November 19, 2007
Who knew we would end up with a free agent market where Kyle Lohse was arguably one of the top five starting pitchers available? Lohse had a decent year-and-a-half run in the National League pitching in two hitter-friendly parks after persistent issues in the Junior Circuit--what can we expect from the former Twins prospect going forward now that he's available to all?
Kyle Matthew Lohse was selected by the Chicago Cubs in round 29 of the 1996 amateur draft, but was a draft-and-follow selection; he did not sign until May of 1997. The 18-year-old hurler got his professional start for the Arizona Cubs in the Rookie League that same year:
Lohse tied for the team lead in games started, finished second in strikeouts, and ranked third in his league in ERA, though his RA was over a full run higher. Like most young pitchers, Lohse needed to work on his walk rates and limit contact, but the strikeout rate was decent. The next year would see the right-hander promoted to Single-A for his full-season debut:
There isn't much to love here, besides the 170 innings pitched. Lohse wasn't giving up many homers, but it was A-ball, and his strikeout rate fell by almost three full punchouts per nine after his promotion. He did manage to cut his walk rate significantly and improve his K/BB slightly, though his runs allowed rate was roughly the same. He did have a nifty stretch of pitching in July where he allowed two earned runs or fewer for five consecutive starts, and he led his team in a number of counting categories, but that's thanks to 170 innings and no in-season promotion.
In contrast, the 1999 season would see Lohse spending time with three different teams, starting in High-A in the Cubs' system and finishing the year at the Twins' Double-A affiliate, thanks to a trade that saw him and Jay Ryan head to Minnesota in exchange for Scott Downs and Rick Aguilera:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 1999 Daytona(A+) 53.0 7.0 2.7 2.6 0.7 8.2 3.57 1999 Fort Myers(A+) 41.2 7.1 1.9 3.7 1.1 10.2 6.12 1999 New Britain(AA) 70.1 5.3 3.0 1.8 1.2 11.1 6.29
It's not clear why the Twins promoted the 20-year-old Lohse to Double-A when he was struggling to pitch effectively at High-A Fort Myers following the trade, but they did, and the results were predictable given his issues at that point. Lohse didn't strike out enough hitters, and those homer rates were rapidly approaching a danger zone. However, Lohse wasn't uniformly terrible; his appearances were alternately poor and effective, as he posted quality starts in five of his 11 appearances at New Britain after five of seven at Fort Myers.
Heading into the 2000 season, Baseball America ranked Lohse the seventh-best prospect in the Twins organization. Baseball Prospectus 2000 liked Lohse for what he had done so far:
The prize of the Aguilera deal. There's hope that as he matures physically he'll pick up velocity. In the meantime, he's got good command of his slider and throws strikes with his fastball and changeup. He should end up spending 2000 in New Britain, since he's already zipped through High-A ball.
Lohse promptly forgot how to locate his pitches and struggled during a full season at New Britain. Remember, this is a starter with multiple pitches, but none of them a clear out pitch:
Lohse upped his strikeout rate from his last stop at Double-A, but his walk and homer rates stayed the same and he was still giving up far too many hits. Lohse got his strikeouts by living around the plate, but that also caused his hit rate to stay over 10 with plenty of home runs thrown in the mix to boot. Baseball America moved Lohse down in its organizational rankings to 16th for the 2001 season:
No one in the organization is giving up on Lohse, even after he put up ghastly numbers for New Britain. A year earlier, he was the Twins No.7 prospect because of a hard slider, 90 mph fastball, and solid changeup. He won 10 games in 1999 but showed a sign of things to come when he got rocked at New Britain. His troubles in his first full Eastern League season were attributed to an inability to locate his pitches. He threw the ball down the middle too much, especially for a right-hander without a blazing fastball. His breaking stuff held up a little better, but he and the Rock Cats (who finished the season with 17 straight losses) would like to forget 2000. He did finish on a strong note, however, posting a 1.80 ERA with 35 strikeouts in as many innings in the Arizona Fall League.
Baseball Prospectus 2001 had shed any optimism regarding Lohse, noting some durability issues, but he built on the promise from his stint in the Arizona Fall League during his third and final stop for New Britain, although he would go on to finish the season on a down note in his big league debut:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2001 New Britain(AA) 38.0 7.6 1.0 8.0 1.2 7.6 2.37 2001 Edmonton(AAA) 49.0 8.8 2.4 3.7 0.6 9.2 3.85 2001 Minnesota(MLB) 90.1 6.4 2.9 2.2 1.6 10.2 5.99
Lohse cut down his walk rate while bringing up his strikeouts, but the big thing was lowering his hit rate, although homers were still an issue. His debut at Triple-A finished up nicely, though his hit rate returned to a more normal level. Noting the background behind his promotion, Baseball Prospectus 2002 threw out a word of caution regarding Lohse's minor league career:
Pressed into service due to a series of injuries, Lohse had a wonderful minor league season interrupted by a bunch of major league hitters. He's a control pitcher who needs to keep the ball down; if hitters can make him elevate the ball, they'll hit it hard. Lohse's numbers in the minors are solid, but he doesn't have the strikeout rate you would like to see, making him a long shot to be a successful major league starter. He will probably start the season at Triple-A.
