What’s Going on with Derek Lowe?

When the Indians traded for Derek Lowe immediately after the 2011 season, I thought it was a pretty shrewd move.  They were buying low—PUNS!!—on a pitcher who had run into some incredibly tough luck during the 2011 campaign.  Atlanta seemed a bit eager to cut bait with him due to his terrible close to the 2011 season: from August 2nd until the end of the season, opposing batters hit .316/.370.485 off Lowe over 57.2 innings resulting in a 6.24 ERA.

But anyone with even a cursory grasp of pitching peripherals could see that Lowe’s 2011 season had all the traditional markings of an outlier. His batting average on balls in play was unusually high at .327. He stranded fewer than 66% of his base runners.  His walks were up a bit from his career rate, sure, but he actually increased his strikeout rate too.  Have a look:


More than anything, 2011 looked like one of those unfortunate seasons where everything seemed to go wrong: batted balls became hits and base runners became runs more often than normal. That stuff is mostly random—pitchers tend to hover around .300 on batted balls and a 70% strand-rate no matter who they are—and the Indians were right to jump on the bargain when they did.

So for $5 million (the Barves, by the by, are paying Derek Lowe $10 million this season not to pitch for them) and a non-prospect, it seemed more than worth the risk. The Indians had every reason to believe that Derek Lowe would revert to the pitcher he’d been throughout his career.  For reference, here are Lowe’s career numbers as a starter:


Those are good numbers. Not great numbers, mind, but combine them with veteran leadership, durability, and any other intangibles you want to tack on for good measure and they’re plenty worth a $5 million gamble.

So as I said: I was onboard with this move.  Seemed to make good sense—never too much middle-of-the-road pitching, and whatnot.

But what we’ve seen so far in 2012 has been anything but middle-of-the-road.  After yesterday’s complete game shutout of the Minnesota Twins, Lowe is sitting pretty with a 6-1 record and a 2.05 ERA.  Among qualified AL starters he now ranks first in ERA, first in groundball percentage, first in pitcher wins and twelfth in innings pitched.  He has done all this while sustaining a completely normal BABiP, by the way, of 0.300.

So what gives?  How did a mid-rotation, soon-to-be 39 year old groundballer just become Roy Halladay?  I’ll be honest: I have no idea.

All the normal places I look suggest that this just shouldn’t be happening.  For instance, if Lowe has a completely normal BABiP rate of .300, how is he stranding almost 85% of his base runners (he’s fourth in the league)?  You’d think that if his batted balls drop in for hits at a normal rate, he’s bound to have more of those runners score, no?

Furthermore, his peripherals so far this season are actually much worse than they were last year.  As mentioned above, Lowe struck out 16.5% of the batters he faced in 2011 and has struck out 15.4% for his career.  So far in 2012?  It’s only 5.8% (!), which makes him, BY FAR, the least strikeout-prone pitcher in the AL this season.

I should mention here that I have a piece in the works that would argue that low K-rates are no big deal, as long as your walk-rate goes down accordingly.  You want to maintain between 2 and 3 strikeouts for every walk you issue, no matter if you strikeout 25% of batters or 6%.  After all, Josh Tomlin struck out only 4.84 batters per nine innings pitched last season but still had a brilliant K/BB of 4.24—good for fourth best in the AL—due to his excellent command.

So back to Lowe: who cares if he’s not striking anyone out, as long as he’s not walking anyone either, right?  But he is walking people—a lot of them, in fact.  At least in relation to his strikeouts.  Right now, Lowe’s K/BB ratio is 0.76, meaning that for every strikeout he records, he allows about 1.3 walks.  Remember, you want that K/BB ratio to be above 2.00. Last season the worst AL K/BB rate belonged to Brad Penny at 1.19.  No one else sustained a rate below 1.63.  Right now the Indians have two starters below 1.00—with Ubaldo checking in at an execrable 0.80.  For the record, Derek Lowe’s current K/BB ratio of 0.76 is the worst among MLB starters this year.

So if his peripherals are bad and his luck is average, how is Lowe sustaining this run?  It seems to contradict what we know about the way baseball works.

Well, there are probably a few reasons.

First, his luck isn’t exactly “average” so far this year.  While his BABiP is plenty normal, he’s allowing home runs on only 5.7% of his flyballs, compared to about 12.3% for his career.  We probably shouldn’t expect that to continue: flyballs typically become home runs at a pretty steady rate, and 5.7% is really low.

