June 5, 2012
Derek Lowe Goes Back in Time
I’m normally not a big fan of blind Player X/Player Y comparisons. I can’t stand the suspense. In this case, though, I picked the players, so I already know who they are. You already know who one of them is if you read the title of this piece, but let’s pretend it’s still a surprise:
We’re looking at the lines of two pitchers with nearly identical rate stats. Both pitchers made batters put the ball in play. Both had above-average control. Neither allowed a lot of homers.
Ready for the big reveal? Player X is Hall of Fame pitcher Pud Galvin, in 1892. Player Y is Derek Lowe, in 2012. Gasp!
Maybe past Player X/Player X comparisons made you too jaded to gasp. But regardless of whether you gasped, this is a pretty surprising comparison. Part of the appeal of baseball statistics is that we can compare them across eras, but this is an awful lot of eras to cross. In 1892, the NL average strikeout rate was 3.3 per nine innings. In 2012, the AL average strikeout rate is 7.2 per nine innings. In the final year of his career, Pud Galvin was a below-average strikeout pitcher in a league where average pitchers struck out four fewer batters per game than they do now, and he still struck out batters as often as Derek Lowe does.
Granted, a lot has changed since the late 19th century. Child labor laws have led to a lot more money burned on babysitters. Most of us don’t remember the Maine. Pinkerton is an album by a band called Weezer, not someone you send in to break up a strike. Baseball has undergone similarly sweeping changes. It’s much more inclusive, for one thing. We have rules about balks and infield flies, which is good, since if we didn’t, someone might find something about baseball confusing. The mound is now 10 ½ feet further away from home plate than it was when Pud pitched. For these and other reasons, Derek Lowe would dominate if he could actually go back to 1892. He’d blow away Brickyard Kennedy, who led the league with 5.1 strikeouts per nine. He’d break every record on the books.
*Kennedy’s Baseball-Reference page calls him “Brickyard.” Kennedy’s Baseball-Reference Bullpen page says he was “Actually known as Roaring Bill, never Brickyard.” I don’t like it when B-Ref disagrees with itself.
Still. The fact remains that Derek Lowe’s line looks like it’s out of another century. And not even last century, but the century before that. You can’t say that about many pitchers pitching today. In fact, other than Lowe, you probably can’t say that about any.*
*Henderson Alvarez is close, but he throws harder, has allowed more homers, and has been luckier than Lowe.
Here’s a look at the dramatic rise in strikeout rates over the last sixty-plus seasons. They’ve ticked up in 2012, too. And then there’s the pale blue dot that represents Derek Lowe, so far away from the league-average line even Carl Sagan couldn’t see it.
Lowe has never missed many bats, but he struck out batters nearly twice as often in each of the past two seasons. Now he’s striking out fewer batters than anyone else. He’s bucking baseball’s trend toward less contact.
After 67 2/3 innings, Lowe’s “strikeout percentage plus” (K%+), or strikeout rate relative to league average (think ERA+, but for strikeouts) is 36. That’s just as low as it sounds. Since 1974 (as far back as the reliable PA against info in our database extends), a few pitchers have managed to sustain a K%+ that low over a season of at least 60 innings, most recently Kirk Rueter in 2005, Dan Serafini in 1999, and Steve Sparks in 1996. Only one has managed to do it over at least 160 innings, and only a couple (Jeff Ballard, who somehow finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting, and Bill Lee) have come anywhere close to doing it with league-average ERAs. It’s really hard to succeed without the ability to miss bats. If Lowe can keep both his ERA and his K rate from rising, he’ll have achieved something special.
In 2012, striking out fewer than three batters per nine innings is almost unheard of. When it is heard of, it’s generally a sign that the pitcher in question isn’t long for the league. But Lowe isn’t just surviving—he’s thriving. We know what Galvin’s secret was: testosterone from ground-up monkey testicles. Let’s assume that isn’t Lowe’s secret. So what is he doing differently, and why did he decide to overhaul his approach at age 39?
Whenever we see a low strikeout rate coexisting with a low ERA in the post-DIPS era, our eyes immediately gravitate toward the BABIP column. That’s where mine went when I saw Lowe’s line. But Lowe’s BABIP is .312. He’s not a mirage, a guy who’s just getting a lot of lucky bounces. He’s actually earning his ERA.
The key, of course, is the sinker. Only 48 percent of Lowe’s pitches last season were sinkers, according to pitch classifications by Harry Pavlidis. This season he’s thrown 68 percent sinkers, the most in the majors. “Without it,” Lowe said last month, “I’m working at McDonald’s supersizing your value meal.”
All those sinkers have had their intended effect: Lowe’s groundball rate has risen from 60.4 percent to 64.1 percent, the second-highest rate in MLB.
In order to work in those additional sinkers, Lowe has slashed his slider usage from 25 percent to 10 percent. The slider was his best strikeout pitch. Without it, he doesn’t have a strikeout pitch. And he doesn’t seem to care.
