After the Indians’ Michael Bourn doubled home two runs in the seventh inning to cut their deficit to 5-3, Royals manager Ned Yost emerged from the visitors’ dugout. With the tying run coming to the plate and Kansas City opposing one of the clubs it’s chasing in the wild card standings, Yost needed to summon an unflappable shutdown reliever to face a dangerous in slugger Nick Swisher. As Yost walked toward the mound, one of the team’s broadcasters declared, “They’ve got to bring on Hoch.”
Closely consider that statement. In one of the biggest moment of one of the biggest games the Royals have played in a decade, it was obvious the club needed Luke Hochevar to enter a high-leverage situation, an assertion that, if made before 2013, would have been subjected to abundant ridicule throughout western Missouri and eastern Kansas. Hochevar, after all, was the ultimate flop, a former No. 1 overall pick who had flunked out of K.C.’s rotation with a five-plus ERA and whom many thought the Royals should non-tender rather than pay some $4.5 million in arbitration.
Boy, was everyone wrong.
Hochevar has been one of the game’s best relievers and was utterly dominant on Tuesday night. He finished the seventh and handled the eighth by striking out all five batters he faced, and they just so happened to be the Indians’ five best hitters: Swisher, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera. With the win and a Tampa Bay loss, K.C. pulled within three games of the second wild card.
Since moving to the bullpen, Hochevar has, improbably, become one of the game’s top relievers. No longer needing to stretch out over six or so innings, his velocity has increased dramatically, from an average fastball velocity of 92.6 miles per hour last season to 95.5 mph this year. That’s a dramatic 2.9 mph increase, when the average jump is less than half that -- 1.3 mph, according to MLB Network’s Brian Kenny. Hochevar struck out Swisher and Kipnis with 98-mph heat, and the other three were finished with 96 or 97 mph fastballs.
Hochevar now has a 1.70 ERA, .161 average against and 0.80 WHIP, all of which rank in the top-10 among major league relievers this season. His 10.2 K/9 is more than three strikeouts better than his previous career high, but the real strikeout king is the man Hochevar handed the ball to for the ninth, closer Greg Holland. Though Holland only struck out one of the three Indians he faced, his 13.7 K/9 is in line to set an AL record for pitchers with at least 50 innings.
They’ve been a dynamic punch at the end of the league’s most formidable bullpen. The Royals have a 2.57 bullpen ERA, the best in the AL by 0.38 and second only to the Braves in the majors. K.C.’s mark is third-best in the majors since 1989. The story of the offseason was the Royals’ renovated rotation, but it turns out the improved bullpen was just as important. And none of it as unexpected as the fruition of some of Hochevar’s potential.