Scouting the Free Agent Market: Luke Hochevar

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

We are just two weeks away from Spring Training and things are pretty quiet. All the big free agents (but not The Big Piece!) are off the market and most teams are merely filling out their benches, bullpens or simply taking flyers on intriguing talents. The Yankees haven’t made a significant move since they signed Aroldis Chapman a month and a half ago, and it is easy to wonder whether they’re going to make any more before camp starts.

One place where the Yankees have room for improvement is middle relief. Beyond Chapman and Dellin Betances, they have Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard and then an army of unproven young pitchers. Veteran relievers looking to catch on somewhere are in abundance right now. Let’s take a look at Luke Hochevar, who once won the clinching game of a World Series but is coming off a significant injury.

Injury History

There’s a reason the Kansas City Royals didn’t pick up Luke Hochevar’s option this winter despite another strong season for the 33-year-old righty. That reason is a significant surgery, his second in four years. He had surgery in August to fix thoracic outlet syndrome, which involves the compression of nerves near the neck and upper chest/shoulder. Pitchers from Matt Harvey to Tyson Ross to former Yankee Phil Hughes have dealt with TOS in the last year while it essentially ended the career of Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter. However, Royals reliever Chris Young overcame the surgery for an effective second act to his career.

The surgery involves the removal of a rib near the shoulder (here’s more from the Cleveland Clinic if you’re interested). The recovery time takes about six months, so Hochevar is on track to be ready for Spring Training, provided that someone has actually signed him.

Unfortunately for Hochevar, this isn’t his only major surgery in recent years. He lost his entire 2014 season and part of 2015 to Tommy John surgery, four years after he had suffered a partial tear of the UCL ligament but rehabbed it to return. His performance post-TJ surgery was well below his breakout 2013 numbers and are cause for concern. A pitcher two surgeries removed from his best season is no doubt a risk and that likely plays a large role in why he’s on the market right now.

Recent Performance

Hochevar the reliever has been an effective part of a competitive Royals team in the last few seasons. The former No. 1 overall pick made his debut in 2007 against, who else, the Yankees and was a struggling starter with ERAs well above 4.50 from 2008 to 2012.

The conversion to a reliever in 2013 was a revelation. He threw 70 1/3 innings that season, striking out 82 batters and allowing just 60 baserunners en route to a 1.92 ERA (2.96 FIP). He was buoyed a bit by a .214 BABIP, which can be explained in part by a career-best 21.6 percent hard contact rate.

After undergoing Tommy John, Hochevar’s numbers took a step back in 2015 and ’16. His strikeout percentage fell from 31.3 percent in 2013 to 22.9 and 26.5 percent in ’15 and ’16, respectively. His BABIP rose to .298 in 2015 and his ERA shot up to 3.73 (4.00 FIP). He produced a remarkably similar season in 2016 with a 3.86 ERA (4.06 FIP). His peripherals improved with better strikeout and walk rates, but his home run/fly ball rate rose to 12.8 percent. Perhaps the most alarming factor was the rise in hard contact percentage from 24.3 percent in 2015 to 39.4 percent in 2016.

He only threw 37 1/3 innings in 2016 after 61 1/3 (including postseason) in 2015. Hochevar was back to striking out more than a batter per inning and he sported a WHIP of just 1.07 in 2016, but his stuff may have taken a step back.

Present Stuff

When Hochevar was a starter, he had 5-6 pitches, but he cut his repertoire down to just three primary pitches as a reliever, eliminating an ineffective slider and changeup. He now relies on two fastballs (a four-seamer and a cutter) while using a curveball with knuckle curve grip. His fastball velocity jumped from 92.6 mph to 95.5 when he converted to relief pitching, but it is down to 94.4 post-TJ surgery.

Originally a seldom-used pitch, his cutter is now thrown over 40 percent of the time (46.8 last year). The cutter sits in the high 80s and is his go-to pitch because inducing a lot of swings and misses for a cutter. His four-seam fastball wasn’t as effective in 2016 after it used to be his most-used pitch before his Tommy John surgery. The curveball, which he throws with a knuckle curve grip, sits between 75-80 and can get swings and misses. Here are the whiffs per swing for each of his pitches in the last two years, via Brooks Baseball.

brooksbaseball-chart

Last season, his knuckle curve was his most effective pitch with batters posting a paltry 31 wRC+ against it. The opposition hit .205/.280/.329 (76 wRC+) vs. his cutter but had a 208 wRC+ against his four-seamer. His slider, which he only threw 26 times (compared to over 100 times for each of the other pitches), was hit around to the tune of a 244 wRC+. The less he uses the slider, the better.

