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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.