Of all the unheralded story lines from the AL Central's second half, perhaps the most prominent would be the lack of discussion concerning Luke Hochevar's second half. Hochevar, who was a hard-throwing standout at the University of Tennessee where he was named SEC pitcher of the year in 2005, is probably best known for his refusal to sign after being drafted 40th overall by the Dodgers in 2005 before engaging in a rather epic signing process; playing hardball along with his agent Scott Boras, firing Boras, accepting a lesser offer with his new agent, then firing him and resigning with Boras while reneging on his previously agreed upon deal, and finally playing Independent league baseball until the 2006 draft where he was taken again.
Got all that? Yeah, it's confusing.
When the Royals took him 1st overall in the '06 draft they knew it would take a fortune to sign him and they doled out a 3.5m signing bonus and a four year MLB deal worth at least 5.3m guaranteed. While it took him just over two months to sign, he did manage to make his professional debut for the Royals, throwing 15.1 strong innings for class A affiliate Burlington.
His second season saw him pitch well at AA, striking out a batter per inning while posting a 3.6 K/BB ratio before earning a promotion to AAA where he struggled for perhaps the first time in his life. While pitching for AAA Omaha he would post a strikeout rate of just 6.8, a walk rate of 3.3 and an ERA of 5.12. Despite these struggles, and perhaps feeling pressured by his big signing bonus and MLB contract which had his option years slipping away, the Royals promoted him to the Majors at the end of the 2007 season and saw him throw 12.1 innings in which he struggled to miss bats but enjoyed some small sample size ERA success.
Since then it's largely been a series of ups and downs, at least as it pertains to where he was pitching, as his consistently down performance forced the Royals to bounce him between time at AAA and the Majors while Hochevar struggled to translate the success he had in the lower levels of the minors to the Majors.
Through July 9th of this year, Hochevar had thrown a total of 506.1 innings for the Royals, accumulating a career strikeout rate of 5.67, walk rate of 2.38, and an ERA of 5.56. In short, he was absolutely awful.
But then something weird happened over this seasons second half - Luke got good. Really good.
Over his final 10 starts of 2011, Hochevar threw 67 strong innings, posting a 3.49 ERA, a strikeout rate of 8.32, and a walk rate of 2.42 while opponents hit just .226 with a .628 OPS against him. It was, by far, the best stretch of his Major League career.
The logical questions of course are why, and can it continue?
By looking at the Pitch FX data from the beginning of the season, and the data from his final ten starts, I notice two primary differences. First, he utilizes his mix of fastballs (four seamer, cutter, and sinker) about 10% less, and his slider about 10% percent more than he did over the first four months of the year. Second, that slider is getting significantly increased movement, getting deeper, and running away harder - all while gaining a slight uptick in velocity.
And that slider really is the difference.
While he threw it just 10.7% of the time to open the season, he threw it 20.9% of the time to finish the year and it was vastly more effective over the seasons final 10 months. The pitch induced swings and misses (they key ingredient in generating strikeouts) on just 13.3% pf his offerings to open the season - right around the MLB average of 13.6% for sliders.
Over his final ten starts however he managed to get hitters to swing and miss at the offering 22.6% of the time - approaching twice the MLB average. The increased movement led to greater success and that also seems to have led to a vastly higher confidence in the pitch for Luke as he threw the pitch for a strike on over 72% of his offerings to finish the season, a huge increase over the 58.7% mark he opened the year with.
Suddenly having an effective secondary offering, hitters were no longer able to simply sit fastball on Hochevar and that in turn made his fastballs more effective. Batters swung and missed at his primary offering, his four-seamer, 57% more; and his sinker 75% more often over his final ten starts. Those increases occurred despite the fact that he made no tangible improvements in either pitch.
As we can see from that data, his success was more than just a small sample size fluke, intentionally or not, Hochevar developed a legitimately strong secondary offering that allows him to be a much more effective pitcher than he had been in the past. Whether or not he'll be able to maintain that success heading into 2012 however is a more difficult question to answer. One would assume that the team has taken notice of the improvement in his slider, and will hopefully continue to encourage him to throw it with increased frequency in 2012. But we won't know if he'll be able to maintain the improvement on the pitch until next year rolls around.
If he can't, his second half could slip vanish into the obscurity of the game. If he can, the Royals might finally realize some profit on the huge investment they made in Hochevar back in 2006. They might also have found another internal answer to the biggest question mark the team will have to answer as it heads into 2012 - starting pitching.