by Eno Sarris
When Luke Hochevar put together his five-hit, no-run masterpiece against Detroit on Wednesday, it reminded people why he was a sleeper going into the season. What’s even more interesting about the start was that it raised questions about Hochevar on three layers. Like any good bean/queso/salsa three-layered dip, this deserves further contemplation.
The first layer concerns his competition. Perhaps the Tigers’ offense is not as good as we thought? Well, for one, Hochevar does not have the Tigers’ number. His 4.85 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and 1-2 record against them is slightly better than his career numbers (5.73 ERA, 1.45 WHIP), but not enough to start praying for more Tigers’ days on the schedule (small sample caveat applies). Looking at Hochevar’s career splits page on Fangraphs, you might notice he’s not as good against lefties (5.11 career FIP against lefties, 4.15 against righties). Could it just be that this year’s Tigers are missing a certain punishing lefty-hitting center fielder that could have put some line drives in play? Curtis Granderson certainly enjoyed hitting against the Royals’ starter (.984 career OPS vs. Hochevar in another small sample size), but that’s only one player.
So maybe this really was about Hochevar. The second layer of the dip might concern his strikeouts (or lack thereof). The former first pick in the draft struck out only two Tigers on Wednesday, and it might seem lucky for him to have kept the team scoreless with that sort of punchout rate. In fact, looking at last year, it took a heck of a rally for Hochevar to even approach an average strikeout rate. Take a look at this screen grab from the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools – close but no cigar. Even after a two-game stretch late in the year which saw Hochevar strike out 22 batters in 13.1 innings (against zero walks!), he was below average in that facet of the game. So maybe this part of the dip doesn’t taste so good.
Why should the third layer treat us any better than the second one? Well, take a look at Hochevars’ ground balls and fly balls in the game on Wednesday. He had 15 ground balls to only five fly balls. That is what you might call “good.” So good, in fact, that the best GB/FB ratio in baseball last year (2.54, Joel Piniero) didn’t even come close. Of course, that’s over a whole season, and Hochevar’s best groundballing season so far was his 1.64 GB/FB ratio in 2008, which would have been good for 17th-best in baseball had he qualified for the ERA title. Of course, he took a step back (1.30 GB/FB) and we are left wondering if this is just a one-game wonder sort of thing. Head back over to his splits page on FanGraphs, and you’ll actually see that Hochevar improved his groundball rate over the final four months of the season. Can he continue to get better at inducing ground balls? How much impact would that have on his game?
Last year, Hochevar had better than twice as many groundballs as fly balls five times. In those five starts, he gave up 10 earned runs in 38.1 innings – good for a 2.34 ERA. Add in 2008, and you get another four starts that fit the criteria – the number jumps to 22 earned runs in 63.2 innings (a 3.11 ERA). You might be thinking, when was the last time a player with a career GB/FB ratio of under 1.5 put up a ratio over two for the year? Well, it happened just last year, and his name was Joel Piniero.
A season like that would make for some good three-layered Luke Hochevar dip.
For the sour cream on top of the dip, there’s Hochevar’s added
velocity. His fastball averaged over 95 MPH in that game, the first time it has
done so in his career.