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Monday, August 26, 2002

Lowe Support

Jason gives us the lowe down on the topic.

(Note: The statistics used in this article are as of 8/20.)

The same tired old story circulates through Boston every year: It’s August,
it’s hot out, and the Red Sox are fighting for that fourth playoff spot. Each
year the means change a little, but the end goal is always the same. This year,
a devastating duo of starting pitching has carried the Sox all summer. Derek
Lowe and Pedro are not only battling opponents for the playoffs, but each other
for the Cy Young award.

Derek Lowe’s emergence as an elite starter is one of the most unexpected and
amazing sub plots of the ‘02 season. Peter Gammons has been saying for years
that Lowe could be a 15-18 game winner as a starter, but suggesting that to any
Sox fan before the season would’ve elicited the retort “Yah Wicked Retahded!”
Last year, Lowe was a nightmare coming out of the bullpen. He lost ten games,
earned the nickname “Derek B. Lowe” and even initiated a “face” phenomenon among
Boston writer Bill Simmons’ fans for the pathetic, ignominious mug he’d sport
while overturning Red Sox victories. Yet less than a year later, Lowe appears to
be standing toe to toe with Pedro the Great.

At first glance, the two pitchers share eerily similar numbers:

                                               
 ERAOP Avg.IPKW/L
Lowe2.19.194172.110317-5
Pedro2.20.19216820616-3

So what is Lowe doing differently this year from his previous seasons? The
  answer comes from his secondary numbers.

                                                                     
 K/9BB/9H/9BABIP
20025.42.16.1.219
20018.12.810.1.367
20007.82.28.9.333
19996.62.16.9.263

BABIP = (H-HR)/(TBF-BB-HBP-HR-SO)

Lowe’s hits per nine innings has dropped drastically, but it’s a little
difficult to see why. Amazingly, he’s striking out far less people than ever
before. Normally, a reduction in K/9 signifies a drop in pitching quality, yet
Lowe is thriving despite this. This decrease may be partially due to his move to
the rotation; starters tend to strike out less per 9 innings than relievers.
Regardless, Lowe is striking out players at the lowest rate in his career.

Lowe’s walk rate has dropped significantly from last year too, but remains
consistent with the level he established in ‘99. Incredibly, despite striking
out less and walking the same amount of hitters, Lowe’s been allowing far fewer
hits and far fewer runs. The culprit is his opponents Batting Average on Balls
in Play (BABIP). Last year, hitters were Ty Cobb when making contact with a
Derek Lowe pitch; this year they’re Buddy Biancalana.

As Voros McCracken has exhaustively studied, pitchers actually have very
little control over what happens on balls put into play. A pitcher controls
walks, strikeouts, HBPs and home runs. Everything else, including hits, is
dependent on the fielders.

(Check out this href="http://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/20010123mccracken.html">link if
you want to read more on McCracken’s work, he knows way more about it than I
do.)

For a comparison, here are Pedro’s secondary numbers over the past four years:

                                                                     
 K/9BB/9H/9BABIP
2002111.76.3.268
200112.61.96.5.307
200011.81.35.3.236
199913.21.66.8.323

Despite their similar numbers, the Sox defense isn’t helping Pedro anywhere
near as much as Lowe this year. Pedro strikes out so many batters that there’s
too few balls in play against him to do damage, even if his BABIP is among the
highest in the league (like in ‘99). Lowe’s success, on the other hand, hinges
on his fielders keeping his BABIP low.

McCracken’s studies conclude that not only does a pitcher not determine his
BABIP, but that a pitcher’s BABIP is wildly inconsistent from year to year. This
might seem a little scary for Red Sox fans, because Lowe is ducking some serious
odds this year. His BABIP has dropped .146 points from last year. The average
BABIP of the Red Sox pitching staff this season is about .276, a full .055
points higher. With so much of his success derived from a freakishly low BABIP,
can we really call, or expect Derek Lowe to continue to be, a great pitcher?

Yet, I’m not certain that Lowe’s dominance this year is entirely due to
chance. Lowe is an extreme groundball pitcher. He throws every pitch with a hard
spin and biting, downward movement. He’s got an asinine 3.73
groundball-to-flyball ratio, ridiculously far beyond Roy Halladay’s second place
MLB total of 2.71. He’s allowed only 92 balls in the air this season! Trying to
hit a Derek Lowe pitch is like trying to hit a waterlogged marmot-it’s just
going to splat on the ground no matter how hard you swing. Lowe’s always been an
extreme groundball pitcher, and he’s never shut down opponents like this before.
But, he’s never had a defense so finely tailored to his abilities either.

