Like seemingly everyone on the Royals this year, Luke Hochevar is entering his age twenty-seven season. There is a bit of mysticism surrounding that age in some baseball circles. At age twenty-seven lights are supposed to come on, career years are to be had, peaks (or more hopefully new plateaus) are supposedly reached.
The Royals could certainly use a breakout season from their Opening Day starter. Even if Luke Hochevar simply becomes a solid major league starter as opposed to an ace, it would still go a long way towards making the 2011 Royals a little more respectable than what we fear they might actually be.
The question, quite obviously, is can Luke Hochevar become something other than the guy who has compiled a 5.59 earned run average over his first 378 major league innings?
While it is not an exact science, Baseball Reference offers us comparable pitchers at the same age and it takes something a strong stomach to read the list when it comes to Hochevar’s age twenty-six comparables:
- Dan Wright
- Don Schulze
- Ryan Rupe
- John Thomson
- Doug Waechter
- Jose Acevedo
- Johnny Babich
- Mac Suzuki
- Joaquin Benoit
- Ryan Bowen
In case you were not sure just how disappointing that list is, only John Thomson managed to have any sort of real career as a starter. He started 146 games, threw 880 innings and posted an ERA of 4.42 after turning twenty-seven and actually had one very good year (age 30) in the middle of that. Benoit reinvented himself as a solid reliever and is still pitching, but the rest of that group pretty much spent their age twenty-seven and twenty-eight seasons playing themselves out of major league baseball.
However, if you squint just right and wake up in just the right mood, you can find some other pitchers who might give us some hope: Gil Meche and Chris Carpenter.
Admittedly it is a bit of stretch, but entering their age twenty-seven seasons, both Meche and Carpenter carried (to then) career numbers that included an average of 6 strikeouts per nine innings and over 3 walks per nine – same as Luke. In fact, Meche was walking four batters per nine innings.
Now, Meche by this age had tossed 628 innings and Carpenter has hurled almost 800. Both had career ERA’s a shade below five. Obviously, they were more experienced than Hochevar and, while neither had yet become the pitcher that would make them a lot of money, Meche and Carpenter had been more successful than Luke.
Carpenter had a miserable age twenty-seven season (5.28 ERA) that included a stint in the minors and ended in injury. He pitched in six minor league games in 2003 and then exploded as one of the premier pitchers in the National League in 2004. Meche, on the other hand, had a decent age twenty-seven season (4.48 ERA in 180+ innings) and parlayed that into his five year deal with the Royals. He proceeded to be a legitimate number two type pitcher for the next two and one-half years.
Let’s take liberty with age for a minute and add Wandy Rodriguez to the mix. In his first three seasons (ages twenty-five through twenty-seven), Rodriguez threw 440 innings with an ERA of 5.17, 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.6 walks. While older, Rodriguez was roughly at the same point in his career innings wise as Hochevar currently is. In the three seasons since, Rodriguez had compiled a 3.36 ERA, struck out over 8 batters per 9 innings and walked less than three.
Can Luke Hochevar emerge as another Meche or even Wandy Rodriguez? Will he sink into his dismal list of comparables and be lucky to have a John Thomson like career? Or will he simply continue on as Luke Hochevar, the guy who tantalizes us with strings of quality starts followed by a few poor runs? For that matter, can he even stay healthy for an entire season? Especially one spent at the front end of a major league rotation.
There is no science in any of the above. Some of you might come up with better or, depending on how you look at it, worse examples of pitchers at similar points in their careers who went in both directions. What will happen to Hochevar in 2011 remains to be seen.
Truth is, Hochevar could fall flat on his face and not really have an effect on what Dayton Moore is trying to build for 2013 and beyond. Of course, should Luke take a step forward into even ‘Meche territory’, it could help accelerate The Process and make even contending in 2012 at least a possibility.