MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers

Losing Luke

The Royals have had their share of injuries in 2016. Big names have missed real time for the defending World Champions: Gordon, Moustakas, Cain and Wade Davis. In the grand scheme of notable baseball players, Luke Hochevar probably does not fit on the same plateau as those mentioned. His absence, however, certainly has been felt.

This thought crossed my mind Sunday afternoon as Edinson Volquez – struggling Edinson Volquez, mind you – was pitching into the seventh inning against the Detroit Tigers in what certainly felt like the most important game of the year. For the first time in a painfully long time, Volquez was pitching well. He had navigated the first six innings using 92 pitches and had retired 10 of the last 12 batters since giving up a home run to J.D. Martinez in the fourth. The bottom portion of the Tigers’ order was coming up, and, thanks to Brooks Pounders’ inability to lock down the ninth with a four run lead the night before, Wade Davis (and Matt Strahm) were unavailable. Sure, why not send Volquez out to start the seventh?

Edinson struck out Justin Upton to start the inning, but then gave up a loud double to Tyler Collins. That was followed by James McCann missing a home run to left by a foot, maybe not even that. I was sitting down the third base line and was pretty sure that ball was leaving the park, and I’m not so sure Whit Merrifield, who ended up catching it, didn’t think the same thing. I looked in the dugout, no movement. I said to my wife, “get him out of there.” I told my eight-year old son this was a bad situation. He agreed, but then he was wearing a blue wig, so take that for what it’s worth.

Andrew Romine doubled and the Royals were down two instead of just one.

Of course, we all know the rest of the story. Peter Moylan came on to allow a fourth run, the Royals rallied to take the lead, only to see Joakim Soria give it back. I mean, a LOT went on after Edinson Volquez was left in for at least one, if not two batters too long.

Yet, what if Luke Hochevar had not been lost for the season in late July?

Prior to injury, Ned Yost had turned to Hochevar twenty-one times in the middle of an inning, with Luke inherited runners on base in 18 of those appearances. While Hochevar had a handful of ugly outings in 2016, he allowed an inherited runner to score in only two of those eighteen situations. It is a rather tangled mess of ‘what-ifs,’ but what if Luke had been called on, as he had rather regularly throughout the season, after the Collins double and shut the door? What-if the Royals’ four run rally in the bottom of the 7th had given them a 5-2 lead instead of 5-4? What if?

To take it a step further, what if Yost had Luke Hochevar at his disposal for a critical homestand that saw the Royals lose four one-run games to other wild card contenders?

Now, let me step back a moment and fully acknowledge that the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen managed an impressive scoreless streak without Hochevar AND Davis. This is a team that was simply awful in July…and that was with Hochevar most of the month, during which time he gave up six runs in seven innings and allowed three inherited runners to score as well. Matt Strahm has, to some extent, taken on the role of fireman and been excellent. You could make the case that Strahm does not even see the majors if Hochevar is not hurt. Given those facts, can you really point to Hochevar as a critical loss?

As a strong proponent of the concept that a game in April counts as much as one in August and September, focusing on the impact of only the past few weeks runs counter to my general thoughts on the baseball season as a whole. After all, Hochevar himself was responsible for a five-run seventh on July 4th against Toronto, turning a tie game into a loss. We can also pin a 4-2 loss to Detroit on the 15th of July squarely on him as well. How much would you like those two losses to be two wins right now? All that said, let’s go down that road anyway.

Does Hochevar make an appearance in the 10th inning instead of Soria against the Yankees on August 30th? It would have been the first time Yost had used him in extra frames in 2016. The next night, however, it would seem to have been a classic Hochevar situation.

After Ian Kennedy allowed a one out walk in the seventh, he was replaced by Scott Alexander, who was tagged with a single and a sacrifice fly that tied the game.  The Royals eventually ended up emptying the bullpen and losing in 13 innings. If, as he had done in 16 of 18 previous situations, Hochevar does not allow the inherited runner to score, what would that have meant not only to that game’s outcome, but to the general state of the bullpen for days afterwards? Would it have changed the dynamics in game one versus Detroit when Peter Moylan masterfully stranded three runners in the relief of Danny Duffy, but surrendered a Miguel Cabrera home run when he came back out for the seventh?

I believe a healthy Luke Hochevar makes an appearance in at least one of those two games described about and also in the game this past Sunday. Would two Luke Hochevar appearances in the past week equal two more Royal wins?  Two games back of the second wild card with a 74-64 record versus four games back at 72-66?  Yeah, I think Royals’ fans would take that.  Heck, I would take just one more win.

All of the above is so much the theoretical and implies that the rest of the Royals’ bullpen, which was so good for so much of August, does all of what it did even with Hochevar taking up one of the spots. It’s an exercise to nowhere that proves nothing. I know, however, that on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Detroit that it would have be nice to have Luke Hochevar available when trouble began in the seventh inning.

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