Throughout Lowe’s tenure as a Red Sox, the team featured unimpressive (and
sometimes downright horrific), infield defense. From Mo Vaughn to Jose Offerman
to Manny Alexander to Ed Freakin’ Sprague, Boston provided little glove support
in the dirt. This year, the Sox are eschewing the old standard and actually
fielding well. They’re fifth in the American League in team fielding percentage,
and Baseball Prospectus places them second in Defensive Efficiency rating. The
infield defense in particular has improved dramatically. This chart below shows
where the Sox infield places among AL teams this year in fielding percentage and
zone rating, compared to last year.

                                                                                                           
RankYearFPCTZR
1B200165
 2002125
2B200132
 2002109
SS2001138
 200278
3B200142
 2002712

As you can see, the Sox infield is miles ahead of last year, with the exception
  of shortstop (I guess Nomar is sort of human after all). Last year’s diamond
  featured the bumbling antics of Jose Offerman and Mike Lansing. This year, Rey
  “Dirty” Sanchez, arguably the best middle-infielder in the game, plugs the hole
  between first and second. Third baseman Shea Hillenbrand, one of the hardest
  workers in baseball, has demonstrably improved in the field from his rookie
  season. The decrease in errors at first is explained by the towering Tony Clark.
  Although Clark hits like a prepubescent girl, he’s been a valuable defender
  for the Sox. His enormous frame, stretching ability and wingspan turns throwing
  errors into outs and snags balls headed for Ma Olberman.

If Lowe wins the Cy Young Award he should buy Nomar and Co. Rolexes, because,
as his groundball ratio and BABIP suggest, they’re a huge reason he’s been
unhittable this year. However, while Nomar and Hillenbrand should be staples in
the Sox infield for many years, the right side of the infield’s contracts are up
after this season. For Lowe to continue pitching like this, he needs a terrific
infield defense behind him. Therefore, I’m suggesting the Red Sox invoke a
“defensive platoon” next year for Derek Lowe’s starts.

Sanchez is a topnotch glove man, but he turns 35 in October and the Sox may
not resign him. They should, but if they don’t, the Sox should find another
cheap, slick-fielding middle-infielder like him to play second. Tony Clark’s
career may very well be over, and nobody wants Brian Daubach loafing around
first base with D.Lowe on the mound. I’d like to see a Rico Brogna-type for
Lowe; a guy who plays first like a third baseman, who can initiate double plays
and cover a lot of ground. Failing that, Sox management should opt for a giant
with the stretching ability to turn close plays into outs and bad throws into
highlight scoops. There are a plethora of cheap, fringe Major Leaguers with
terrific gloves who bounce around from system to system because of their
inability to hit. The Red Sox need to acquire two of them.

Traditional sabermetric thinking dictates that you never create two offensive
sinkholes in your lineup, regardless of the defensive rewards. But this is a
special case. When Lowe pitches, you KNOW 4 out of every 5 balls in play are
going through the infield. The difference between winning and losing is how many
of those balls the team stops. Besides, with the Red Sox lineup including
Garciaparra, Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Hillenbrand, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon
and (hopefully) Cliff Floyd next year, they’ll score an ample amount of runs in
Derek’s starts, even without any offense out of first and second. Hell, this
year Sanchez and Clark have an OPS of .680 and .578 respectively, and that
hasn’t prevented Lowe from garnering 17 wins and five and a half runs of support
a game. Lowe can continue to be this dominant with the right defense around
him.

Lowe is a great pitcher, but he isn’t Pedro. Pedro allows so few balls into
play that he wins regardless of run support or defensive support. Lowe puts his
defense in a great position to make plays, but nevertheless, his success is
integrally connected to his infielder’s abilities. If Sox management recognizes
this, and stacks the odds in his favor by putting Gold Glove-caliber defense on
the right side of the infield for him, Boston may enjoy a devastating 1-2 punch
in the starting rotation for years to come.

 

Jason Tuohey Posted: August 26, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 9 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Mike Emeigh Posted: August 26, 2002 at 12:43 AM (#606020)
Just a point of clarification - that 3.73 ratio is the ratio of groundball to flyball *outs*. When you adjust for double plays and hits allowed, the ratio is likely to be quite a bit smaller.