The Twins had other ideas, and they kept Lohse around in the major leagues. He performed very well in comparison to his other stint, thanks to a lower hit rate and fewer homers:
Lohse did a serviceably workmanlike job as the club's initial fifth starter, keeping games close enough for the offense to win 13 games. Because he stayed healthy, he provided the eventual division winners some stability, and finished second on the team in SNLVAR. The improvement in his ERA seemed significant, but the changes in his peripherals were slight. For his age, the season was impressive, and he would essentially repeat himself the next year:
Although it might look like there's no significant growth here, he did lower his walk rate. The homer rates didn't change, though, and his strikeouts dipped further. Pitchers with low strikeout rates can survive in the majors and be very effective, but usually not when they are extreme flyball pitchers.
Baseball Prospectus 2004 was somewhat torn in regards to Lohse, like everyone else who saw his act balancing somewhere between below-average and very good:
Probably the streakiest of the rotation's four dwarves, Lohse's got more headroom than the rest of the bunch. His K rate is at least in an area where you might expect some improvement, he's young, and he does have a tendency to show up and look very good in stretches. Too often, of course, those stretches are against weak sister opponents. If the Twins can get 200 innings of league average ball out of Lohse, they'll be happy.
PECOTA wasn't overly optimistic about any breakout potential, forecasting a still-mediocre 4.46 ERA and 4.32 PERA in 173 innings for the 2004 season. Lohse and the Twins would have been very happy if that's what had transpired, but instead they got this:
Lohse had imploded, losing even more strikeouts while giving out more free passes; 1.3 HR/9 seemed to be the going rate for a Lohse season, and his hit rate climbed over 11 per nine as well. His inconsistencies wouldn't be anywhere near as maddening if he didn't occasionally pitch effectively, as Baseball Prospectus 2005 noted:
Lohse has teased us with streaks of effectiveness, which combined with his age encourages people to think he's on the cusp of turning a corner. But after spending the better part of four years in the big league rotation, it's time to liken him to Jon Garland: useful, but mediocre. It's helpful that he seems to have the White Sox's number, the sort of tiebreaker that can make you stick with someone's limited horizons, and he does a good job controlling the running game and fielding his position, so he creates no attention-getting nuisances that might exasperate management.
In a way it's a shame that he didn't have any of those problems to go along with his inconsistency, as they could have sold high on him during the 2005 campaign to someone who was still willing to believe in his age and corner-turning abilities:
Lohse had recovered from his awful 2004 campaign in the sense that his ERA was manageable, but generally speaking, it was more of the same--an ever-falling strikeout rate, homers, and far too many hits allowed to generate any consistent success. It's nice that he can throw quality starts on occasion, as that's important for a staff trying to succeed top to bottom, but the idea that Lohse was more than a back-end starter had no real evidence to support it.
His 2006 and 2007 seasons mirror each other in the sense that Lohse split each year between two clubs thanks to trades, and in both, the end results bested the initial ones:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2006 Minnesota(MLB) 63.2 6.5 3.5 1.8 1.1 11.3 7.07 2006 Cincinnati(MLB) 63.0 7.3 2.7 2.7 1.0 10.0 4.71 2007 Cincinnati(MLB) 131.2 5.5 2.7 2.4 1.1 9.8 5.21 2007 Philadelphia(MLB) 61.0 6.2 3.5 1.8 0.9 9.4 4.87
Besides the fact that the National League's perpetual acquisition of fifth starters makes it nigh impossible to catch up to the American League from a talent standpoint, it's a nifty destination for pitchers who can't quite cut it consistently in the AL. Lohse managed to survive in two hitter's parks despite his flyball tendencies and resultant homer problems, an admirable piece of work for sure. In the right park in the National League, Lohse might even keep his ERA in the fours.
If his performance down the stretch for Philadelphia hasn't bumped up his price, he'd probably come somewhat cheaply on the open market, but the fact that he's been able to average just over 30 starts per year (including his short stint at Rochester in 2006) will guarantee a payday for those reliably-delivered innings. In a vacuum, Lohse is a fifth starter with four pitches, none of them an out pitch, and a guy who can spit out a quality start for you more often than your average fifth starter. If you expect anything more than that, you will be sorely disappointed.
Year P/PA FB% LD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2005 3.7 33.7% 22.1% 44.2% 12.4% 10.5% .311 .341 +.030 2006 3.7 37.3% 19.9% 42.9% 9.2% 9.9% .342 .319 -.023 2007 3.7 41.3% 21.8% 36.9% 15.3% 8.6% .305 .338 +.033
Lohse's last three years of batted-ball data show a trend back towards the flyball pitcher he was in his earlier years, though he has managed to limit his opponents' homers a bit more, at least rate-wise. It will be tough to find a park that will allow his batted-ball data to flourish, but staying in the NL and getting out of Cincinnati and Philadelphia should be enough of a start.
If the Mets were willing to try someone like Jorge Sosa in 2007, they may want to see if the price is right for Lohse and pair him up with Rick Peterson to see what they can do together. Shea is tough on homers for both lefty and righty batters, and Lohse gives up hard-hit balls in all directions against both. It doesn't have to be the Mets, but the key to a club getting its money's worth out of Lohse will be in large part determined by the environment he pitches in.