Posted September 11, 2013

Luke Hochevar, Greg Holland headline Royals’ remade relief corps

Kansas City Royals
Luke Hochevar has transformed himself from failed starter to dominant reliever. [Hannah Foslien/Getty Images]

Luke Hochevar has transformed himself from failed starter into dominant reliever. [Hannah Foslien/Getty Images]

After the Indians’ Michael Bourn doubled home two runs in the seventh inning to cut their deficit to 5-3, Royals manager Ned Yost emerged from the visitors’ dugout. With the tying run coming to the plate and Kansas City opposing one of the clubs it’s chasing in the wild card standings, Yost needed to summon an unflappable shutdown reliever to face a dangerous in slugger Nick Swisher. As Yost walked toward the mound, one of the team’s broadcasters declared, “They’ve got to bring on Hoch.”

Closely consider that statement. In one of the biggest moment of one of the biggest games the Royals have played in a decade, it was obvious the club needed Luke Hochevar to enter a high-leverage situation, an assertion that, if made before 2013, would have been subjected to abundant ridicule throughout western Missouri and eastern Kansas. Hochevar, after all, was the ultimate flop, a former No. 1 overall pick who had flunked out of K.C.’s rotation with a five-plus ERA and whom many thought the Royals should non-tender rather than pay some $4.5 million in arbitration.

Boy, was everyone wrong.

Hochevar has been one of the game’s best relievers and was utterly dominant on Tuesday night. He finished the seventh and handled the eighth by striking out all five batters he faced, and they just so happened to be the Indians’ five best hitters: Swisher, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera. With the win and a Tampa Bay loss, K.C. pulled within three games of the second wild card.

Since moving to the bullpen, Hochevar has, improbably, become one of the game’s top relievers. No longer needing to stretch out over six or so innings, his velocity has increased dramatically, from an average fastball velocity of 92.6 miles per hour last season to 95.5 mph this year. That’s a dramatic 2.9 mph increase, when the average jump is less than half that — 1.3 mph, according to MLB Network’s Brian Kenny. Hochevar struck out Swisher and Kipnis with 98-mph heat, and the other three were finished with 96 or 97 mph fastballs.

Hochevar now has a 1.70 ERA, .161 average against and 0.80 WHIP, all of which rank in the top-10 among major league relievers this season. His 10.2 K/9 is more than three strikeouts better than his previous career high, but the real strikeout king is the man Hochevar handed the ball to for the ninth, closer Greg Holland. Though Holland only struck out one of the three Indians he faced, his 13.7 K/9 is in line to set an AL record for pitchers with at least 50 innings.

They’ve been a dynamic punch at the end of the league’s most formidable bullpen. The Royals have a 2.57 bullpen ERA, the best in the AL by 0.38 and second only to the Braves in the majors. K.C.’s mark is third-best in the majors since 1989.

The story of the offseason was the Royals’ renovated rotation, but it turns out the improved bullpen was just as important. And none of it as unexpected as the fruition of some of Hochevar’s potential.

1 comments
DanielSmith2
DanielSmith2

Thanks for the article, Joe. Despite the odds against them, I'm now laughing at the paucity of coverage on the Royals being in the race -- it's a toss-up between the media totally ignoring them, or mentioning them, but in the same breath saying it's essentially impossible -- because, despite that, the team keeps inching closer. 

Sure, we all know that losing another series could seal their fate, but acting like they're not a factor is asinine to the point of absurdity, especially given we've witnessed miracle comebacks in the standings several times just in the last few years (Cardinals catching the Braves, Red Sox collapse out of the playoffs, A's catching Texas). 

They are doing this with a little bit of smoke and mirrors, but there's really zero case to think that the Indians are any better, and everything points to the Yankees actually being worse despite being a bit ahead in the standings...and now, those teams are easily within reach, and with their win today, the Royals could pull to within two games of the final wild card spot if the Rays drop another to the Red Sox. So, any sports news outlet with any claim to balanced coverage needs to mention them, because who knows? Perhaps there's another miracle in the wings...except, at this point, the Royals are making it more like a mini-miracle.