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.