KANSAS CITY, Mo. In some respects, Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar became the poster child for the team's losing ways over the past few years.
A former No. 1 overall pick, Hochevar not only fell far short of those lofty expectations, he became the target of misdirected anger from all angles from fans, bloggers and media. The more the team lost, and the more Hochevar lost, the more he became the explanation for all things bad.
As Hochevar's losses mounted (16 last season, against eight wins) and his ERA skyrocketed (5.73 in 2012), he often was described by some fans as one of the worst starters in baseball.
Fans moaned in absolute disbelief last winter when the Royals tendered his contract instead of outright releasing him, and, worse, then avoided arbitration by signing him to a 4.56 million one-year deal.
But all the cries of anguish have subsided through the first six weeks of the season.
Hochevar is no longer Public Enemy No. 1 to Royals fans. In fact, since being converted to the bullpen, Hochevar has been superb.
In nine appearances out of the pen, Hochevar has delivered a 0.73 ERA. He hasn't permitted an earned run since his very first outing April 3.
Hochevar has allowed just seven hits while striking out 13 hitters in 12 13 innings.
To put it simply, Hochevar, 29, finally has become an asset instead of a detriment.
But if Royals fans and other critics have suddenly stopped complaining about him, Hochevar insists he hasn't noticed.
"I don't think that suddenly the (heat) is off me now that I'm a reliever," he said. "You know, I can guarantee you that my expectations of myself are higher than anyone else's, so I don't get caught up in all the things people might be saying. I never have. And I really don't foresee myself getting caught up in it in the future.
"People are going to say what they want. I can't control what they say or think. Then again, people want to see a winning product on the field. You can't blame them for what they say or have said in the past. I want to see a winning product on the field, too."
And Hochevar has done his part to contribute to this winning product. His transition from starter to reliever has been amazingly smooth.
"I don't know if anything is easy at this level," he said. "It's a different mindset, that's for sure. When you're starting you know you have to pitch deep into the game, go 115 pitches, face the lineup three or four times and not show them everything you got the first time through the order.
"From a reliever's standpoint, all you got to do is get three or six outs so you can sort of rush your stuff through. There's no holding back. Also, mentally knowing you don't have to go 115 pitches, you subconsciously tell yourself not to hold back. You just air it out."
When Hochevar was told he was out of the rotation during spring training, he didn't complain publicly. And he said he didn't complain privately, either.
"I still enjoy starting, but I'm not going to sit around and wonder about things or wonder about what might have been," he said. "This team's too good. We got starters pitching their tails off and we're winning games. That's all that matters."
And quite possibly, Hochevar may have found a new long-term home in the bullpen. His fastball velocity has increased by two or three mph, and he has found himself enjoying the feeling of coming into the game with the outcome at stake.
"You get an adrenaline rush and you ride that adrenaline," he said. "It's fun. I like starting and I like the chess match that goes with starting. Starting is extremely gratifying. If you pitch well and go eight or nine innings in a start, there's nothing more gratifying.
"But then again, the times you get that pure adrenaline out of the pen is fun. That adrenaline you get as a starter usually wears off early. But it never really does out of the bullpen because you're always in a crucial situation.
"It still comes down to making good pitches. If you make bad pitches or fall behind in the count, you're going to get whacked. Simple as that. Some of the same things still apply."
What also applies, though, is that Hochevar feels he is doing his part to contribute to a winning team.
"You're out there a lot more than just once every five days, so you do feel you're contributing more often," he said. "But also, having some success more often does make you feel better. I can't lie about that. Right now, it's better."
Royals fans would agree.