Is Kansas City Royals Pitcher Luke Hochevar the Next Sandy Koufax?


Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I need to lead with the disclaimer that this piece was written just prior to the news that Luke Hochevar has been injured and may require Tommy John surgery this year. Hopefully, that is not the case and he can be back in the mix as early as May or June as some have suggested. Regardless, I don’t think the injury is germane to the point of this article. If he comes back in a few months or in a year, the case I present in the ensuing paragraphs still holds true.

I also want to be very clear on this point before launching into the discussion: I am NOT in any way saying that Luke Hochevar is somehow comparable to Sandy Koufax. He’s not. It’s also worth pointing out that although I did a piece on Hochevar just a few weeks ago, I am in no way obsessed with this guy, nor am I on his personal payroll. Do I hope he succeeds? Yes. Why? Because I’m sick of being the laughing stock of major league baseball and I want my team to win the World Series.

That said, I have noticed that others, including David Hill over on our sister site, Kings of Kaufman, have presented their own perspectives on the underachieving former first overall pick. The common thread among them appears to be that Hochevar has proven over the past six seasons that he can’t be a successful starter.

After all, according to the reasoning of most, over that time, he has posted below league-average numbers pretty much across the board (with the exception of last season), so clearly, it’s time to give up on him as a rotation guy.

It is within that context I feel compelled to put forward a little food for thought.

Sandy Koufax joined the Brooklyn Dodgers at the beginning of the 1955 season after pitching only one season of collegiate ball at the University of Cincinnati. Like Luke Hochevar, he displayed tantalizing “stuff” but was extremely inconsistent. He was in and out of the Dodger rotation over the course of the next five seasons because, although he often displayed overwhelming talent, he was unable to consistently harness that talent.

Between 1955 and 1961, he posted a K/BB ratio hovering right around 2/1, and in two seasons, barely surpassing a 1/1 ratio (not so good for “power pitcher”). The 1958 season perhaps was the most reflective of his overall body of work up until his breakout season in 1961. During that year, he sported a WHIP of 1.49, an ERA of 4.48, with a 1.25 K/BB ratio, walking nearly 7 batters per 9 IPs, and leading the league in wild pitches, despite only posting 158.2 IPs.

Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

158 IPs is pretty good in today’s game but in an era when 300 IPs was not uncommon, it is impressive he could lead the league in anything. Walt Alston, his manager at the time, rather than giving Koufax the opportunity to work through jams, would frequently pull him from games at the first sign of any control issues, thus further slowing his maturation at the major league level.

Entering the 1961 season, Koufax had determined that his baseball fate would be determined by how the season unfolded. He’d already enrolled in some college architecture courses in order to complete a degree so he’d have a career option should his baseball career fail. For the first time in his career, he worked during the off-season and reported to camp in the best shape of his life, firmly determined to establish himself as a dependable starter in the Dodger rotation.

It was during spring training in 1961 that Koufax made the adjustments that would lead to his ensuing Hall-of-Fame career. First, Dodger scout Kenny Myers discovered a flaw in Koufax’s delivery whereby he essentially lost sight of the catcher at a certain point.

Koufax worked to rectify the flaw but it wasn’t until catcher Norm Sherry advised him, after he walked the bases loaded on 12 straight pitches during a spring training “B” squad game, to just take a little off his velocity, that things seemed to click. The rest, as they say, is history.

It is worth noting that Koufax pitched in the Major Leagues for seven seasons, posting over 946 IPs before that seminal spring training of 1961. To date, Luke Hochevar has pitched 841.1 innings over the better part of six seasons.

Again, I’m NOT saying Hochevar is about to display a Koufaxian apptitude for Hall-of-Fame dominance. I AM saying however, that Hochevar is similar to Koufax in that he has displayed tantalizing talent over various brief stints. In the course of any given season, Hochevar has often been responsible for some of the single best outings of the year as well as some of the worst outings by Royals starting pitchers.

The guy has talent. The question is, can he harness it? While many recent articles have cited history as proof that Hochevar just isn’t going to be a quality starting pitcher, I would submit that Sandy Koufax is the perfect case study in how sometimes, it takes some time to figure out how to effectively use all that talent.

Hochevar has dominant stuff, good enough that he should be able to win most any engagement with a major league hitter. The trick, as he finally learned last season working in relief, is that he needs to attack hitters with his best stuff rather than trying to outsmart them with a dizzying array of pitches.

He learned last season to simplify the game and to pitch to his strengths. Here’s the real bonus; Hochevar doesn’t need to produce Koufaxian numbers to be successful. All he needs to do, is be better than average and anchor himself as a reliable, consistent middle-of-the rotation starting pitcher. If he does that, with the talented young arms around him, the Royals are sitting in pretty good shape going forward.

Not sold on the Koufax analogy? Let’s look a little closer to home; former Royals pitcher Larry Gura. Gura kicked around the Majors for the better part of eight Major League seasons before finally securing a slot in the Royals rotation.

He was never an overpowering pitcher but was dominant at times once “the light finally went on” in 1978. From 1970 to 1977, Gura posted rather pedestrian numbers for the Cubs, Yankees, and Royals, his best season to that point having been 1975 when he posted a 7W-8L record with a 3.51 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP across 151.1 IPs.

However, in 1978, for no obvious reason, and armed with major league average stuff, Larry Gura posted an impressive line of 16W-4L, 2.72 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.096 over 220.1 IPs. He went on to win nearly 100 games over the next seven seasons, representing the Royals in the All-Star game and frequently being mentioned as a Cy Young candidate. What happened? Who knows specifically, but that’s not the point.

The point is, sometimes, guys just need time to crack the code. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a power pitcher like Koufax or a finesse guy like Gura, for some pitchers, there is a period of time required to figure out how best to use what they have and to pitch to their respective strengths.

The beauty of this situation is that Hochevar truly does have the ability to be a staff ace. If he has learned from his bullpen experience and is able to remain healthy, his potential upside is tantalizing, which is why he continues to get opportunities to prove himself as a starter. For the sake of Royals fans everywhere, let’s hope he measures up this year and beyond.