Hochevar wants to be strong for long haul
Royals hoping right-hander can help stabilize rotation
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Looking relaxed in a camouflage cap, a T-shirt and shorts, pitcher Luke Hochevar sat down at his clubhouse locker for some breakfast burritos. Verdict: quite tasty.
Hochevar talked about the long-term contract that Royals catcher Salvador Perez had signed. Verdict: good move.
"It gives the pitching staff some stability, no doubt, having him back there. You know what you're going to get every day. I think I can speak for the entire pitching staff. Everybody was pretty excited to see that happen," Hochevar said.
There's another thing that could give the pitching staff some stability and that's Hochevar pitching for the long term like he did in the second half of the 2011 season. That would get everybody pretty excited, too.
When the All-Star break came around, Hochevar's record was 5-8 with a 5.46 ERA. This is what he did in the 12 starts he made after the break: 6-3 record, 3.52 ERA, pitched at least six innings 11 times and held opponents to a .222 average.
Now, after six years of build-up and anticipation, the nation's No. 1 Draft choice of 2006 has narrowed the complex, complicated science of pitching to a basic element: making one good pitch at a time.
"I felt like I did that in the second half," Hochevar said earnestly. "That's where my all focus was. It wasn't whether I was going to win or lose this game, whether I'm going to get this hitter out or if he's going to get a hit. All my focus was on making a good pitch. Then the next thing I know I'm walking off the field and good things happen. You've got a lead or you pitch deep into a ballgame."
Sounds so simple. But put a young pitcher on that bump in the middle of the diamond and there are myriad things competing for his attention. What to throw this hitter who just might be Albert Pujols. Now I can relax a little, we've got a three-run lead. Do I have my feet positioned right? If I don't get through this, they might send me to Omaha. This umpire's squeezing me.
Most young pitchers have cluttered minds, in manager Ned Yost's view. They have difficulty focusing on making one good pitch at a time.
"The veterans that are productive and successful are the ones that have tunnel vision to be able to focus pitch to pitch." Yost said. "Once you put so much focus into executing that pitch, once that pitch is through, you've got to go through that process again. Having the ability to do that a hundred or 110 times a night is a learned habit. It's like emptying a trash can. Once that pitch is done, it's done. It's doesn't matter if it's a great pitch, it doesn't matter if it's a pitch right down the middle that you gave up a home run. You've got to have the ability to reset and focus again. It takes time to learn."
He believes that Hochevar figured that out and was able to implement that approach in his second-half run.
"It's very, very simple," Hochevar said. "I'm not going to say it's easy to do. It can be tough. When you play at this level, you're dealing with a lot of stuff. You're dealing with really good hitters in the lineups, you're dealing with a long season. To break it down to pitch by pitch by pitch is where I want my thought process to be."
He gets his first chance this spring to channel that process against another big league team on Tuesday when he starts against the San Diego Padres at Surprise, one half of the Royals' split-squad effort for the day.
Although Hochevar, 28, has worn a Kansas City uniform for the last five years, the 2011 season was the first in which he never spent time at Triple-A Omaha. He made 31 starts and finally was shut down in mid-September when Yost decided 198 innings were enough.
The good thing was Hochevar had made a breakthrough.
"It's like anything else," Yost said. "It's like learning to throw a curveball. It's like learning your mechanics so you can command your fastball. It's like learning how to throw a changeup. You have to learn the mental side of pitching."
Hochevar, who had never won in double digits until his 11-11 record last year, readily admits that such focus escaped him in his younger days. His mind wandered: "Hey we've got a three-run lead, let's keep that lead and I'm pitching to keep that lead and the next thing you know, I'm pitching to keep the lead and I've walked two guys and then gave up a double off the wall. You can get ahead of yourself. And you can get behind yourself as well."
He's had some games to remember, notably in the 2009 season. That year he used only 80 pitches in a complete-game victory over Cincinnati and also had a 13-strikeout game against Texas. But he was just 7-13 with a 6.55 ERA. In 2010, he missed a big part of the season with a sore elbow and was 6-6, 4.81.
How good can he be in 2012? Hochevar prefers to establish no numerical goals.
"You set your ceiling," he said. "You say I want to win 15 games, then that's what you prepare for. But what if you have an opportunity to win 20? You get to 15 and say 'I've reached my goal.' So I'm very cautious about doing that."
He prefers the sky's-the-limit approach, one pitch at a time.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.