After three weeks of reading this column (you all read this column on a weekly basis, right?) you probably have some expectations. When my editor and I were discussing column names, he liked this one, saying it suggests that I'll look at things a bit differently, with an emphasis on pitching. "Pitching Backward" just kind of fits.
Now, I’m no fool, I can sense what you’re all thinking. It’s been three weeks and I have yet to actually talk about pitching backward. That all changes today. I know, the excitement is palpable.
The subject of this post hails from a land of brats and brews and spiral slides and #WCWW videos. He joined Twitter because he lost a bet on the golf course, he challenged a PGA Tour winner to another bet which he promptly lost, and he shows off an intricate tattoo on his right forearm that has some pretty deep meanings. This Midwestern man of mystery is Kyle Lohse. (Note: Lohse is actually from Chico, CA but he was drafted by the Cubs and has played for the Twins, Reds, Cardinals, and Brewers. Also the alliteration was too good to pass up.)
Kyle Lohse is, in many ways, an unremarkable pitcher. He’s 35 years old and has pitched 14 seasons in Major League Baseball. He has a career ERA+ of 99, a blade of grass worse than league average over the course of his career. BP’s own Sahadev Sharma even noted the distinct average-ness of Lohse in his first piece for BP earlier this week. Over the past four seasons, however, Lohse has been anything but average. In fact, he has been, over the past four seasons, a very good starting pitcher. He’s been 13.5 percent better than league average, by ERA+. Over the first 10 seasons of his career Lohse was, on average 13.3 percent worse than average. That’s quite the shift.
Slider. Curveball. Changeup. That’s how he’s turned around a career that otherwise would have left him to be a minor player in the long history of storied franchises in Minnesota or St. Louis.
Slider. Curveball. Changeup. As a right-handed hitter there’s a 50 percent chance that one of those three pitches is the one you’d see first if I were to step into the batter’s box against Kyle Lohse.
Slider. Curveball. Changeup. If you’re left-handed, like, say, Anthony Rizzo, there’s a 58 percent chance that one of those three pitches is the one you'd see first if you were to step into the batter’s box against Kyle Lohse.
In 2014 Kyle Lohse threw 787 first pitches; 452 of those pitches were a breaking ball or off-speed pitch. Lohse’s 57.4 percent rate of throwing off-speed and breaking balls on the first pitch of an at-bat is good for tops among qualified starting pitchers, making him the poster child for pitching backward.
Now seems like as good a time as any to point out that Lohse hasn’t always been a backward pitcher. In fact, the pitching backward epiphany wasn’t even the cause of Lohse’s career turnaround, which is worthy of a separate analysis on its own. Starting in 2013, Lohse began relying on his non-fastball offerings more, and in 2014 made the full-on transformation into everyone’s hero of pitching backward. Everything from here on out will look at 2014 alone, but it’s important that we keep in mind that pitching backward is only one piece of Lohse’s recipe for success. So with that said, let’s look at the company that Lohse now keeps.
Max Scherzer, Jered Weaver, Sonny Gray, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Matt Cain, Chris Sale, and Felix Hernandez are all among the top 25 pitchers for usage of breaking balls and off-speed pitches in the first pitch of an at-bat. That list of names might make one think that pitching backward is one of those things that separates the best starters in the game from the rest of baseball. Then again, the top 25 also includes names like Jeremy Guthrie, Vidal Nuno, Eric Stults, and Chris Capuano, which might make you rethink that conclusion.
The fact of the matter is that pitching backward isn’t necessarily something that will allow a pitcher to get the most out of his talent. This makes sense; if pitching backward were some unbelievable solution to all pitching woes, then every pitcher would pitch backward and the world would be a much better place. Then again there would probably be a lot more “THIS ONE SIMPLE TRICK TO GET MLB HITTERS OUT IS SO MIND-BLOWING, MLB DOESN’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT IT” banner ads, so maybe the world would only be marginally better.
I already mentioned that more than 57 percent of Lohse’s first pitches were non-fastballs. For those of you who have made it more than 800 words into this column without a solid understanding of pitching backward, I’ll quote a piece from our very own R.J. Anderson:
“Pitching is an art form that requires constant modification and alteration. In order to sustain success on the mound, metamorphoses become a way of life. James Shields allowed 34 home runs in 2010, 26 of them coming on fastballs, and 11 of those on the first pitch of the at-bat. Although the narrative surrounding Shields’ offseason revolved around his biomechanics work, it’s clear that some thought also went into adjusting his approach. Blessed with an ethereal changeup and a plus curve, Shields has taken to pitching backward in 2011. After his first time through the lineup, Shields begins to break out his curveball—not as his knockout pitch, but rather as the pitch with which he begins at-bats. The third time through, he may go to his changeup on first pitches.”
