When someone discusses Derek Lowe’s pitching strategy, the term “pitching to contact” arises more often than not. It sounds good. Lowe uses his sinking fastball to generate groundballs in which his defense converts into outs. Lowe avoids walks and strikeouts while letting his defense do all the work. Most announcers would praise this approach and if you are ignorant to the common principles of pitcher BABIP, then it makes sense to preach it.
For the first time in a long time, Lowe’s pitching is finding a lot of contact. Despite being one of those vapid groundballers, Lowe’s contact rates over the last three years have resembled league average ratios. 82.1% in 2006 compared to 81% league average; 79.6% versus 80.8% in 2007; and 80.2% against 80.8% in 2008. So, Lowe’s 86.6% rate comes as a little bit of a surprise, especially since league average has maintained mostly static at 80.6%. Without surprise Lowe’s increase in contact rate marks the highest in the league amongst qualified starters.
I took each of the 78 starting pitchers contact rates with 100+ innings in this and the prior season then ran the year-to-year correlation, in which I got 0.5398. That means there’s some skill to missing bats, which is intuitive.
For whatever reason Lowe’s contact rate was its lowest in April, but its highest in June. Even the low watermark is higher than Lowe’s previous rates. Our pitch run values show his slider as the biggest difference. A perennial good pitch, last year it was a great pitch, and this year it’s a really poor pitch. The pitch is moving slower with more horizontal and less vertical movement, which could be a conscious decision made by Lowe. There seem to be three answers to the lack of utility: 1) the change has hurt his command – leaving him incapable of properly locating the pitch, but that seems like something Lowe would’ve adjusted to by now – or 2) the pitch has lost deception.
Lowe isn’t pitching to contact; he’s just been unable to avoid it.