KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The wheeling and dealing this off-season from Royals general manager Dayton Moore has provided pitching coach Dave Eiland something he never had in his first year on the job in 2012 – four legitimate big-league starters in the Royals rotation.
Now, imagine if somehow Eiland is able to fix the talented but perennially perplexing Luke Hochevar, who is in the running for the fifth and final spot in that rotation.
“If Luke can find it,” Eiland told FOXSportsKansasCity.com, “that’s going to be a really formidable rotation, one through five.”
Of course, some Royals fans and bloggers don’t want to hear any more Hochevar talk. Many in the fan base have given up on Hochevar, and with good reason.
In five years as a starter, Hochevar, the top overall pick of the 2006 draft, has teased with great games and great stretches. But overall, his career now stands at the corner of failure and bust, compiling a dismal 38-59 record and a hideous 5.39 career ERA.
And Hochevar’s 2012 season – 8-16 with a 5.73 ERA – pushed many observers and fans over the edge.
Truthfully, more successful and less forgiving organizations likely would have already declared Hochevar a bust, and released him. But the Royals haven’t given up quite yet, though the leash has been gnawed off down to collar.
“It’s no secret this is a turning point for Luke,” Eiland said. “I believe in him but there just comes a point in time where you have to show consistency. You just have to.
“Luke gets that. He knows it. I’ve talked to him a couple of times this winter and he knows what’s going on.”
The Royals have kept giving Hochevar chances mainly because they’ve had few other options in recent years. Now, however, they do.
The Royals re-signed Jeremy Guthrie this off-season, and acquired Ervin Santana, James Shields and Wade Davis.
That leaves one spot open from the group of Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza and Will Smith.
“Players can read,” Eiland said. “They know what’s at stake. They see the guys we’ve acquired. They know there’s only one spot open.”
The Royals also have kept giving chances to Hochevar because of all that potential still inside him.
“There was a five-game stretch last season,” Eiland said, “where he was as good as any pitcher in baseball. I’m dead serious.”
Actually, it probably was closer to a three-game stretch, the one in June when Hochevar delivered three straight quality starts, all in somewhat dominating fashion. Over the last two of those starts, he fired off 16 2/3 straight scoreless innings, the last nine coming on a complete-game shutout of Tampa Bay.
Later, in August, Hochevar overmatched Tampa Bay again, limiting the Rays to one hit and no runs through eight innings, while striking out 10.
“That’s the guy we know is inside him,” Eiland said. “That’s the guy we hope to find. He still has that very high ceiling. But, like I said, we have to get it out of him now.”
Eiland is careful, too, not to get too caught up with a single project. He has others vying for that final spot in the rotation, and he’d be more than content with any of the candidates.
“We all know what a pro Bruce Chen is,” Eiland said. “You know exactly what you’re getting with Bruce. He’s crafty and he knows how to pitch in this league. And let’s face it: Bruce has been the best starting pitcher on the Kansas City Royals over the last three years.
“And I think the guy that is getting somewhat overlooked here is Luis Mendoza. Mendy, from June on, was our best pitcher, hands down. He really discovered some things from June on, and he gave us some outstanding games. Do not sell him short.
“And we got Will Smith, a young guy who keeps improving and learning. He showed his potential. You never know when a young guy like that suddenly turns it up a notch.”
Still, solving the Hochevar riddle once and for all would give the Royals a rotation of five guys with ace-like stuff.
To Eiland, solving the Hochevar riddle began last spring when he began preaching to him the value of simplifying his approach, suggesting that he rely more on his three best pitches – fastball, curveball and changeup.
And it seemed to work, at least for awhile. But Hochevar eventually balked, even publicly through the media, at the notion that he needed to reduce his repertoire.
“Things got a little misunderstood in the media during that time,” Eiland said. “I never said he needed to eliminate any pitches. Luke has about six or seven pitches he can use, and all I said was that I don’t know many guys in this league who can have all of those pitches working on the same night.
“Sure, once in a while you’ll just have one of those dream nights, and they’re all working, and you dominate. But mostly, you’ll be inconsistent. The best pitchers rely on their two or three best pitches, and then they bring out a fourth or fifth pitch only when they need it.
“With Luke, this issue is the cutter. It’s a good pitch. It really is. But when he relies on it too much, the ball starts to slide down on his hand on his other pitches. His curve gets loopy, and his fastball flattens out. If he can primarily use his three best pitches – his fastball, two-seam or four-seam, his curve and and changeup – he can then use his cutter just when he really needs it. That will make him more effective, I think. That’s all I said.”
Eiland has worked hard to make sure his relationship with Hochevar has stayed positive.
“I wasn’t trying to upset him,” Eiland said. “I was the new guy coming in last year and I came in with a clean slate. I know a lot of people have tried to fix him in the past, and everyone has ideas. As a player, that can get really old because you already have everyone you know in your personal life offering suggestions.
“In the end, a player, in any sport, figures it out on their own. But as a coach, you just have to kind of guide them to that place. That’s where I think James Shields will help, too. He’s a great teacher on the mound and he can help other guys. A lot of times players kind of police themselves and I think James will be a great influence on Luke and to the other guys.
“We’ll see what happens. But I know we all have a common goal when it comes to Luke, and that’s to make him the best he can be and contribute to this team winning, because that’s all that matters in the end.”