Essentially the idea is that by throwing off-speed or breaking balls early in the count, the pitcher can use his fastball later and the hitter won’t be able to catch up to it. There are a lot of nuances to this, but generally speaking that’s what we’re looking at. I’m also only focusing on the first pitch of the at-bat, but you can see in Lohse’s pitch usage chart below that he consistently throws a lot of breaking balls and off-speed pitches. One could make the argument that Lohse doesn’t actually pitch backward, because his fastball usage doesn’t increase significantly later in the at-bat, but I contend that’s a function of the variety of pitches Lohse throws rather than an aversion to throwing fastballs at all.
Lohse is a guy who thrives on control. When you only strike out 5.7 batters per nine innings, you need to be a plus control guy. To that end, Lohse has seriously limited walks. From 2011 to 2014 Lohse has ranked 14th, 5th, 7th, and 29th in walk rate among all starting pitchers. (I should note that 2014 was an absurdly strong year for SPs limiting walks; it was the first time since 1968 that the league had a walk rate below 3.)
How has Lohse done this? Well earlier this year he told David Laurilia of Fangraphs some of the magic behind his success:
“Coaches tell you certain things and for whatever reason it just sunk in at that time. And one thing the Cardinals had that I’d never had was a lot of video to study hitters. I’m more of a visual learner, and seeing what he was talking about on video kind of opened my eyes. It went from there to me becoming a control guy, I figured out that when you get ahead of guys, they get defensive and have to hit your pitch. People talk about me pitching to contact. I’d rather strike guys out, but if I can get an out in two or three pitches because I’m locating and ahead in the count, that will result in a lot more efficient innings.” – Kyle Lohse
The tools Lohse uses to succeed were profiled by Eno Sarris a while back: Come for the Vulcan changeups, stay for the new and improved curveball grip that Lohse debuted in the 2013 season. The vital component of pitching backward is using it to your advantage and getting ahead of hitters. If a pitcher decides to pitch backward, but can’t find the zone, then any advantage he could have gained from doing so is lost. To that end, Lohse focuses on getting that first pitch strike, whether it comes via fastball or breaking ball/offs-peed pitch. Since 2011, the beginning of his personal renaissance, Lohse is 5th among qualified starters in first-strike rate at 66.7 percent. Two-thirds of Lohse’s first pitches are strikes, whether they are of the soft or hard variety.
Within that Eno Sarris piece I mentioned above, Lohse had a few thoughts on getting ahead of opposing hitters:
Mostly strike one helps you be less predictable. “If I make my pitches and get ahead of the count, and they don’t know which of my four pitches is coming on which side of the plate, odds are pretty good in my favor,” Lohse said, adding: “You become a little more predictable when you are behind in the count; There’s less of a tendency to get caught going into patterns when you are ahead.
It’s not easy to get first-pitch strikes simply by throwing non-fastballs, especially when facing professional hitters. In this day and age hitters get advanced scouting reports and have video of every pitch thrown in every game from which a pattern can easily be discerned. Luckily for Lohse, his five pitches are fairly evenly distributed when it comes to velocity. That is, each pitch is roughly 5 mph slower than the next fastest one, as seen in this chart below:
There’s value in this because Lohse mixes his pitches so well early in the count. Hitters can’t sit on a certain pitch, break, or velocity. That is, if Lohse threw primarily fastballs on the first pitch then opposing hitters could sit on a 90-ish mph pitch and adjust to something different if need be. The problem with that when facing Kyle Lohse is that there’s better than a 50 percent chance that it won’t be a fastball, and they may have to adjust to a pitch that’s as few as 5 mph or as many as 15 mph slower than the once they expected. They walk up to the plate and have to guess, as best they can, which pitch might be coming.
The one thing a hitter can do, in preparation for an at bat against Lohse is sit on a location. There is an extremely high likelihood that the first pitch a batter will see from Lohse, regardless of handedness, is going to be low and away. Just check out the heatmaps for the first pitch opposing hitters will see from Lohse:
In both instances Lohse pounds the low and away portions of the zone. As a guy who doesn’t get a ton of strikeouts, Lohse places an increased emphasis on weak contact, especially early in the count. That is something he mentioned multiple times in the pieces linked earlier, and that is supported by the data. In general Lohse keeps the ball down extremely well, as you can see here.
Kyle Lohse is atypical for a lot of reasons. He doesn’t generate groundballs like you’d expect from a sinker-baller. He doesn’t follow the traditional "hard stuff first, soft stuff to finish" template. Kyle Lohse is an enigma for opposing hitters. He doesn’t just pitch backward when he’s on the mound. Rather, his entire career is like some big metaphor for pitching backward. In the beginning he was just throwing us all off balance, appearing to be a below-average thrower rather than a true pitcher. But now, in the last four seasons of his long career, he’s brought the heat. Just when we thought we had him figured out, Lohse surprises us. I’m sure he gets that a lot.