On top of the home runs, Lowe has already induced 10 ground ball double plays in only 223 plate appearances, which leads the Major Leagues.  For his career, he’s recorded a GIDP once every 36 plate appearances, but this season it’s once every 22.  That’s a huge jump—and probably unsustainable, what with old dogs and new tricks being what they are—that likely contributes significantly to his oddly high strand-rate this season.

Maybe the Luck Fairy is just paying Lowe back for all the trouble heaped on him in his final few months in Atlanta?  After all, for someone who just couldn’t catch a break near the end of last season, it would seem just if there were some cosmic redistribution—recompense for all those seeing-eye singles that drove him out of Atlanta in such infamy.

But that’s not how luck works—at least not in this instance.  Because when we say luck, what we really mean is “random variation”.  And anyone who’s ever sat at a roulette wheel knows that the next spin has nothing to do with the previous five.  Just because the ball landed black five times in a row doesn’t mean it’s any more likely to land red on the next spin.  That’s not how probability works, and when we measure the random statistics like HR/FB and LOB%, the story is the same.  Blips and streaks happen, but that doesn’t mean the roulette ball is weighted, and it doesn’t mean the Derek Lowe is Sandy Koufax.

I know these sorts of pieces are not typically well-received: it comes off as cynical pessimism of the worst sort, when all I’m really trying to do is answer the questions that pop into my mind.  I’m not trying to beat up on Derek Lowe, honest.  As I said above, I loved the trade that brought him here, and I think he’s going to be a valuable piece of our team, both because of his on-field performance and his clubhouse leadership.  I think the trade looked even smarter in retrospect, when Fausto got held up at a Dominican airport, and smarter still on May 16, with Lowe leading the AL in everything that matters.

This was a good trade, and I’m happy we made it.  We’re a better team for rostering Derek Lowe, and even though I’d be pretty surprised if Derek Lowe wins the ERA title this season, the numbers he’s putting up now—perhaps against all odds—still count.

We’re a first place team with a pitcher who’s leading the league in ERA.  While it might not last, that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it.

  • Ricodespeedstra

    Cue the “but Dolan is cheap…” in 3, 2, 1…

  • 5KMD

    It helps that this very small sample includes the Twins who are not very good.

    “Just because the ball landed black five times in a row doesn’t mean it’s any more likely to land red on the next spin.”

    I keep telling my wife that when she insists we will have a girl since we already have 3 boys.

  • TSM

    I would hope that Masterson is learning how to be an effective sinkerball pitcher from watching Lowe.   The other young pitchers on the staff could also benefit from his professional approach. 
    @5kmd – we spun the wheel a 4th time after 3 boys and got…….another boy.   At least we could pass down the clothes, toys and sports equipment.

  • CoreyBobcat2005

    Something is to be said for the Tribe defense as well..

  • BisonDeleSightings

    Yes, yes, yes.  And don’t forget the job by Antonetti to put a good infield defense out there in the first place with Hannahan and Kotchman.

  • Redgingy

    I agree wit the article. I also think that due to the DH in the American League, Lowe gets more rest during the game than in the NL. This may be one of those intangibles for a veteran like him..

  • Vindictive_Pat

    The funny thing is, the walks and lack of strikeouts are probably what is directly contributing to his spike in double play balls.  The Indians have a better defensive infield than the 2011 Braves (I assume), so with the high amount of groundballs that Lowe produces, he’s going to get a bunch of double plays when batters do put the ball in play.  I wonder just how good our infield really is, defensively.  To the naked eye, we have 4 guys who should all be gold glove candidates.  You’d think Kipnis would be the weak link, but he’s looked pretty fantastic.  Also, if Lowe is somehow keeping his pitches down in the zone more consistently, his sinkers are going to turn into groundballs at a higher rate than last year.  I don’t know what the stats would say about that, but that’s what the naked eye tells me (and I’m not pooh-poohing the stats, I love me some stats).

  • Vindictive_Pat

    FYI, Seattle/Cleveland is the free game of the day at 7pm.  w00t.

  • 5KMD

    Yeah, we haven’t bought new stuff ever. The way kids grow they wear these outfits like twice.

    Wife still has some pink clothes she bought at the beginning of this adventure. Still won’t give them away just in case.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Actually, I think I read that you’re more likely to have another boy given that you have already had 3 boys and 0 girls… chromosomes be crazy like dat.

