Derek Lowe and Red Flags

Prior to the 2009 season, the Atlanta Braves signed Derek Lowe to a four year, 60 million dollar contract. One year and 15 million dollars later, the Braves seem to be having second thoughts, as Lowe has been repeatedly mentioned in trade rumors.

It’s not that Lowe wasn’t a productive pitcher last year. His 4.06 FIP makes him an above-average SP, and in 195 IP that makes him worth 2.7 wins above replacement. His ERA of 4.67 probably is part of the reason the Braves are willing to shop Lowe, but he’s not as bad as that would suggest. His tRA of 4.61 suggests an ERA (or tERA) of 4.24 – not quite as good as his FIP but still above average, and 195 IP of above-average pitching is valuable. Unfortunately for the Braves, it’s not worth 15 million dollars.

Still, Lowe is only one year removed from a 3.26 FIP/3.27 tERA, the third of three straight sub-4.00 FIP/tERA seasons. He has shown the ability to be an ace-quality pitcher, and even if he doesn’t return to his five-win form from 2008, it’s possible that he could post some four win seasons and be worth his contract.

There are three red flags that come up for Lowe when projecting his future. The first of these is his age. The next three seasons, for which he’ll be paid 45 million dollars, will be his age 37, 38, and 39 seasons. Pitcher attrition happens often at age 30, and the risk becomes even higher at this advanced age. Lowe did see a dip in velocity last year, but he did make 34 starts, and didn’t spend any time on the DL, which would likely be the biggest warning sign that age was catching up with him.

The other two red flags have to do with patterns we see in Lowe’s results this year. First, Lowe’s ground ball rate fell 4% from last year’s 60.3%, already a career low. With statistics like BABIP, we can’t make conclusions based on one year’s worth of data because these statistics don’t stabilize over the course of a season. However, ground ball rate stabilizes after only 200 plate appearances, and this substantial drop of 4% means we’ll see more fly balls and line drives out of Lowe, meaning more home runs and more hits.

The third red flag is probably the most alarming, and that’s the fact that Lowe’s K/BB fell from 3.26 in his fantastic 2008 to a poor 1.76 in 2009. His strikeout rate fell by a point and his walk rate rose by a point. Although it is possible that both of these rates return to form in 2010, given Lowe’s age and the fact that both statistics also tend to stabilize over the course of the season, it’s probably more likely that we see Lowe’s K/BB remain closer to 2.00 than 3.00.

Thanks to his ability to induce ground balls, which even after the drop is still above average, Lowe can still be a productive pitcher, but there are three very good reasons for the Braves to try and get something in return for Lowe’s unfavorable contract, especially when combined with their abundance of starting pitchers. If a team can get the Braves to eat some of Lowe’s salary, they could be getting an asset, but thanks to the red flags mentioned above, it’s unlikely that Lowe will be a 15 million dollar pitcher over the course of his contract.




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18 Responses to “Derek Lowe and Red Flags”

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  1. Scott says:

    One small comment. For the last 4 or so starts Lowe was pitching with a blister on his index or middle finger of his right hand. In the last 4 games in 17.2 innings he produced 3 2B 3 3B and 5 HRs. and saw more flyballs come off him. Going into that game he allowed 43 2B 4 3B and 11 HR in 177 innings. Of course it’s only a piece of the puzzle, but historically Lowe is a better pitcher in the second half where he shaves 3 tenths of a run off of his ERA and increases his K total. This year he did increase his K total but added 7 tenths of a run to his ERA.

    Actually I think it’s possible that the blister showed up around start number 28 for Lowe, But anyway the point is moot and the main point of the article is correct, Lowe by any standard disappointed, and there are tons of red flags.

    One positive for Lowe though is he had all the years in the pen so I think more then alot of pitchers he’s likely to maintain his velocity (for the most part) into his 40s and not experience the massive dropoffs that guys like Smoltz and others have experienced.

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  2. Eric Cioe says:

    Does anyone else think that Atlanta was stupid to sign him to that contract? It just doesn’t make any sense. Why would you give $60 million to a good but not great old pitcher when your team has an embarrassment of riches pitching already? Talk about a short-sighted move.

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    • Steve says:

      did they really have an “embarrassment of riches” when they signed him, though?

      Hudson was not part of their 2009 plans, Kawakami was still an unknown, Hansen was obviously a very talented, but very young pitcher who also had to be put into the “unknown” category at the time, and raise your hand if you saw a 6.6 WAR season coming from Vazquez…

      the Braves needed another guy to guarantee them 200 innings, and Lowe was a pretty safe bet to give them that.