-- MWE
   2. jeff angus Posted: August 27, 2002 at 12:43 AM (#606034)
Interesting topic, very interesting analysis.

BUT you suggest:
"There are a plethora of cheap, fringe Major Leaguers with terrific gloves who bounce around from system to system because of their inability to hit. The Red Sox need to acquire two of them. Traditional sabermetric thinking dictates that you never create two offensive sinkholes in your lineup... But this is a special case. When Lowe pitches, you KNOW 4 out of every 5 balls in play are going through the infield.

True, but optimistically Lowe's only going to pitch 1/6th of the team's innings, so if the Sox are gonna distort their roster design, it's only going to be justified 1/6th of their innings. Yes, it will help all their pitchers to some incremental degree, but not as much as it costs the team overall in lost-other-options for those roster slots. The roster strategey could be justified if you could load up the staff with other Lowe-like guys, but he's such an outlier, I'm not sure where you'd get them from.

I'm a Lowe fan. I watched him pitch for the Mariners, and have always rooted for the guy. My rough benefit/costs analysis says, though, that the maximum return for the Sox isn't to distort their roster to optimize his chances for greater success, but to trade him while his value is (probably eccentrically) high. I don't mean dump him (for, say, Heathcliff Slocumb), but try to cash in on his high value, to either a team that understands your point (a team with a solid infield d) or to a sucker who just looks at his #s and sees how good they are.
   3. Jason Tuohey Posted: August 27, 2002 at 12:43 AM (#606036)
Jeff,

Not sure if you got my point on the fielding. I was saying the Sox should find two cheap guys with real good gloves and start them only when Lowe is pitching. When Lowe doesn't pitch, start better hitters at 1st and 2nd. If you find the 2 players cheap, they act as excellent defensive replacements (especially if they can play more than one infield position) who start 30 times a year, and that's not a bad expenditure of $ or roster space.

   4. Walt Davis Posted: August 27, 2002 at 12:44 AM (#606041)
I'm assuming the years in the fielding table are reversed. Otherwise Lowe's performance is an even greater mystery. :-)
   5. Jason Tuohey Posted: August 28, 2002 at 12:44 AM (#606050)
Yeah, the fielding tables are reversed. Sox defense is good this year, sucked last year.
   6. jeff angus Posted: August 28, 2002 at 12:44 AM (#606051)
RE: Not sure if you got my point on the fielding...If you find the 2 players cheap, they act as excellent defensive replacements (especially if they can play more than one infield position) who start 30 times a year, and that's not a bad expenditure of $ or roster space.

I AGREE abolsutely on the money. And I'm an enthusiast on defensive replacements who can get in the line-up occasionally.

I DISAGREE on that being a good allotment of roster spots in most cases, and specifically in the '02 and beyond Bosox context. The AL OBA/SLG this year (to 8/19) is 332/426. The Beaneaters have 4 players clearly above that (The OFs and Nomar). Varitek is a little below and Hillenbrand a little above. I don't have a lot of long-term faith in either SH or JV as above-average guys; neither carries a lot of leather, SH's offense is being degraded by Fenway (his home/road splits are steep). My sense is there's just not quite enough total offense in the starting line-up to bear the burden of a 1b who can't hit. And with only one scary PH on the bench, I'm not sure I wouldn't rather have a second serious PH instead of a designated Tony Clark.

If you could replace either Varitek or Hillenbrand with a clearly-above average offense-at-that-position guy, I'd be with you. But there's too much offense in general out there for a competitive team to be able to yield power at a corner position in exchange for defense. And except for "personal-catchers" (another concept I support), IMHO, I think there just aren't enough roster spots until September to yield a couple on personal infielders to greatly benefit one pitcher.
   7. Darren Posted: August 28, 2002 at 12:44 AM (#606057)
I'm not sure I'd be as worried as you are about losing the gloves of Sanchez and Clark. Both have played less than half the Sox innings at their respective positions.

Merloni has a better zone rating than Sanchez, in more than 300 innings at 2B. Daubach's ZR isn't as good as Clark's but it's better than Grace's or JT Snow's, so it's pretty good.

Further, from watching them, both seem like good fielders to me--particularly Daubach who appears to have very good range and is good at picking bad throws. Now if the Sox wanted to pony up for Alfonzo to replace Merloni, I could live with that.

Does anyone who's watched the Sox more want to comment on the defense of Merloni and Daubach?

