Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 1, 2002
BASEBALL: Derek Lowe as a Starter
Originally posted on Projo.com
One of the big questions in Red Sox camp this spring is, will Derek Lowe make it as a starter? I've been arguing for over a year that Lowe's high-hit, low-walk, high-ground-ball profile is better suited to a starting pitcher who gets to start his own innings rather than a reliever who comes in with men on base. The history of bullpen-to-rotation switches is a mixed one and hard to generalize, since the least successful transitions usually don't last a full season (Goose Gossage, Steve Bedrosian and Paul Quantrill being egregious exceptions). The most successful mid-career switches have tended to be knuckleballers like Charlie Hough and Wilbur Wood, who are difficult to generalize from.
For a lot of Sox fans, putting Lowe in the rotation after last season may seem like participating in clinical trials to see exactly how much cyanide the body can handle. (As Bill Simmons put it, "Can you imagine going into a playoff series at Yankee Stadium next October with Derek Lowe as your No. 2 starter? I think I just threw up in my mouth.") But it's never wise to panic just because a guy had one bad year at the wrong moment. Lowe wasn't so much a horrible pitcher last season as a mediocre one with dreadfully bad timing, a bad characteristic for a closer. While he was certainly hit frightfully hard at times, there are important signs that he can bounce back. And even if he stayed within spitting distance of last year's form -- a 3.53 ERA in a league where the average is 4.47 -- he can still be useful.
First, let's look at a critical statistical indicator: strikeouts and walks per inning pitched. Here are Lowe's numbers from 1999-2001:
As you can see, Lowe was off across the board last season, but except for hits allowed, not by much, and he was striking people out at the best rate of his career, which is rarely a sign of a guy losing his touch. The difference in homers allowed amounts to one home run over the course of the season, and while most of you reading this could easily identify the one homer too many, that's a pretty narrow basis for concluding that a guy is washed up at age 28.
The real problem was that balls in play were far more likely to fall in as hits, and recent studies have validated our experience and common sense that say that the defense can have a lot to do with this. Remember: Derek Lowe was, last season, the most extreme ground ball pitcher in the major leagues, averaging 3.57 ground ball outs per fly out; only Jason Grimsley (3.30) and Danny Patterson (3.28) were even close. Isn't it just possible that such a pitcher would find his effectiveness hampered by his team conducting open auditions for middle infielders (to say nothing of Brian Daubach at first base)? 1000 innings comes to just over 110 games played -- and Shea Hillenbrand was the only Red Sox player to play 1000 innings at the same position in 2001. There's no guar-an-tee that the Sox will be more stable this season, but if Nomar is healthy he can't help but improve on the performance of Mike Lansing and Lou Merloni at short, Daubach looks poised to spend more time at DH, and the arrival of Rey Sanchez gives the Sox a reserve infielder who's one of the best defenders in the game. Sanchez likely won't hit much, but any time he can make it to second or short (on Nomar's day off) when Lowe's pitching, that could be good news (I'm less enthused about the defensive prowess of the Veras/Offerman mix at second).
The banishment of Scott Hatteberg, the worst-throwing catcher in the majors, should also help a guy like Lowe who desperately needs to keep runners on first base in double play position, although Jason Varitek isn't exactly Johnny Bench. Opposing baserunners stole 17 bases in 19 attempts against Lowe last year, compared to 15 (but in just 16 attempts) over the previous two years. The base thieves are on to him, and they need to be stopped.
Moreover, in Lowe's case, the strikeout/walk data is also misleading in one important respect. Being a short reliever, especially a setup man as Lowe was for a chunk of last season, has one statistical drawback that can make pitchers look less effective than they really are: they get asked to issue a lot of intentional walks. Derek Lowe handed out 9 free passes last season at the insistence of his managers, averaging 0.88 intentional walks per 9 innings, compared to just 6 over the prior two seasons. Take those away and his walks/IP for the three seasons look more consistent: 1.98, 1.68, 1.96 (granted that walks were down around the AL last season from 3.7 per 9 IP to 3.2). In his three-start trial at the end of last season, Lowe walked just 2 batters in 16 innings while striking out 15, another hopeful sign.
If you're keeping score at home, Derek Lowe wasn't even the reliever who got saddled with the most intentional walks, or close to it. Here are the highest rates of intentional walks per nine innings of pitchers who threw a significant number of games or innings in 2001:
(As usual, I did these calculations manually, so I may have missed someone. For what it's worth, Greg Maddux was among the league leaders in total intentional passes, meaning that he issued just 17 unintentional walks in 233 innings). If you are drafting these guys in a roto league, remember that most of them will be doing more of the same this year, so you can't take those walks out of the equation. But if you're looking at whose record suggests a pitcher in command of the strike zone, remember that a guy like a Ben Weber or a Mike Myers has a bad K/BB ratio because of his manager, not because he's got bad control.
It's also worth noting one caution, however. Lowe has another flaw that may be harder to hide: lefthanders killed him last season, and they were about half the batters he faced; as a starter he can't be slotted against a portion of the lineup and may be more vulnerable to the kind of lineup-stacking that plagues people like Orlando Hernandez.
The stats can only point the way of trend lines and suggest that the ability is still there; Lowe still needs to put more work into finding new weapons to use against left-handed hitters and - more likely to yield immediate progress - on holding runners on first base. He needs to prove that his arm is up to 220-240 innings, although that may seem like a vacation compared to 100 innings a year out of the bullpen. He will also need help from the defense, and if Boston gives up and ships him to a team with a solid infield defense and a good catcher, the results could be dramatic. But my money is still on a solid recovery for Lowe and a lot less anxiety for Sox fans who can watch him leave games, rather than enter them, in the late innings.