  • mgbode

    Asdrubel and Kipnis have formed a nice double-play tandem as well.

  • Hermie13

    Dont you have to live outside if the area still to get the free game of the day? Or is it bot blacked out?

  • Hermie13

    Lowe is in a contract year. Arguably his best year in LA was 2008 when he was pitching for a new deal.

    No real data to back up the ‘bump’ one may get from a contract year but its something we have seen before…

  • AlexMathews

    Kotchman, Hannahan, and Cabrera I’d say are all infield gold glove candidates based solely on *potential*…not sure if they’ll all live up to it this year though. Who is the 4th guy? Kipnis? Because I’d say he’s squarely average, defensively.

  • 5KMD

    I’m sure she’ll have me eating all kinds of weird stuff based on articles in magazines.

    I’ve been told boys are easier but I am a bit envious when I see my nieces sitting passively playing with toys for hours as my guys are literally jumping off the walls. I’ve gotten to the point where I take them to the Y and have them run laps around the track at night for no other reason than to tire them out.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Yeah Kipnis is the 4th… this comment was based purely on watching and listening to the radio that’s why I would love to see some stats to back it up… he doesn’t make flashy plays, but man he sure seems to cover a lot of ground.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Not sure about this… I haven’t lived in Cleveland for years, so haven’t had to check.

  • mgbode

    your boys tire out?  I try to tire my sons out by having them run, play tag, play sports, etc.  It just seems to rile them up.

    girls are different for sure.  not easier, not harder, but different.  with 3 older brothers showing her the ropes, I wouldn’t expect a passive playing daughter though 🙂

  • mgbode

    yes, you have to live outside the area as STO has rights to the game inside.

  • kjn

    The LOB% is what is making Lowe’s good year look amazing.

  • kjn

    Good to know. Thanks.

  • 5KMD

    I love kids. They don’t sleep until they are exhausted and they don’t eat until they are famished. And they stop eating the moment they are no longer hungry. There could be one bite of hamburger left and they drop it and go play.

    Man, this has gotten off topic.

  • mgbode

    Derek Lowe is 38yo, he probably has some kids 🙂

    and yes, kids are great.   you left off that they don’t go to the bathroom until they have to go so bad that they can barely make it there in time.  always hilarious 🙂

  • DatOneFan

    He is

  • BIKI024

    yep, he left the wife and kids a few years back while in LA for a sportscaster

  • mgbode

    what?  well, I remember his DUI with the Braves, but didn’t remember that one.  sort of spoils the feel-good nature to his story.

  • Kildawg

    If you live outside the Indians broadcast area, MLB.TV Premium is worth the hundred-twenty or so per year, whereas the regular set only gets you the home team’s TV (Chicago and Detroit are two of the worst), or use a computer and Internet for the Audio Only option, which is $20.

  • akzipper

    Lowe has been impressive, but to think this can last all year is kinda foolish. Anyday he can hit a snag and end up in the same slump he was in last year. I just find it odd to think that a veteran pitcher, as old as him, all of a sudden is going to dominate all season. Most likely a fluke. In other news, Ubaldo is pitching against King Felix tonight….uh oh this is going to be rough!!

  • mgbode

    premium also gets you the streaming option on your phone and other devices (but not the Wii yet…dangit)

  • BIKI024

    FWIW, he ended up marrying her..  hopefully he’s a good dad though, they would really love Progressive Field

  • mgbode

    see peripheral stat explanation.  no, he likely won’t lead the AL in ERA, but he shouldn’t sink to last year’s depths either.

  • NoVA Buckeye

    but Dolan is cheap…

  • Tom

     Cabrera is pretty much the worst defensive shortstop in the league. Don’t let the quick hands fool  you. He has horrible range and a noodle arm. Still love him though.

  • I have 3 brothers, then my parents took one last try and got the girl. And the only trick I know, is that if you time it right with the woman’s cycle (Sorry this is getting WAY off topic and a little weird), male-chromosome-bearing sperm are faster, but female ones live longer, so if you figure out the cycles and time it, you can improve chances on getting a boy or girl. Soooo, yeah. Derek Lowe IS awesome.

  • Ritz

    For a sinkerballer like Lowe, strikeout rate is almost meaningless. He does not try to strike people out. Just focused on using his very good sinker.