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  3. David R says:

    At the time the Braves HAD to do this. The Mets were seemingly about to sign him, and the Braves were desperate for pitching. This was when everyone though Vazquez would be average to above average, not the ace he was this year. No one knew how Hanson would do or even how much MLB time he would see this year. Jurrjens was a minor question mark because of the Sophomore slump possibility, Kawakami wasn’t signed yet. The Braves NEEDED to go out and sign a fairly big name pitcher. I hope they can get rid of him now that our rotation can survive without him, but at the time this was a necessary move.

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  4. NEPP says:

    Lowe would have been better suited to sign with a team with great infield defense. His home/road splits in LA should have served as warning to any team willing to buck up money for him. Still, the Braves would probably be best served to hanging onto him as they won’t get a good return by trading him this off-season. He’s still a solid 2/3 starter. They won’t get that back and even with their now “vaunted” pitching staff, its good to have a gamer like Lowe who will almost always take the ball every 5th day.

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  5. Dang it Jack, you scooped me. I have something for Hardball Times on Mr Lowe that you will see tomorrow. I’ll dive a little deeper, but there are numerous signs of decline, as you’ve noted.

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  6. Jason Foughty says:

    The fact that the Braves do seem to have a wealth of pitching shouldn’t cause them to move one just to move one. If history has served them well, it can be noted that anything can happen between now and that first pitch of the season. Injuries can and do happen during spring training and even the off-season. Teams that do incur those happenstances before the season seem to be more willing to move more prospect talent to secure their team. Best bet right now is to maintain stats quo unless there’s a possiblity of acquiring a player in the likes of Miguel Cabrera which would mean freeing up payroll.

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  7. Steve says:

    random question: how is Javier Vazquez not a free agent yet?

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    • PWH says:

      He’s a free agent after the season.

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      • Steve says:

        In 2004, the Yankees traded for him and gave him a 4 year extension, which I assume started in 2005. That would have made him a FA last winter.

        Did I miss another extension somewhere?

        I know that something funky happens when you trade a player 1 year into a new contract. The player is allowed to request a trade after 1 season, and I think that’s what Vazquez did when he went from AZ to CHI. Did that somehow alter his contract?

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      • PWH says:

        He signed a 4-year extension beginning in 2004 (so, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007) with the Yankees, was dealt to the Diamondbacks after 2004, demanded a trade the year after and was traded to the White Sox. At that point, he had 2 years (2006 and 2007) remaining on his contract. He played out those two years in Chicago then signed a 3-year extension, covering 2008, 2009, and 2010. He was dealt to Atlanta after 2008 with 2 years (2009 and 2010) remaining on his contract.

        http://mlbcontracts.blogspot.com/2005/01/atlanta-braves_15.html

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      • Steve says:

        thanks, that’s exactly what i was looking for. missed that 3 year extension.

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  8. PWH says:

    One thing that’s noteworthy. Derek Lowe’s problems were supposedly (by him) mechanical. If that’s true (there’s little reason to believe he’s lying), at least some of the problems that led to lower K rates, higher BB rates, and fewer ground balls are inherently correctable. Of course, to account for aging, it’s fair to regress some of peripherals towards the mean, but I don’t believe his 2009 peripherals are truly indicative of his fundamental skills. And if that’s the case, he’s probably at least close to worth his contract over the next three seasons.

    Just a point.

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    • joser says:

      There’s no reason to think he was lying, but we shouldn’t therefore assume he knows what he’s talking about. Pitchers don’t always know what’s wrong or how to fix it; if they did, there wouldn’t be any need for pitching coaches.

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  9. exxrox says:

    I am in agreement of Jason, two posts up: look at the Boston Red Sox of 2009. Their pitching depth was most definitely tested from the beginning of the season to the end. As was that of the Toronto Blue Jays.

    No team ever gets through an entire season with only 5 starters…shit happens, and having more than 5 ML quality starters is sometimes actually a very good use of resources.

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  10. Mike says:

    How do you go about calculating tERA for a pitcher? Do you use tRA and subtract a standard amount, or do you need the individual components (GB%, etc.)?

    And are there any plans to add tERA to each player’s profile page (instead of just having tRA)?

    Thanks in advance.

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  11. He’s a free agent after the season.. thank you so much (k?rlang?ç bayrak)

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