I first heard about Luke Hochevar during the summer of 2008 in Spokane, Washington. I was working at the Spokesman-Review as a call taker for their sports desk as a paid intern to make my way through college. Essentially my job would be just to sit at a desk, take calls on local sports games, usually high school, and write down the scores and standouts from the caller and put them on our database, which would be transitioned to the box score pages in the following day’s issue. I didn’t get much work in the summer, except around the end of June and early July, as American Legion tournaments came and dominated the sports scene in Spokane around that time.
When I first started the job, I used to wear a Kansas City Royals hat, mostly because I liked the Royals, but I liked hats and the Royals “KC” hat was dope. (I have shied away though from wearing hats of teams I have no fan allegiance too though; my old Boston hat rarely gets worn.) One day, when I came in with my Royals hat on, the Sports desk editor, who sat in the cubicle next to me, glowed in excitement when he saw the KC on my head.
Apparently, he was a die-hard Royals fan.
He talked about how much he loved the Royals since he was kid, loving the George Brett-led teams in the late 70’s and 80’s. He talked about how he went to Kansas City every summer for a weekend and did nothing but watch baseball games at the K that weekend (and eat Gates BBQ apparently). We would talk Royals baseball, and even though I was just a casual fan, I became more than that during the summer of ’08 as my desk editor and I talked daily about Royals baseball when we had time in between calls and editing of pages. We talked about Carlos Beltran and how the Royals should have kept him. We talked about whether or not Trey Hillman was a good manager (it was Hillman’s first year). We talked about Alex Gordon and if he would be the next Brett (my desk editor was positive he would, since Brett was his favorite player).
And we talked about Luke Hochevar.
Of course, he didn’t pronounce his name correctly at the time. Again, this was the era before Smartphones were essential and MLB At-Bat audio or MLB Streams Reddit were things. All we had to follow the Royals was ESPN GameCast, a pain in the ass even back in 2008. So for us in Spokane following the Royals, we didn’t know better. And thus, he used to pronounce his name “Hock-a-vower”, not “Ho-ch-ay-ver“.
“Hey did you see Hock-a-vower get the win?”
“Hock-a-vower is on the mound tonight against the Twins!”
“I’m telling you Hock-a-vower is going to be the next Kevin Appier! He’s going to be real good!”
So close…and yet so far.
Much like Hochevar’s career as a Royal.
Hochevar’s career as a Royal was always rocky, but it made sense considering the era the Royals were in, even shortly before he was drafted by Kansas City. As recalled in a great piece by Joe Posnanski, owner David Glass had relieved former GM Allard Baird of his duties six days before the draft, and hired former Atlanta Braves scouting guru Dayton Moore the next day. However, even though Moore was hired before the draft, Posnanski dropped this interesting nugget about Moore’s involvement with the Royals draft on such short notice:
The Royals hired new general manager Dayton Moore FIVE DAYS before that draft, but with a catch. Moore — because he had been working closely with Atlanta scouts on their draft preparation — publicly recused himself from the Royals draft. He didn’t think it would be fair to take his scouting from the Braves with him to Kansas City. So he announced that he would not officially begin his work rebuilding the Royals until the draft was over.“Miller and Hochevar” -Joe Posnanski, “Joe Blogs”
The 2006 draft was loaded with college arms to put it nicely. Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer, Brandon Morrow, Ian Kennedy, Daniel Bard, Joba Chamberlain, and Andrew Miller were all highly-rated college arms available in the first round who ended up having varying levels of success at the Major League level. Furthermore, there were also some interesting high school pitchers with Clayton Kershaw being the crown jewel of that group, and Kyle Drabek and Jeremy Jeffress also being high school arms who had mixed success at the MLB level.
According to the article by Pos, it was hard to get a gauge on whom the Royals wanted to go with. Obviously restricted by ownership financially, it seemed like the organization wanted to go with a college arm, but one that would command a reasonable signing bonus. There was talk among draft circles that pitchers like Lincecum or Miller “should” have gone in the top spot, but they were going to command signing bonuses that were going to exceed the Royals’ budget.
While it’s easy to remember Glass spending in the post-World series years in 2016 and 2017, Royals fans have to remember that the Royals were a notoriously cheap organization for a while post-Ewing Kauffman, and that was on full display in the 2006 MLB Draft. The Royals had a chance to get a franchise-changing player in the top spot, the first time in history they ever held that position (Evan Longoria was also available), but instead Glass was worrying about 1-2 million dollars on a signing bonus instead of reversing the fortunes of a Royals organization. And considering Moore wasn’t involved in the draft, the Royals were held even more hostage to this “signability” factor (That being said, that has changed under Moore, who has regularly coaxed ownership to pay over slot for first round picks).
Much like the Royals, Hochevar was also going through his own rollercoaster leading up to the draft. Hoch was drafted in the supplemental round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005 after putting up a junior season at Tennessee where he ended up winning the Roger Clemens Award with a 15-3 record, 2.26 ERA and 154 strikeouts, a school record. However, while the Dodgers seemed set on him, as they drafted him out of high school as well, Hochevar kept flopping agents during the negotiation process. After starting with super agent Scott Boras, Hochevar ended up going with agent Matt Sosnick instead, and they apparently came to a deal on a $2.98 million signing bonus. But before he could sign anything, Hochevar ended up changing his mind on the deal, went back to Boras, and decided to test waters again in the 2006 draft, playing Independent baseball in the meantime.
