Coming into the season the Kansas City Royal’s bullpen was supposed to be a strongpoint of the team. With Greg Holland pitching decent but not great and Kelvin Herrera having major home run issues (3.77 HR/9), there could be some major shake-ups among the bullpen as we move into to the summer. While arms like Aaron Crow and to a lesser extent Tim Collins bring some intrigue, I find myself thinking that there is legitimate hope for Luke Hochevar to become a major impact in the pen for a team in the Royals who cannot afford to lose games late if they hope to be a playoff contender.
On the surface Hochevar, who is making 4.65 million dollars this season, has been impressive in the early going, posting a 0.79 ERA with 12 K’s over his first 8 appearances (11.1 IP). While this is obviously a very small sample, Hoch does appear to be a different pitcher than he was as a starter for the past five years. While you should expect an increase in velocity, Hochevar have displayed an impressive increase of velocity of almost 2 MPH difference, throwing his heater at 94.5 MPH. He has also increased velocity and usage of his cutter while essentially dropping his slider from his repertoire. His fastball has been effective this year, which may be part of the reason that he has shown good command thus far, allowing only three walks during the first month.
Beyond velocity, the second biggest change that I noticed was his severe drop in ground ball rate. While a) this is not necessarily a good thing and b) there is a major small sample caveat to go with this rate; Hochevar can sacrifice ground balls if he continues to strike people out and limit home runs. Hochevar has only given up one home run thus far this season, allowing Alexei Ramirez to go deep on opening day. Another reason I am less concerned about his miniscule 29.3% ground ball rate is his unsustainable but still impressive 23.1% infield fly rate. This means that Hoch is either striking out or inducing an infield fly to half of the batters he faces, and as far as I am concerned these are equally successful outcomes as base runners will not advance on either result. This insane infield fly rate can also help explain his 100% LOB% as well as his low .222 BABIP (his career BABIP is .302) as something other than plain luck.
While it may be foolish to trust Hochevar as a reliever moving forward I find myself convinced that it is possible. Ned Yost has said that Hochevar or Crow could see save chances on days that Greg Holland is unavailable, and I could see the Royals trusting a guy like Hochevar in some high leverage situations down the road in what the Royals hope is a very exciting season. In fact, it would not shock me to see Hochevar manning the closer role at some point, especially if Holland and Herrera show that they are not suited for that role this year.