Indians Bet on Derek Lowe – and FIP

The Braves and Indians consummated the first trade of the off-season today, with the Braves trading Derek Lowe to the Indians for a minor-league pitcher Chris Jones. As a 23-year-old reliever who spent the year in A-ball, Jones is not exactly a premium prospect – this deal was all about money, as Atlanta also agreed to pay $10 million of the $15 million owed to Lowe for the 2012 season.

For the Braves, Lowe was a surplus part given their existing rotation members (Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, and Brandon Beachy) and their quartet of MLB ready pitching prospects (Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, and Arodys Vizcaino). In addition, Lowe’s 2011 did nothing to endear him to Braves fans; he was arrested for DUI in April, went 9-17 with a 5.05 ERA in 187 innings of work on the season, and contributed more than his fair share to the Braves’ September collapse by allowing 25 runs over 23.2 innings in his last 5 starts.

For the Indians, Lowe represents a relatively low cost addition to a rotation that includes Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson, and Fausto Carmona. Clearly, Cleveland likes ground-ballers, but what can the Indians expect out of Lowe in 2012?

If you’re judging strictly by the results, Lowe was pretty bad last year – his ERA was 34 percent worse than league average. Since you’re reading FanGraphs, however, you probably know that single-season ERA isn’t a great predictor of future ERA, and pitchers are better evaluated using metrics like FIP, xFIP, or SIERA. By any of those marks, there are reasons for optimism about Lowe going forward, and the Indians are clearly betting on his underlying metrics being a better marker of his 2012 performance than his 2011 ERA.

However, like Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras before him, Lowe has a long history of underperformance. For his career, his ERA is 3.94, nearly three-tenths of a run higher than his 3.65 xFIP. This has gotten even more pronounced the last three seasons, as during his time in Atlanta, he ran a 4.57 ERA (16 percent below average) while posting a 3.78 xFIP (6 percent above average).

This basically boils down to two causes – Lowe has posted a .321 BABIP over the last three years, and he’s been significantly less effective with men on base. Here’s how his numbers break down with the bases empty versus when he’s forced to pitch out of the stretch:

Bases Empty: 6.6% BB%, 17.1% K%
Men On Base: 9.1% BB%, 12.9% K%

Lowe’s compounded his issues with hits on balls in play by turning into a pretty bad pitcher with men on base, which creates a cascading problem and leads to runs on the board. The Indians are essentially betting that Lowe’s BABIP woes from Atlanta may not carry over to Cleveland, and that if he posts a mark closer to league average, he won’t spend as much time pitching from the stretch. This is essentially the same bet that they made by trading for Ubaldo Jimenez in July and exercising their option on Fausto Carmona earlier in the day, as the Tribe now have three groundball pitchers who DIPS theory says should take significant steps forward next year.

However, Lowe (and his fellow-GB pitchers) might want to appeal to GM Chris Antonetti to spend the rest of the winter upgrading the team’s infield defense. Cleveland’s infield posted a combined -34 UZR last year, and none of the players expected to get significant playing time in 2012 are what you would call defensive wizards. With offense-first middle infielders like Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis, it’s not hard to see Lowe’s BABIP remaining on the high side in Cleveland. That said, Lowe is only costing them $5 million in salary – the same price Jon Garland went for last winter – so even without improvement, his ability to eat innings makes this a low-risk acquisition.

And if his BABIP problems prove to be a thing of the past, the Indians might very well have gotten a nice bargain. There are certainly worse bets to make than that a pitcher with good peripherals will see his BABIP regress to league average and improve going forward. Adding Lowe to Jimenez and Carmona essentially means the Indians have tripled-down on this bet, however, and are basically all-in on DIPS theory. It’s an interesting call for a team with mediocre gloves around the infield, but it will be worth watching to see how it works out.



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I am political science professor at the University of North Carolina. I grew up watching the Braves on TBS and acquired Red Sox fandom during the 1986 World Series. My other hobbies include cooking, good red wine, curing meats, and obsessing over Alabama football---Roll Tide! Follow me on Twitter @ProfJRoberts.


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Eminor3rd
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Eminor3rd
4 years 8 months ago

Maybe this means they’re planning on giving Jack Hannahan a full season. That’s really the only place they can significantly bolster that infield D.

Well, or does cutting Grady mean signing Carlos Pena? Hmm

Charlie Morton's Electric Stuff
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Charlie Morton's Electric Stuff
4 years 8 months ago

I don’t know if it’s fair to call Lowe an “underperformer.” His ERA-FIP difference could be chalked up to pitching in front of some poor defenses in Boston and Atlanta and his high HR/FB rate is similar to that of other extreme GB pitchers. That being said, the BABIP concerns are valid if Cleveland’s infield is as bad this year as they were in 2011.
Another area of note with Lowe is his sudden change in pitching approach this past year. He went down to just 50% fastballs (in his his first two years as a starter, he threw almost 80% sinkers), doubled the amount of cutters he threw, and upped his use of the slider 9% from 2010. Not sure what to make of this transformation, but I’m sure it’s something the Indians are aware of, also.

DCN
Member
DCN
4 years 8 months ago

In Atlanta, he’s been on the same team as Timbo Hudson who significantly outperformed his FIP and xFIP over that span. Hudson’s an outlier who’s done that his whole career, but team ERA was dead even with FIP last year, and actually a little lower (.08/.09) in 2010 and 2009.

So that suggests the underperformance is real.

Cory
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Cory
4 years 8 months ago

The new mix of pitches is to keep players honest against the sinker. The slider and cutter will give them something else to look for.

