Lowe and behold
For starters, the Tribe added him via trade three days after the conclusion of the World Series. Boom. Rotation hole filled. And still more than three months of offseason left on the board.
Then, there was Lowe’s ugly 2011 stat line. He went 9-17 with a 5.05 ERA in arguably his worst season in the Majors. To top it off, Lowe will turn 39 years old on June 1.
It’s not hard to see why this deal didn’t exactly excite most Tribe fans.
That said, this was a chance for the Indians — a team that has been hurt by injuries for the past few years — to add a durable veteran starter at a low cost. Atlanta is picking up $10 million of Lowe’s $15 million salary in 2012. For Cleveland, it’s an affordable price to pay for a pitcher capable of offering 200 innings and lots of ground balls.
There is also reason to believe Lowe might be on the cusp of a solid comeback campaign in a Cleveland uniform. Now, his days as a 20-win, Cy Young contender clearly seem to be behind him, but there is nothing to say that Lowe can’t rebound to the tune of 12-14 wins for the Tribe. As a Nos. 3-4 starter, that’s just fine.
When determining if a pitcher can indeed enjoy that kind of comeback, you need to look at his previous season (sans the win-loss record) in comparison to other recent seasons. Within the numbers, you can spot trends that might give some insight into what Lowe is capable of doing and what he’ll aim to correct for 2012.
What follows is a chart that shows Lowe’s production over the three-year period from 2008-10. Then, I compared those averages to his 2010 and 2011 seasons. The fourth column is his career averages. I left a few categories blank due to Lowe’s past history as a reliever and as a starter.
Take a look.
After you’ve absorbed all that for a couple minutes, take some time to also examine this next table. This shows Lowe’s trends, along with the hitters he’s faced, over the course of the past three seasons.
Still with me?
What we can see from the first chart is that Lowe’s hits allowed and walk rates spiked last season compared to other recent years. Beyond that, Lowe has been remarkably consistent pretty much across the board. His strikeout ability has actually increased as he’s aged.
So, what gives?
The second chart reveals more of what happened during his 2011 season. To start with, hitters had a bit more luck putting the ball in play (BABIP) in 2011 compared to 2010. That said, the average on balls in play was the same in ’11 as in ’09, when he won 15 games for the Braves.
This leads us to Lowe’s pitch usage in 2011. Over the past three years, the percentage of fastballs thrown has increased (down to 50% in 2011). Lowe started featuring a cutter more often and he turned to his slider and changeup at increased rates again. The result was fewer pitches in the strike zone in 2011.
Even so, Lowe’s strike rate and first-pitch strike rate were actually on par or better than in recent years. But he turned to offspeed offerings more often in an effort to put hitters away. This led to the higher strikeout rate, but is also led to hitters watching more pitches from Lowe than in years past.
That’s where the increase in walks comes into play. When hitters swung, they swung and missed more often. When they didn’t swing, Lowe enjoyed an improved looking strikeout percentage, but he did not enjoy the increased traffic due to walks. More traffic means more pitches per inning, which means a quicker exit.
On top of all of this, Lowe took the mound with the worst run support of his long career. Last season, the 3.1 runs of support he received on average in his starts did nothing to help the problems he ran into on his own on the hill. That’s how a pitcher can wind up with a 9-17 record.
What does it all mean? It means that righting the ship for Lowe might be as simple as an adjustment in his pitch use in 2012. He still induced grounders at a strong rate. He still kept the ball in the yard and he kept the line-drive percentage on par with his career average.
The Indians have made a lot of gambles this winter, including acquiring Lowe after a down season. Given the peripheral numbers from last year and years past, it looks like Lowe is a good candidate to turn things around for the most part. It is one of the many “ifs” that the Indians are banking on this year.