The Butterfly Effect: Luke Hochevar

“Some of God’s greatest gifts are (unsigned Hochevars).” — Garth Brooks


In the 2005 draft, the Dodgers did not have a true first-round pick, having lost their pick (number 26 overall) to the Boston Red Sox as compensation for signing free agent Derek Lowe. Their first pick came at number 40 overall, a compensation pick for losing free agent Adrian Beltre to the Seattle Mariners. With that 40th pick, the Dodgers selected University of Tennessee right-handed pitcher Luke Hochevar, a player many people expected to go much earlier but who fell to number 40 due to signability concerns. (This was actually the second time the Dodgers had drafted Hochever, having taken him in the 39th round out of high school in 2002.)

Those signability concerns, as it turned out, were well founded. Hochevar and his agent, Scott Boras, set a price point beyond what the Dodgers were willing to pay. When Hochevar suddenly switched from Boras to Matt Sosnick, they agreed pretty quickly to a $2.98 million deal, but the next day Hochevar changed his mind about switching agents and reneged on the deal. Despite several more months of negotiations, the Dodgers and Hochevar never were able to come to an agreement. Hochevar, now ineligible to pitch in college, spent the next season in an independent league, waiting for the 2006 draft.

Ah, the 2006 draft. Described by ESPN’s Keith Law as having a “weak top of the draft,” the top 11 picks have so far won six Cy Young awards, an MVP, and a Rookie of the Year, not to mention over half a billion dollars in contracts. Law was not alone in his assessment, and the benefit of hindsight doesn’t mean he was wrong. If anything, it helps to illustrate just how much of the draft is left to luck, health, and guessing. There was a consensus “number one player” in University of North Carolina lefty Andrew Miller, but Miller would not have been ranked so highly in most other draft pools. Some of the best players available had concerns about injury (notably Missouri’s Max Scherzer and Nebraska’s Joba Chamberlain) or size (Washington’s Tim Lincecum) or makeup (Texas high schooler Kyle Drabek, coming off a DUI and other off-field problems).

The Kansas City Royals had the first pick, and they ended up selecting Hochevar over Miller (signability concerns) and University of Houston righty Brad Lincoln, who was under consideration more for his affordability than because he was Number One Pick material. Lincoln went to Pittsburgh with the fourth pick, and the Tigers took Miller at six.

The Dodgers had the seventh overall pick in 2006, thanks to a lousy 2005 season. With that pick, they chose a high school lefty out of Dallas named Clayton Kershaw. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Kershaw had been the Gatorade National Player of the Year, going 9-0 with a 0.45 ERA and a ridiculous 109 strikeouts in 46 innings (21.3 K/9). Kershaw signed with the Dodgers two weeks later, moved quickly through their minor league system, and made his Major League debut less than two years later at age 20. Kershaw was roughly league-average in 22 starts in 2008, and has been somewhere between excellent and other-worldly ever since. After the disappointment of 2005, it’s safe to say that the Dodgers (and their fans) are pleased with how the 2006 draft turned out for them.

But what if 2005 had turned out differently? What ripples might it have sent through our alternate universe if Hochevar had not backed out of his deal with the Dodgers?

With Hochevar off the board in 2006, the Royals would have picked either Miller or Lincoln. Miller was definitely more highly rated, and considering the big money they ended up paying Hochevar, it seems likely that they would have gone for the best player available over the more affordable one. So Miller goes at number one to Kansas City.

There’s no reason to think any of the next four picks would have changed. Stanford righty Greg Reynolds to Colorado, Evan Longoria to Tampa Bay (whose general manager, Andrew Friedman, said they would have taken Longo even if they had had the first pick), Lincoln to Pittsburgh, and Cal righty Brandon Morrow to Seattle.

Then we get to Detroit. The man they actually picked, Andrew Miller, is on his way to KC. According to Keith Law, in the same chat where he referred to the top of the draft as weak, “Kershaw was a gift [to the Dodgers], since he was going to go to Detroit if Miller was off the board.” Our butterfly wings have officially caused a hurricane.

Before we even talk about the Dodgers, let’s consider what this means for the Tigers. Instead of Andrew Miller, they get Clayton Kershaw. As you probably recall, eighteen months after the 2006 draft, the Tigers sent a package highlighted by Miller and 2005 draft pick Cameron Maybin to the Marlins for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. Would Kershaw just slot right into that trade in Miller’s spot? When the trade was made, Miller was 22 and had a 5.69 ERA in 74.1 innings for the Tigers, having made his MLB debut three weeks after signing in August 2006. Kershaw was 19 and had just finished a season that saw him show signs of dominance in Double-A.

Knowing what we know now, obviously Kershaw is more valuable. But at the time, in late 2007, who would you rather have: a big, hard-throwing lefty who has struggled a bit in the Majors, or a big, hard throwing lefty who has been great in the minors but hasn’t yet thrown a big league pitch? It’s hard to guess whether the Tigers would have just slotted Kershaw into that trade, or whether the Marlins would have accepted that package. Does Cabrera stay in Florida? Does he get traded somewhere else? Or does Kershaw end up in teal pinstripes?

Now let’s talk about the Dodgers. With Kershaw off the board, who would they take at number seven? College righty with injury concerns Max Scherzer? College righty with size questions Tim Lincecum? Let’s look at Logan White’s number one draft picks between 2003 and 2010 (excluding Kershaw) as the man in charge of the Dodgers drafts:

2003: Chad Billingsley, high school pitcher

2004: Scott Elbert, high school pitcher

2005: Hochevar, college pitcher

2007: Chris Withrow, high school pitcher

2008: Ethan Martin, high school pitcher

2009: Aaron Miller, college pitcher

2010: Zach Lee, high school pitcher

White clearly likes high school pitchers, and he had just been burned by Hochevar the previous year after drafting him out of college. It seems possible that the Dodgers would have picked a high school pitcher, especially since there was still a guy on the board who had better raw stuff than Kershaw: Kyle Drabek.

This hurricane is now officially a Category Holy Crap. Kyle Drabek instead of Clayton Kershaw. A lousy 5.27 ERA over 172.1 innings instead of three Cy Youngs, an MVP, and a 2.48 ERA over 1378.1 innings. (I know ERA isn’t the best measurement, but when we’re talking about Clayton Kershaw vs. Kyle Drabek, I don’t think I need to get too advanced.)

As a Dodger fan, I think it’s safe to say that Luke Hochevar going back to Scott Boras is the best thing to happen to the Dodgers in the past 26 years.

And for one last butterfly flap: Kyle Drabek was one of the key elements the Phillies sent to Toronto in exchange for Roy Halladay. So one simple thing — Luke Hochevar deciding not to sign with the Dodgers — had a major impact on (at least) the Tigers, Marlins, Phillies, Royals, and Dodgers, and individual players Kershaw, Cabrera, Maybin, Miller, Halladay, Drabek, and who knows how many others.

Thank you Luke Hochevar, and thank you Scott Boras.

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