(I can't imagine trading Lowe with the cheap contract he's got right now. I can't imagine anyone would be willing to give back equal value. Imagine if he's only a guy who will throw 200 IP of 3.50 ERA, for $2.5 mil. What would you want to get in return for that? Would you be able to get it?

   8. Jason Tuohey Posted: August 30, 2002 at 12:44 AM (#606064)
I think all that it comes down to is replacing two players (let's say Merloni and Baerga) with guys who have stellar gloves. If we resign Cliff Floyd, we can count on four OF and one SS with above average production. Jeff, you note that Hilly and V-Tek are below the AL average, but I'd say V-Tek is probably above average as a hitting catcher--he's a switch hitter, and very capable of hitting .280 w/ 15-20 HR next year. Lowe has gotten pretty good run support this year, despite having two terrible hitters at 1st and 2nd and that should only increase if he gets a full year of Floyd. Also, if the defenders are starting, that means the two starters become pinch hitters. I don't know if Dauber is the "scary PH" you referred to or not, but he's decent with the stick and crushes fastballs; an ideal candidate to pinch hit against a closer late in the game. If the Sox find a decent hitting 2B to start the bulk of the games, he comes off the bench too, and thus the crap-hit, good-fielders get pinch hit for later in the game if necessary. Granted, this is a lot of supposition on my part.

Darren, you're right, Merloni played pretty good 2B this year. This is the first year I've been impressed with his glove, we used to joke in Boston that he plays every IF position and sucks at all of them. I'm still a little hesitant about Lou's performance this year 'cause he's only played 300 innings at second. I think Sanchez is clearly better, he's got SS range, quicker feet, a stronger arm etc. I would suspect the reason his ZR is lower than Merloni's is cause he's played almost twice as many innings at the position; they've made the same amount of errors.

My 2 cents on Dauber is that, well, he hustles and he's worked hard to improve his defense over the past couple years. He used to be Frank Thomas bad. He's still just not that nimble, and he's not that big either (he's listed at 6'1, but I've seen him stand toe to toe w/ one of my 5'11 buddies in a bar, and he wasn't any taller). He doesn't have a good arm and can't turn a DP very well. He picks OK, but he doesn't have the stretching ability of most 1B, and he can't do the little things most good 1B do (the "jump to catch a bad throw and tag the runner" play, field bunts well etc). He's just not a very good athlete by Major League standards. We had Rico Brogna in Boston a couple years ago, and there was a world of difference. Clark also impresses me much more than Dauber (BP actually cited Clark's D in a recent article), and I even thought Jose Awfulman was a better defender at 1st. I think 1B defense is one of the most underrated aspects of baseball, and that guys like Olerud and Spezio play a far bigger role in their team's success than they're given credit for. Every time I watch Clark stretch to snag a ball, I'm reminded that Dauber would've either had to jump off the bag to get it, or wouldn't have the size to make it an out.

None of this would happen, since there's no way Boston will give up Merloni because of his Framingham roots and his status as Nomar's wingman on the Boston club scene(we gave up Eckstein to keep Merloni, for Christ's sake). Merloni and Dauber may continue to improve their D too, but my thoughts were that two no-hit defensive replacements with great gloves are generally expendable, but become extremely valuable contributors with Lowe on the mound, and all it would really cost would be replacing two back up infielders.
   9. Dylan Posted: September 15, 2002 at 12:46 AM (#606174)
How about this to shore up the D for Lowe? Move F. Sanchez to third (SS's can play 2B, why not 3B, plus he's played there in the past). Then move Hillenbrand over to first (which he is fine at) and retain R. Sanchez for second and spot short. I'd like to move Nomar to 3rd but sorry, you can't do that to stars. Still Garciaparra, 3B, R. Sanchez SS, F. Sanchez, 2B, and Hillenbrand 1B is pretty attractive. If F. Sanchez continues to impress and wins that starting spot I've so far in this post assumed that he will, then pose the question to Garciaparra. That defines the IF, and the Sox still get plenty of production. Hillenbrand plays 1B and vastly upgrades, F. Sanchez is solid offensively (if with little power) at 3rd, Garciaparra at short will be much better than last year, on offense and defense, and Rey Sanchez can hit a little at second. With an outfield of Damon, Floyd, and Nixon, plus Ramirez, the lineup is in fact made better, while the defense is shored up. And when Hanley Ramirez is ready ('04 or '05) Then the sox can get rid of Rey.

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