With all the injuries suffered by the Los Angeles Dodgers, it’s been the starting trio of Brad Penny, Brett Tomko, and Derek Lowe that’s kept their record at .500. Lowe’s had an interesting career — he led his league in saves in 2000, won 21 games in 2002 with the Red Sox and also managed to throw the first Fenway park no-hitter in 37 years. Last season, his first year in Los Angeles was deemed successful (3.61 ERA) and in 2006 he’s seen his ERA drop to under 3.00. Can Derek Lowe sustain his current level of success the rest of the season?
Right away, let’s dispel the myth that Lowe’s ERA is a good measure of his value. As David Gassko pointed out, groundball pitchers tend to have a higher percentage of their runs allowed credited as unearned because more errors are made on grounders than fly balls. Lowe just happens to lead the majors in groundball percentage and last year his 24 unearned runs were also the most in the majors. This year he’s allowed 5 unearned runs, with only a handful of pitchers ahead of him.
What has me worried about Lowe is that his strikeout and walk rates are returning to where they were during his last two years in Boston. In his years as a reliever, he struck out about 8 batters per 9 innings (K/9), but as a starter, he’s never had a K/9 much above 5 except for last year when it was just below 6. This year, it’s dipped to 4.5; a career low.
Looking at 2002, Lowe‘s best year as a starter, the key to his success (in addition to Rey Sanchez‘s glove) was a low walk-rate of 1.97 per 9 innings (BB/9). When his ERA ballooned into the 5.00’s, his BB/9 also rose to around 3.5. He’s not quite at that level this year, but a walk rate of 2.6 is just too high considering he doesn’t strike anybody out. The last time he had a walk-to-strikeout ratio (K/BB) this low were his final two disastrous seasons in Boston.
On the positive side, all those groundballs Lowe induces definitely help him keep the ball in the park. Last year’s rate of 1.14 home runs per 9 innings (HR/9) was way out of line with the rest of his career. A return to about .7 HR/9 this season is impressive and quite reasonable.
One of the stranger quirks in Lowe‘s career in Boston was his love of Fenway, a hitter’s park. His ERA at home was always significantly lower than on the road. When he moved to Los Angeles and the pitcher friendly Dodger Stadium, that trend actually reversed itself. For some reason, his ERA last year was slightly worse at home, and the difference has been magnified in 2006. Perhaps the spacious outfield yields more room for line-drives to fall while not helping much with keeping his few fly balls from doing damage.
Realizing that Lowe was actually a sub-par pitcher in 2005 certainly changes our expectations for 2006. Cutting down on the homeruns should counter his lowered walk-to-strikeout ratio, but it won’t turn him into an All-Star. He may be able to sustain an ERA between 3.50 and 4.00 with his insanely high groundball percentage, but considering the additional unearned runs he’ll allow and the added benefit from pitching in Dodger Stadium (it’s certainly not hurting his value), that’s nothing to write home about.