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January 11, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

The Lowe Down

by Jim Baker

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I'm pretty much in shock over the Derek Lowe deal, as I'm sure most of you are. I feel as though my entire understanding of the baseball universe has been shaken down to its foundation. All those years. All that dough.

What makes the deal so incredibly shocking, in addition to the time and money involved, is the man who negotiated it: Paul DePodesta.

I guess we come to expect men who emerge from certain environments to behave in certain ways. If asked to make a list of the clubs that wouldn't sign Lowe to anything more than a one-year deal for around $5 to $7 million, I'm sure we would have all named Boston, Oakland, Toronto and Los Angeles.

Look, most of us long ago got over the fact that baseball players make the kind of money the rest of us will only see if we win some sort of multi-state lottery. We're over that. What we expect from the fantasyland of big money baseball contracts, though, is a certain kind of order. While I think that 80% to 90% of the contracts offered so far this offseason were for too long and too much money, there is, at least, some semblance of order to the layering of years and compensation. Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran cast in the roles of longest/most lucrative makes sense for a lot of reasons.

The Derek Lowe contract--even in the context of a season of silliness--does not.

Why am I so befuddled? Because I thought I had this one figured out from three miles away. Here is what I wrote on September 7, regarding Lowe:

Speaking of the revolution in talent acquisition, I think we've got an interesting test case coming up this off-season that will help us judge just which teams have gotten the message and which teams haven't. The impending free agency of Boston's Lowe will separate the men who deserve their GM name plates from the ones who should have to buy them from an office supply store and play "pretend GM" at home in a converted bedroom. On the surface, Lowe is a starter who has won 50-plus games over a three-year span. That used to count for something in this world. What it should count for in the baseball world of 2005--given all the other metrics available to the men responsible for the multi-million-dollar budgets of big league teams--will be fascinating to see. Will general managers look at the support he has received over the past three years? Will they consider that he is one of the luckiest men in the game (currently fourth behind Shawn Estes, Mark Mulder and Eric Milton)? Will they take into account that during his big year of 2002 he was extremely fortunate regarding the destination of the balls put in play against him?

One of three things is going to happen to Mr. Lowe:

  • A team with more money than sense is going to overpay him for a number of seasons.

  • A team with not a whole lot of money but looking to impress its fans with their commitment to adding new faces is going to waste precious resources on him.

  • He's going to get the cold shoulder treatment afforded Ivan Rodriguez the past couple of off-seasons. He'll end up signing a one-year deal or a very cut-rate one-plus-option.
If the last item is his fate, then we'll know that we have entered an age of enlightenment. If not, then it will probably take a few more years.
Sorry to quote myself so extensively, but it serves two purposes: it lessens my actual writing time and helps illustrate how certain I was that things would not turn out like this.

Without getting into the heavier metrics--the ones like those that DePodesta is portrayed plying Billy Beane with in Moneyball--Lowe had a ERA of 3.20 at Fenway Park and 4.98 on the road over the last three years. Much is being made about how Lowe is bound to pitch well at Dodger Stadium. Is he going to be better than the 3.20 ERA he achieved at Fenway? If so, how much better? If he whacks his home ERA down to 2.00 and, adjusting for the lesser scoring of the National League, lowers his road ERA to 4.50, then the Dodgers have a pitcher with an ERA of 3.50 on their hands, right?

Delving into the more detailed metrics, we find that Lowe has not faired well in one of the Baseball Prospectus calculations that measures context for starting pitchers. For the second year in a row, Lowe has generated the third-highest "Luck Factor" in baseball. There are good pitchers who wind up with good Luck numbers. The top of the 2002 list is crawling with them, but they are often people like Ortiz, Lowe, Estes, Jeriome Robertson, Colby Lewis and Ramon Ortiz. We can all grasp when a team like the Diamondbacks signs Russ Ortiz to a contract like this. They're not really in the loop. The Dodgers, though?

I think everyone of our ilk assumes that DePodesta--who could have gotten what I got on the math SAT when he was still in the third grade--has figured out something that the rest of us are too intellectually ordinary to comprehend. There is this to consider: DePodesta is interested in making a splash, one that will set him apart from the system from whence he came and the Lowe deal is a means to that end. If Lowe, who, from all appearances, put the "me" in mediocre, has a miracle year in Los Angeles, then DePodesta's reputation will grow. Even if Lowe tanks in the final two or three years of his contract, it will be the initial rush that everyone will remember. That's quite a gamble, though. He could have passed on Lowe and nobody would have noticed that he was not on the Dodgers for 2005 and beyond.

Derek Lowe, who out-Russ Ortizes Ortiz on the mound, is now making more money than Ortiz and that illustrates what an incredibly crazy offseason it's been. Even in the context of the lavishments bestowed to Milton, Kris Benson, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, the Lowe deal still seems pretty out there.

It may well be that the Dodgers organization has ciphered the runes and discovered that Lowe is just the sort of thing their rotation needs, but I still don't think it's worth four years and $36 million to prove the point. I think Lowe is the kind of pitcher you offer a year or two at the most, and see if anybody else tops your offer. If they do, then you fold the tent and look for someone a little cheaper and a little more predictable. If you want to prove to the world that you're a savvy plucker of unloved and enigmatic talent, you can do so without having to expend this kind of cash. That's not how Beane made his reputation and it's not the best way for his protege to do so, either.

Which isn't to say that this grand experiment won't work, it's just that the odds are that it will not and in order to play those odds, the cost has to be a lot lower.

Related Content:  Derek Lowe,  The Who,  Managers Of The Year

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