If you want to see what his stuff looks like, check out the video below. He gets two strikeouts on his curveball and one on a cutter. He really has a lot of bite on the cutter.

Contract Estimate

As mentioned above, the Royals declined their option on Hochevar this offseason. It was worth $7 million and they chose instead to buy him out for $500,000. Assuming Hochevar is, in fact, healthy and ready to go for the spring, he would likely get a one-year, incentive-laden deal. Almost definitely less than that $7 million option, but maybe something around $3-4 million?

If Hochevar wants to bet on himself a bit more, there could also be a team option for the 2018 season. It’s also not hard to see the reliever market bottoming out and relievers like Hochevar having to settle for one-year deals or even MiLB deals.

Does He Fit The Yankees

Hochevar was weirdly connected to the Yankees before the trade deadline this year in conjunction with Carlos Beltran rumors. It didn’t make too much sense for Hochevar, who at the time just had an option for 2017, to be the headline of a return for Beltran, but the rumors may signify some interest from the Yankees’ front office.

Beyond their top four, the Yankees don’t have anything too reliable in their bullpen, not that Hochevar can necessarily be relied upon next year. He would represent a possible upgrade in the middle innings over rookies and other younger 40-man options like Ben Heller and Jonathan Holder. Hochevar can throw multiple innings — he did it only 13 times over the last two years, plus three more times in the 2015 playoffs — but he has thrown fewer and fewer innings each of his last three seasons.

If the Yankees truly see themselves as contenders, a move for a veteran reliever makes a lot of sense with the lack of depth in the rotation and the team’s desire for a dominant bullpen in past years. He has 10 2/3 innings of shutout playoff experience from 2015, whatever that’s worth, and likely doesn’t require a major cash outlay that would affect the team’s desire to get under the luxury tax in the next couple years.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Ryan Howard

(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Hi everyone. Just to introduce myself, I’m a 23-year-old Penn grad from New Jersey. As Mike mentioned on Wednesday, I interned at The Players’ Tribune a couple summers ago. I’ve been following RiverAveBlues since 2008 and have been a Yankees fan for much longer. I also write at CSN Philly, so fittingly my first post here is about a former Phillie.

In under three weeks, the Yankees will be reporting to Spring Training. Based on comments from Brian Cashman and the general Yankees vibe of the last couple years, it’s unlikely they’ll make another major addition prior to camp, particularly with the team’s mandate to get under the luxury tax line in the next couple seasons.

However, there’s always room for guys who would come in on minor league deals with camp invites. One of the biggest names who is likely amenable to this arrangement is former NL MVP Ryan Howard. The 37-year-old first baseman is a far cry from that MVP season and he received a farewell from the Phillies at the end of last season, but he is not retired. Ken Rosenthal profiled him as he’s working to prove himself and stay in the game, hoping to find a part-time 1B/DH job in the American League. Could the Yankees use him? Time to examine that question further.

Offensive Performance

You’re not getting 2006-2011 Ryan Howard. For that six-year stretch, he averaged 33 home runs and 133 RBI with a 139 OPS+. During that stretch, Howard was a cornerstone for the Phillies’ playoff runs and 2008 World Series title. He was the NLCS MVP in 2009, although it’s hard to forget Damaso Marte’s dominance of him in the 2009 World Series.

So what is Howard now? He is no longer a full-time player, in large part because he can no longer hit left-handed pitching. He always had a platoon split, but it has become more dramatic as he’s aged. In 2016, he had -4 OPS+ against lefties in just 35 plate appearances, hitting an unseemly .121/.143/.212 (-14 wRC+). Simply put, if Howard is playing for the 2017 Yankees and getting significant playing time against lefties, something has likely gone seriously wrong.

And there’s a lot from his 2016 season to dislike. Specifically, the first two months. They were dreadful. Howard looked like a beaten down version of himself and it seemed like last season was the end of the road. In April and May, he struck out in over a third of his 158 plate appearances. May 2016 was probably the worst month of his career, sporting a .421 OPS and a 6 wRC+.

After the Phillies called up their first baseman of the future, Tommy Joseph, Howard was demoted into a part-time role and began to thrive when the calendar flipped to June and July. He still struck out a fair amount in the second half (30.3 K%) but his .262/.324/.608 (142 wRC+) performance in that time was a throwback to the Howard of old. During that period, his hard contact and line drive percentages perked up. He finished the season with 25 home runs, his third straight season with at least 23.

