Has Hochevar turned the corner with back-to-back strong starts?

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Prior to last week Luke Hochevar seemed destined for a career as a
solid but unspectacular mid-rotation starter, which while certainly not
a bad thing would qualify as a big disappointment for the No. 1 overall
pick in the 2006 draft.

Hochevar had a mediocre 92/39 K/BB ratio in 123 innings at Triple-A
and then went 11-16 with a 5.25 ERA through his first 33 starts in the
majors, managing a measly 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings. His average
fastball was just 90 miles per hour, he wasn’t missing any bats, his
control was shaky, and despite still being just 25 years old Hochevar
didn’t look like someone capable of becoming an elite starting pitcher.

That may still end up being the case, but he’s at least done a good
impression of an elite starter in his last two outings, racking up 22
strikeouts in 13 innings while handing out zero walks against two of
the AL’s best lineups. He had nine strikeouts in six innings against
Tampa Bay and then whiffed 13 in seven innings Saturday versus Texas,
which is remarkable for a guy who never had more than six strikeouts in
his first 33 starts.

Bill James once found that pitchers with even a single 15-strikeout,
zero-walk start were overwhelmingly destined for greatness. In fact, as
the always awesome Joe Posnanski points out
of the 21 guys to accomplish that feat 20 of them are “either Hall of
Fame quality or excellent pitchers” with Sterling Hitchcock being the
lone exception. Of course, Posnanski also notes that dropping the
threshold to 13 strikeouts produces “a significantly bigger group.”

The 13-strikeout group has 75 pitchers, to be exact, with
significantly more non-elite names mixed in with the Hall of Famers. In
other words, Hochever’s outstanding 13-strikeout, zero-walk performance
against the Rangers doesn’t really predict greatness so much as
goodness. After all, for one game to have that much meaning is
extremely difficult.

However, Posnanski’s findings got me wondering about Hochevar’s
two-game stretch with 22 strikeouts and zero walks. Or, put another
way, how many pitchers have had back-to-back starts where they didn’t
walk anyone and struck out at least nine batters? Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com,
I can tell you that Hochevar was just the 29th guy to do it since 1954
and no one has done it in three straight starts. Here’s the list:

Randy Johnson (x2)      Rich Harden             Oliver Perez
Pedro Martinez (x2) Dan Haren Steve Renko
Curt Schilling (x2) LUKE HOCHEVAR Nolan Ryan
Erik Bedard Fergie Jenkins Ray Sadecki
Kevin Brown Jon Lieber Johan Santana
Steve Carlton Jim Merritt Mike Scott
Roger Clemens Terry Mulholland Ben Sheets
Bob Gibson Mike Mussina James Shields
Dwight Gooden Roy Oswalt David Wells
Aaron Harang Camilo Pascual

Not all of those names are great pitchers, but an awful lot of them
are and most of the elite starters from the past five decades are on
the list. All of which isn’t to suggest that Hochevar is suddenly
destined to become a great pitcher, just that the possibility at least
seems a whole lot more plausible than it did a couple weeks ago.

Brandon Belt signs $6.2 million deal, avoiding arbitration with Giants

Brandon Belt
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In a last-second compromise before a scheduled heading today, first baseman Brandon Belt and the Giants have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $6.2 million deal.

Belt requested $7.5 million and the Giants countered at $5.3 million, so they’ve settled slightly on the team-friendly side of the midpoint. Belt will be arbitration eligible again next season for the final time before hitting the open market as a free agent.

He’s coming off a very good season in which he hit .280 with 18 homers and an .834 OPS in 137 games and Belt has a lifetime .803 OPS through age 27, making him one of MLB’s most underrated all-around first baseman.

Orioles sign ex-Padres reliever Dale Thayer

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Right-hander Dale Thayer and the Orioles have agreed to a minor-league contract that includes an invitation to spring training.

Thayer had a rough 2015 season for the Padres, posting a 4.06 ERA and spending time in the minors, but he was a solid part of San Diego’s bullpen from 2012-2014 with a combined 3.02 ERA and 173/50 K/BB ratio in 188 innings.

At age 35 there’s no guarantee that Thayer will look good enough to claim a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he’s got a strong chance to wind up pitching middle relief for Baltimore.

Phillies acquire Taylor Featherston from Angels

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Taylor Featherston, who was designated for assignment by the Angels last week, has been traded to the Phillies for a player to be named later or cash.

Featherston stayed in the majors with the Angels for all of last season due to being a Rule 5 pick from the Rockies organization, but the 25-year-old infielder hit just .162 in 169 plate appearances.

He’s been much better in the minors, but nothing about his track record there screams quality regular and the Phillies are likely viewing him as a defense-first bench option for now.

Keith Law: The Braves have the best farm system in baseball

Braves 2
Associated Press
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Flags fly forever! Hooray for The Process championship!

Ah, sorry. This is about as much rooting as I’ll get to do this year, so cut me some slack.

This is the week when ESPN’s Keith Law releases his prospect and farm system rankings. He kicks off his content this week with a top-to-bottom ranking of all 30 farm systems. As a rule he limits his analysis to players who are currently in the minors and who have not yet exhausted their rookie of the year eligibility. The top system: the Atlanta Braves. The bottom: the Los Angeles Angels, about whom Law says “I’ve been doing these rankings for eight years now, and this is by far the worst system I’ve ever seen.” Enjoy Mike Trout, though, you guys.

If you want to know the reasons and the rankings of everyone in between you’ll have to get an ESPN Insider subscription. Sorry, I know everyone hates to pay for content on the Internet, but Keith and others who do this kind of work put a lot of damn work into it and this is what pays their bills. I typically don’t like to pay for content myself, but I do pay for an ESPN Insider subscription. It’s worth it for Law’s work alone. And though he drives me crazy sometimes, Buster Olney’s daily column/notes thing is also worth the money over the course of the year.