the number of innings Hochevar throws will be a direct correlation to his effectiveness.

Last season, Luke threw 198 innings, using a strong second half to get his ERA to a marginally tolerable 4.68 by season’s end.  The Royals expect and quite frankly really, really, really need Hochevar to build on the success he enjoyed after the All-Star Break in 2011.  I’m cautiously optimistic.

The over/under on Hochevar’s innings pitched is 208.

Greg Holland’s Saves

Ned Yost has yet to commit to a full-time closer to replace the injured Joakim Soria and looks to be headed towards an early season combination of Holland and Jonathan Broxton.  I don’t mind that, but I think we may see Holland simply take the role over by sheer overpowering effectiveness sooner rather than later.  You have to give Dayton Moore credit on this one:  he drafted Holland in the 10th round with the idea that Greg would get to the majors quickly and be a possible closer.    You have to love it when a plan comes together.

The over/under on Mr. Holland’s saves is 31.

Billy Butler’s Extra Base Hits

I don’t agonize over Butler’s home run total like many do and I quite possibly could be wrong to not do so.  I do, however, monitor Billy’s overall extra base hit total.  Last season, Billy hit 63, the year before 60 and in 2009 he smacked 73 extra base hits.  The Royals could certainly use a big number in this category as Billy should see Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer on base when he comes to the plate with great regularity.  My hunch says that Billy amps it up this year.

The over/under is 71.

The Royals Starting Pitchers

Last season, Kansas City had 11 different pitchers start a game.  Let’s eliminate the September call-up situation to get to the crux of the issue.   How many pitchers will start a game prior to September 1st this year and, quite frankly, is it good or bad to have a higher number? 

There will certainly be an injury or two along the way, so you know Felipe Paulino gets some turns which puts you at six out of the gate.  Do we see Mike Montgomery?   Does Everett Teaford get a start or two or ten? 

The over/under is 8.

Alicdes Escobar’s on base percentage

With Salvador Perez out until June or so and not a single second baseman in the organization can seem to, you know, hit the ball, the Royals really need Escobar to improve his offensive game to keep the bottom of the order from becoming the ‘now’s a good time to go to the bathroom and get some nachos’ part of the game.   Escobar is never going to be Troy Tulowitzki at the plate, but he has to do a little more than get on base at a .290 clip.  We saw some signs of improvement over the latter half of the season, although much of that was due to one magical hot streak.

If Escobar focuses at the plate like he does in the field, stays within himself and goes with the pitch, he could emerge as at least a ‘hold your own’ type of guy at the plate.  The Royals really need him to do so.

The on-base percentage over/under for Escobar is .322.

Salvador Perez

Could the Royals have taken an injury hit in a worse area?  With Perez out with knee surgery, Kansas City will struggle at the catching position.  Imagine the boost if the Royals can hang around .500 into the summer and then have Perez return healthy to the lineup.

Nothing is better than being young and in shape, so I am hoping for a quicker than expected return out of Perez.

The over/under on the number of games Salvador Perez will catch in 2012 is 81.

And Finally, The Only Number That Matters

How many games will Kansas City win in 2012?  A lot of projections this spring put that number anywhere in the seventies.   We are all certainly hoping for better, but is that logical?   This is a young team with sketchy starting pitching and one that has already suffered two big injuries.    Almost everyone seems to think the Royals will hit, but truthfully Billy Butler is the only offensive player who is truly proven over time.   We all think the bullpen is lockdown solid, but relievers are just plain unpredictable.

Craig was optimistic on Friday and it has rubbed off on me.

The over/under on 2012 Kansas City wins is set at 82.

xxx

 

For the last couple of seasons, March has been… Well, it’s been a testy month here at Royals Authority. Maybe it’s the change of seasons. Maybe it’s the grind of meaningless spring training baseball. Whatever it is, this has been a month where everyone is on edge.

They say spring is a time for optimism. I’ll freely admit I’m not an optimist. Can’t do it. Not after lo these many years. But I’m not a pessimist either. I consider myself a realist. (Right now, there are people reading this paragraph at 1 Royals Way and coughing, “Bulls#!t.”) It’s true. I’m a realist at heart. You may disagree, but I like to think I call things like I see them. It’s an honest take of the team I love. It’s just that the negative sometimes outweighs the positive.

That’s unfortunate.

We’re so caught up in the Chris Getz Story and the knowledge that somehow the Royals are going to find a way to give Yuniesky Betancourt 500 plate appearances that we tend to overlook a few things. It’s the nature of the beast. We know Eric Hosmer is going to play and play well. What is there to say about him? He’s great. On the other hand, we have someone like Getz. Why? Sadly, the Royals have given us plenty of ammo.

Please don’t get caught up in my previous paragraph. You want to bitch about Getz today. Go someplace else. You want optimism? This is your place for Friday.

Here are some things I’m looking forward to in 2012…

— The continuing development of Eric Hosmer. When was the last time the Royals had a player with a ceiling of MVP?

— The possibility that Luke Hochevar truly turned the corner in the second half of 2011. For some reason, I’m irrationally bullish on Hochevar. By altering his arm angle ever so slightly, he’s added the deception – and movement – necessary to be a quality starter.

— The SS Jesus. Can’t wait for him to range to his left to snare a grounder up the middle, plant, spin and throw to beat the runner by a couple of steps.

— Brayan Pena smiling and giving his teammates high fives. If this was basketball, we would be describing Pena as a “glue guy.”

— The Lorenzo Cain Show. I am thrilled that this guy, who was buried all of last season (justifiably so, given the performance of the Royals outfield), is kicking ass in Surprise. I hope he brings some of those hits north with him next week.

— A1. Domination. The Sequel.

— Johnny Giavotella tearing up Triple-A pitching.

— The continued development of Danny Duffy. I just have this feeling that he’s this close to putting everything together. Needless to say, we can expect improvement over his 4.4 BB/9 and 4.82 FIP. There will be moments where the kid is going to struggle again this summer, but it won’t be as frequent. And the lows won’t be as low.

— The young arms of the bullpen. I thoroughly enjoy watching Aaron Crow, Everett Teaford, Louis Coleman and Kelvin Herrera pitch. It helps that they could be pretty good relievers. (Side note: I’m not upset that Coleman was sent to Omaha. Surprised, but not upset. The bullpen is a fungible beast. He’ll be back. Probably before the end of April.)

— The return of Salvador Perez. I’m counting down the weeks. So is every other Royals fan.

— Our Mitch. Because it wouldn’t feel like the Royals without him.

— Billy Butler’s annual pursuit of 50 doubles. Quite simply, Butler is the most consistent hitter on this team. And it’s not even close.

— Jeff Francoeur punching his teammates in the nuts after a walkoff. Crazy eyes!

— The late game tandem of Jonathan Broxton and Greg Holland. Holland is nails and you know I’m bullish on Broxton. It’s probably just my wide-eyed optimism that I think Broxton can be a servicable closer.

— The development of Mike Moustakas. He’s not the “sure thing” Hosmer is, so there’s a bit of a risk here, but we really need him to be the Moose of September and not the Moose of every other month.

Those are my positive thoughts heading into 2012. Fire away in the comments. Although in the spirit of optimism, I’ll ask that you only leave positive comments. Thanks.

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