Statcast gives more reason to believe that Howard’s second half is real. On 207 batted-ball events, Howard had 33 barrels, or highly well-struck balls essentially, good for 9.1 percent of his plate appearances. That is 10th in all of baseball last year, one spot behind Giancarlo Stanton (Gary Sanchez is third). His exit velocity was 92.5 mph, tied for 3rd in the majors. Power is Howard’s calling card and even with his struggles, that’s one thing he is sure to provide.

Here’s his spray chart heat map from last season via Baseball Savant. He pulls the ball on the ground a lot and a little less in the air, but he’d still benefit from the short porch. As with many lefty power hitters, he deals with the shift a fair amount.

ryan-howard-spray-chart

As you may have guessed, his base running is well below average, even for a first baseman. His age doesn’t help, nor does the Achilles’ injury he suffered in 2011 (more on that below). He hasn’t stolen a base since 2011. Even before his injury, he was consistently a net negative on the base paths and that would certainly continue in 2017.

Defensive Performance

Just like on the bases, Howard’s speed, or lack thereof, hurts him in the field as well. Looking at FanGraphs’ Inside Edge Fielding for the last four seasons, Howard makes almost none of the plays rated unlikely to impossible and gets just 42.3 percent of the plays rated about even. Bird had similar numbers in his 2015 stint, but in a 10th of the sample size.

For first basemen with at least 1000 innings over the last four seasons, Howard is 39th out of 43 players in UZR/150 innings. Howard’s arm is rated poorly and he had a below average season in 2016 at coming up with scoops. He’s certainly no Mark Teixeira. Ultimately, playing him in the field is not a desired outcome. He’d ideally be a DH for any team, but his bat could make up for his first base deficiencies.

Injury History

Howard has spent parts of four seasons – 2007, ’10, ’12 and ’13 – on the disabled list. The most famous and significant injury was his Achilles tear in the final at-bat of the Phillies 2011 NLDS Game 5 loss to the Cardinals. He didn’t return until July the next season.

After the Achilles injury, he clearly lost a step, evidenced by his lack of stolen bases, not that he was fleet of foot to begin with. He’s actually been pretty healthy in recent seasons, partly thanks to a reduced role. If he is in a platoon role at first base and DH, his health shouldn’t be too much of a worry.

Miscellaneous


I feel I’d be holding out on you if I didn’t show you Howard’s workout video from this offseason. His personal trainer begins it by saying his goal was “not to create a better baseball player, but to create a superhuman who also happens to play baseball” with an amused Howard looking on. Despite the hilarious quote, the video is actually a good peek into Howard’s workout routine and his viewpoint on his ‘breakup’ with the Phillies. Take a look.

Contract Estimates

The Phillies declined their $23 million team option for 2017, buying Howard out for $10 million. Overall, Howard received $135 million over the last five seasons. Not bad.

As mentioned at the outset, Howard’s likely looking for a MiLB deal with a camp invite. Likely one including an opt-out date towards the end of the spring.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

At first glance, the answer is no. If Greg Bird is hitting in spring training and looks like he did prior to his shoulder surgery, the answer is almost definitely no. But if Bird isn’t quite himself or the team determines he needs more time in AAA, well, then it gets a bit tricky. Tyler Austin could certainly take the first base job, but the Yankees very well may decide in that scenario to platoon him with … you guessed it, a veteran like Howard.

A DH platoon with Matt Holliday doesn’t make sense in terms of roster flexibility. Two players that can essentially only DH and pinch hit? Not optimal. Then there’s the fact that Holliday has almost no noticeable split and, in fact, has had years with reverse splits.

Howard, in theory, could accept AAA assignment and get brought in if the Yankees dealt with injuries at first, but it’s doubtful “The Big Piece” would take that demotion, even if it means returning to where he career took off (Scranton was the Phillies’ AAA affiliate when Howard rose through their system). The Yankees also signed 1B Ji-Man Choi to an MiLB deal that’ll likely mean Choi will be Scranton’s first baseman.

So Howard would have to earn his spot in the spring and Bird would likely have to lose it. With Howard, you want to catch lightning in a bottle, hoping that he can be like another Phillie position player turned Yankees DH. Howard’s 2016 second half may have just been a mirage, but a camp invite is probably worth the chance to determine whether that’s true.