When setting career goals in professional sports, few envision a first overall draft pick as a feasible reality. Since 1965, just 50 men have earned that honor in Major League Baseball and only one has entered the Hall of Fame. In 2006, Fowler native Luke Hochevar joined that exclusive fraternity as the first overall selection by the Kansas City Royals. In the decade that followed, Hochevar faced a myriad of challenges as he evolved from a middling starting pitcher into a dominant middle reliever for a championship club.
As a youngster in Fowler, Hochevar was exposed to sports on a consistent basis. His younger brother, Dylan, and his older sister, Brittany, were star athletes on the baseball diamond and volleyball court, respectively, and his father, Brian, was a renowned college basketball player at CSU-Pueblo with NBA aspirations.
Following their leads, Hochevar settled on pursuing a baseball career, becoming a three-time All-State selection for Fowler High School both as a pitcher and position player. "I always loved playing baseball ever since I picked up a ball and glove. I think I wanted to play the sport at a young age and pursue the dream as far as I can take it," Hochevar said during a recent road trip with the Royals to Yankee Stadium.
After committing to the University of Tennessee, Hochevar settled exclusively on pitching and held batters to a .227 average by his sophomore season and he led the under-18 U.S. National Team to a gold medal against Japan. Led by future major leaguers Chase Headley and Julio Borbon in 2005, the Tennessee Volunteers were poised to compete for the College World Series and Hochevar cemented his prospect status with a 15-3 record, a 2.26 ERA and three complete games in 19 starts.
Hochevar's performance earned him the Roger Clemens Awards; an honor bestowed to the premier pitcher in college baseball at the time and was also a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award. "It was a big growth period for me at Tennessee. Mostly I knew how to compete and I was fortunate enough to have Fred Corral there as my pitching coach. He molded me into the delivery and the approach I still have today every time I take the mound," Hochevar said.
Although the 2006 MLB Draft featured the likes of future standouts Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw and Andrew Miller, the Royals took Hochevar with the first overall selection after he had spent a season pitching at independent ball. Hochevar had been drafted twice previously by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but chose not to sign.
Being chosen at the top of the draft in 2006 came as a surprise for Hochevar, along with heightened expectations. "Going into 2006, I really had no idea where I was going to be drafted until the morning of the draft when Kansas City said they were selecting me. It was a big class with a lot of impressive names, and I was fortunate to be taken where I was."
Given his experience and pedigree, Hochevar moved swiftly through the minor league system and reached the big leagues just 14 months after being drafted. Despite his promise, Hochevar struggled mightily in the starting rotation during his first five seasons, finishing with one of the highest earned run averages in the American League in that span as the Royals were in the midst of a rebuilding effort. "It took me a couple of years to get a grasp of my approach and what I needed to do to be successful. Once I started to figure things out, it was a few years down the road. It is the culmination of scouting reports and hitters making adjustments and the struggles made me the pitcher I am today."
Though Hochevar had not produced the results many expected from him early in his career, the Royals stuck by him and eventually moved him to the bullpen prior to the 2013 season. The move paid immediate dividends for Hochevar, who finished 5-2 with a career best 1.92 ERA and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings. "I wanted to start, but it was not my decision. I welcomed the role and accepted the challenge. I didn't have to pace myself as much and my stuff elevated out of the bullpen since I only had to get three or six outs," Hovhevar said.
As Hochevar was beginning to live up to the potential seen in him coming out of Tennessee, a torn UCL the next spring training forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery and work tirelessly to revert to his newfound success as he was unable to take part in the Royals' first World series appearance in nearly three decades. "It was tough because there is only so much you can do being hurt, but what I did was focus on what I could control and prepare for that following season and sit back and watch the team in the World Series was tough because I had been there through all the struggles personally and as an organization," Hochevar said.
Returning from Tommy John surgery, Hochevar would get his opportunity as a middle reliever in the Royals' bullpen in front of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland and formed arguably the finest relief corps in the game. Hochevar found his previous form in postseason play, pitching 10.2 scoreless innings, including two in the clinching game of the 2015 World Series against the New York Mets as the Royals captured their first world championship since 1985. "Nothing can prepare you for pitching at a World Series. There is no bigger stage. I think understanding the spot and having the opportunity to compete is what you dream about and to have it finally happen was quite awesome," Hochevar said.
Hochevar's development and transition from a highly anticipated draft pick and struggling starter to a dominant reliever in October is both unorthodox and the results of making necessary adjustments. Since becoming the Royals' manger in 2010, Ned Yost was there as Hochevar discovered his form and put him in an ideal spot to succeed. "When he was in the rotation, he was throwing 92-94 miles per hour. When we moved him to the bullpen before his arm surgery, he was throwing 97-98 miles per hour. His natural competitiveness, along with great stuff has made a difference for him," Yost said.