It’s not just that Lowe is throwing more sinkers. It’s also where he’s throwing them. For the last several seasons, Lowe has habitually missed the strike zone. Mike Fast made these images last February, covering pitches from 2007-2010:
The trend held true last season: Lowe threw just 30.3 percent of his pitches inside the adjusted strike zone, the lowest rate of anyone who threw at least 1000 pitches. It wasn’t that Lowe couldn’t find the strike zone. It was that he wanted no part of it. Low and away is the best place to get ground balls, and Lowe lived in that area. Not only did he get grounders, he got extra strikes. Lowe’s catchers set up with their gloves just outside the strike zone. Because Lowe’s command was so good, the gloves barely budged. Whether they mean to or not, umpires treat the catcher’s target as a frame of reference, and when they saw that stability, they called more strikes than they should have. It didn’t hurt that during his Atlanta years Lowe was throwing to Brian McCann, one of the best framing catchers, but the effect wasn’t all McCann. Lowe was working in a way that enabled him to get grounders and avoid contact while keeping his walk rate at an acceptable level.
Until last season. In 2011, Lowe’s walk rate rose considerably, and he got hit hard. He was probably a little unlucky—his FIP was actually lower than it had been in 2010—but maybe it didn’t feel that way when he was on the mound. And then he was traded, away from the NL and away from McCann.
Lowe knew what that meant. “I need [the fielders] to be ready,” he said in May. “The only hitter I strike out is the pitcher [in the National League]. I can’t do that this year.”
That sounds like self-deprecation, but it’s not: a lot of Lowe’s success really did depend on facing the pitcher. From 2007-2012, the average pitcher has had a much higher whiff percentage against pitchers than position players, but Lowe’s split from ’07-’11 was much wider than average.
Lowe was pitchers’ poison. They missed almost half the times they swung, and when they did manage to make contact, they hit the ball on the ground 82 percent of the time. That’s a lot of easy outs to lose, and to compensate, Lowe has done something drastic.
This season, Lowe is throwing 40.8 percent of his pitches inside the adjusted zone. That’s the highest rate for him we have on record, and only the 25th-lowest out of 76 qualifiers (as opposed to dead last, like last season). His walk rate is down, and because of all the sinkers, he’s keeping the ball on the ground.
When Lowe went from the NL to the AL, he basically went backward in time. He became Pud Lowe. He abandoned any hope of getting strikeouts and decided to trust his defense. He’s intentionally working more quickly in an attempt to keep his fielders on their feet, shaving 1.3 seconds off his average time between pitches. That average is down to 17.4 seconds. Only four other pitchers—Mark Buehrle, Roy Halladay, Matt Harrison, and R.A. Dickey—have been under 18. The benefits of working quickly may be minimal, but when your pitches almost never top 90 mph, minimal matters.
So far, the defense has been up to the task: Indians’ infielders have allowed a .209 average on ground balls, tied for third in the AL and well below the .227 league average. Casey Kotchman can’t hit, but he can make Derek Lowe look good.
All of this came together on May 15 in Minnesota, when Lowe took his new attack to the Twins. He had the highest groundball rate of any pitcher, and the Twins had the highest groundball rate of any team. According to The Book, “GB pitchers own GB hitters.” They did that day. This is Lowe’s pitch plot:
That’s what one of the strangest complete-game shutouts you’ll ever see looked like. Lowe got 22 grounders and didn’t strike out a single batter. He didn’t get a single swinging strike. He threw 127 pitches, and 115 of them were sinkers. Even though he threw higher in the zone, or just below it, he rarely missed up. It was the Lowe-iest of all the starts we’ve seen from Lowe this season.
There are a few reasons to think that Lowe can’t quite keep this up. The relievers who’ve followed him have stranded all 10 runners he’s left on base. That can’t continue. His double-play percentage leads the league by a lot, and he’s sporting a career-low home run rate. Those things could continue, but they could also regress at least a little. He’s allowed three stolen base attempts after allowing 30 last season. The verdict on that is still out: the Indians are a bit better at holding runners than the Braves were, and Lowe looks a little quicker to the plate.*
*Harry Pavlidis and I tried timing him from video, and we came up with times that seemed a tenth of a second or two faster than the 1.5-1.6 he appeared to be averaging last season. According to Jason Parks, you want to be in the 1.1-1.4 range, so Lowe might have improved just enough to avoid being an easy mark.
Let’s recap. A long-in-the-tooth pitcher is traded from the National League, where he’s had the luxury of pitching to pitchers for the last seven seasons, to the American League, where he was last sighted recording a 5.42 ERA as a 31-year-old. Even in the NL, it’s been four years since his ERA was below league average, and NL hitters pounded him to the tune of a .319/.376/.474 line in the second half of last season. He knows he’s no good against non-pitchers. If he keeps pitching the same way, even with a little better luck, he won’t last long.
So he reinvents himself, and not for the first time. He was a starter, and then he was a reliever, and then he was a starter again. He’s still a starter, but he’s taken on a fourth form: Deadball Derek Lowe. He works more quickly. He throws more sinkers instead of sliders, and he throws them in the zone. He pitches to contact. He does things you’re not supposed to do in 2012, and so far, he’s successfully swum upstream.
Normally, when a pitcher isn’t striking out anyone, we say his success isn’t sustainable. Lowe looks like an exception.