Hochevar wasn’t an overdraft by the Royals at all at the time. Many experts figured Hochevar was a Top-10 player, and considering that the Royals needed a polished, college arm, the former Volunteer fit the bill nicely. That being said, there was also a lot of clamoring for Miller, who had lit it up at the University of North Carolina the previous season and looked to be in the mold of a dominant, Randy Johnson-esque caliber starter. Posnanski even recalls that his initial impression from Royals scouts seemed to be that Miller was their top choice:
The weekend before the draft, I was charged with finding out who the Royals were going to pick and then traveling to write a story about him. It sure looked like Miller. But I tried to get a confirmation by using a classic reporter tactic, a version of one that you might have seen in All the President’s Men…OK, it wasn’t exactly like All the President’s Men, but here’s what I did: I called my best source with the Royals and I said something like this: “Look, I know you’re not going to tell me who you are drafting. But I’m about to get on a plane to go see Andrew Miller pitch. So please just tell me: Am I wasting my time?”…And here’s what he told me: “No. You are not wasting your time.”
Unfortunately, the Royals pivoted, and ended up going with Hochevar, much to the surprise and frustration of Posnanski (as chronicled in the piece). Hochevar was a good-sized pitcher with some polished numbers in one of the best conferences in college baseball. Honestly, while Hochevar didn’t have the upside of a Miller or even Lincecum or Scherzer, he seemed to be the safest bet (in addition to most affordable). And for the Royals, with a new GM and a No. 1 pick at their disposal, they needed to make sure that this “new era” of Royals baseball under their new GM started off with a sure thing.
You know what Diane from Bojack Horseman says about “assuming.”
Hochevar didn’t have a bad career by any means, but the Royals did him no favors in his development. Desperate to see their only No. 1 pick in history succeed, Hochevar was rushed to the rotation after only 34 appearances in the minors. Hochevar struggled initially when he joined the rotation full time as a 24-year-old in 2008: he posted a 6-12 record with a 5.51 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 22 starts and 129 innings pitched. However, there were some signs that he could put it together over time and live up to his hype: his FIP was regularly better than his ERA from 2008-2012 (when he was a starter), and he ended up having his best year in 2011 as the Royals ace, going 11-11 with a 4.68 ERA and 1.28 WHIP over 31 starts and 198 innings of work.
But, that fell apart in 2012, as Hochevar regressed by posting a 8-16 record, 5.73 ERA and 1.41 WHIP over 185 innings of work and 32 starts. That following season, Hochevar moved to the bullpen, and the move seemed to work, as he posted the best numbers of his career: 1.92 ERA, 0.82 WHIP over 70 innings of relief. And even though he got hurt in 2014 and missed the Royals first pennant run, Hoch didn’t miss a beat in his return to the bullpen in 2015, posting a 3.73 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and 3.06 K/BB ratio in 50 innings of work. And he was a crucial part of the Royals pen, as he replaced Holland in the late innings after Holland had to miss the end of the year and the postseason due to injury.
In 9 appearances and 10.2 innings of work during the Royals 2015 playoff run, Hochevar didn’t allow a single run and only allowed three hits to go along with 4 strikeouts. It was sweet redemption for a guy who was thrust into a chaotic situation in Kansas City when he was drafted No. 1 overall. To see him exercise those demons, and be a crucial part of that World Series championship team was beautiful to see as a Royals fan who had followed Hochevar closely most of his career.
After a solid season in 2016 where he posted a 3.86 ERA in 37.1 innings of work, Hochevar’s injury issues sprung up again. After tearing a UCL in 2014, Hochevar had to have thoracic outlet syndrome surgery after the 2016 season, and unfortunately he could just never recover. Knowing that he would never pitch without pain again, Hochevar retired from the game in 2018.
In many ways, Hochevar embodied the “Moore-era” Royal perfectly: he never quite lived up to the hype, but he was better than his basic numbers suggest, and he found some amazing success for a short period of time that corresponded with the Royals’ competitive run from 2013-2016. Hochevar may not have had the popularity of Holland, Wade Davis, or Kelvin Herrera, but he was arguably an important piece to the Royals pen, especially in 2015. Without Hoch, who knows who would have held down the Royals bullpen in the 2015 postseason with Holland out.
It’s easy for Royals fans to see how others panned out that 2011 draft and be wistful. The Royals could have had Scherzer, a Cy Young winner and World Champion who went to collage at Mizzou. They could have had Lincecum, who won back-to-back Cy Young awards. They could have had Kershaw, one of the best pitchers perhaps in the history of the game (well…regular season pitchers anyways). And those players’ legacies unfortunately will always carry with Hoch’s own legacy: he was okay (he was the 15th best player WAR-wise of that first round class), but he will always be known for who he wasn’t rather than who he was.
If injuries didn’t ravage his last four seasons, it is possible that Hoch would have been the closer in KC in 2019 and 2020, a lights out ninth-inning guy who would have been the proper heir to Herrera, Davis, and Holland before him. Or maybe he would have returned to the rotation, and finally realized his potential, as we saw glimpses of that in 2011.
But reality is reality, and unfortunately, it all ended too soon and in disappointment for Hoch in KC. But I will appreciate all he went through and endured.
I wonder if Moore looks back at that 2006 Draft, and wonders if he would do it again differently.
And would he still allow the Royals to draft Hochevar?
Or “Hock-a-vower” as my desk editor called him.