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:
So what is Lowe doing differently this year from his previous seasons? The
answer comes from his secondary numbers.
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
you want to read more on McCracken’s work, he knows way more about it than I
For a comparison, here are Pedro’s secondary numbers over the past four years:
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.
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
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.
Posted: August 26, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 9 comment(s)
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