Bronnt
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Bronnt
4 years 8 months ago

As a Braves’ fan, I can tell you it was clear, later in the season, that his sinker was very hit or miss on any given night. He would have difficulties keeping it down. The increased use of his slider is because it was his most effective pitch, starting around the all star break. There were many nights when it was his ONLY effective pitch.

After typing the above, I checked on pitch type values, and I’m happy to find that they actually back up my observations. Worth noting is that his lack of control/feel/whatever for his sinker is probably responsible for his increased walk rate. A high walk rate mixed with a high BABIP leads to the high ERA.

Braves defense was bad enough that he was going to have problems even if he was pitching as well as he could. He did not.

Dan M.
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Dan M.
4 years 8 months ago

Asdrubal Cabrera is going to be a busy man next year.

lester bangs
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lester bangs
4 years 8 months ago

Fell apart in the second half, don’t like the splits against lefties, getting in late 30s, switching pitcher league for hitter league. Joe Sheehan was begging for the Braves to bury Lowe in the playoffs, and had Atlanta gotten in, it was the right move.

None for me, thanks. I mean Cleveland got him cheap, but he’s a No. 5 or a very friendly No. 4. The AL will knock him around.

Eric
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Eric
4 years 8 months ago

Kinda weird that the Indians were in the market for a soon to be 39 year old starting pitcher that has had 4 straight seasons of declining innings pitched and 4 straight seasons of worsening BB rates. Did I mention he did this in the NL and now he’s moving to the AL?

Seems like the move a pitching starved contender would make, not a young team like the Indians that should be building for the long term.

jirish
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jirish
4 years 8 months ago

I to am baffled by this move. I’m wondering if they are getting ready to move Carmona instead and have Lowe as his replacement.

Dan
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Dan
4 years 8 months ago

Maybe the Indians think the difference between the AL Central and NL East is not as big the the AL vs NL as a whole? That would be a pretty logical assumption I think.

Eric
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Eric
4 years 8 months ago

they can think that, but he’s old and declinging in value and the Indians aren’t a contender with him or without him.

Dan
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Dan
4 years 8 months ago

Or maybe they think it’s worth a $5 million gamble that he pitches better and they can flip him to a contender at the deadline?

Mike
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Mike
4 years 8 months ago

Really I would of loved to see a move like this last year for the Indians, but I will take it this year. They don’t need him to be more then a #5 starter. What they need is someone to warm the seat so to speak while Carrasco is out this year, without breaking the bank. In my opinion it does more then that, it gives them a veteran on the pitching staff who can hopefully help some of the young talent that Cleveland has. He has almost as many years in the majors as the rest of their rotation combined. If he can win 10, eat 180 innings and help just one of these guys along the way, then I will be happy.

Well-Beered Englishman
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Well-Beered Englishman
4 years 8 months ago

I guess this means my assumption Asdrubal Cabrera was an awesome defender because he turned that triple play means that I’m a victim of SSSitis.

Dekker
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Dekker
4 years 8 months ago

Derek Lowe had the 3rd highest BABIP among starting pitchers for a team that was better than average in pitcher’s BABIP. This was a a good opportunity for the Indians to capitalize on some of Lowe’s bad luck and buy low.

DCN
Member
DCN
4 years 8 months ago

Or maybe he really has problems with how he gets hit now and the team being better than average means it’s not the fault of the defense.

DCN
Member
DCN
4 years 8 months ago

In Atlanta, he’s been on the same team as Timbo Hudson who significantly outperformed his FIP and xFIP over that span. Hudson’s an outlier who’s done that his whole career, but team ERA was dead even with FIP last year, and actually a little lower (.08/.09) in 2010 and 2009.

So that suggests the underperformance is real.

DCN
Member
DCN
4 years 8 months ago

Sorry for the double post – browser issues.

Rob H.
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Rob H.
4 years 8 months ago

I’m always shocked how much the Indians org. loves extreme groundball pitchers, but have assembled a (mostly) terrible infield defense.

That Asdrubal Cabrera is nominated for a Gold Glove should make it worse. He’s flashy, but doesn’t have the range for SS. Should be at 2B.

OhNoNotYett
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OhNoNotYett
4 years 8 months ago

I’m surprised Lowe’s durability is being overlooked. 10 straight seasons of 32+ starts, after 4 years of >60 relief appearances. That relief experience and what will be about a $2mm price tag at the trade deadline may make him a nice chip if the Indians struggle.

I’m curious to know if this move could coincide with a possible organizational shift to spend more resources on getting healthy people rather than getting people healthy. While there were countless other factors at play in the decision, declining Sizemore’s option would be consistent with that philosophy.

Anyways, at only 5 mil for one season, this move makes sense to me.

Alex Remington
Member
4 years 8 months ago

At just $5 mill, Lowe’s probably a worthwhile risk in Cleveland. But a big reason he got real bad real fast in Atlanta was that his control got a whole lot worse once he got to the Braves. In three seasons in Atlanta, his BB% was 7.7%; this came after posting a 6.1% walk rate in four seasons in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, his strikeouts declined, and he’s already 38.

He may well have suffered from poor luck with runners on base, but he was personally putting more runners on base than in previous seasons. And missing fewer bats and getting more contact is another good way to yield more runners. Much of his trouble was self-inflicted.

jpg
Guest
jpg
4 years 8 months ago

I agree with Lester. He hasn’t been an effective pitcher for quite some time. He’s pushing 40 and moving to the AL. Not good.

@Jason – For a team like Cleveland, Lowe’s $5 mil salary isn’t cheap. It could account for as much as 10% of their 2012 opening day payroll. He’s cheap for teams with payrolls north a $100 mil, not a team in MLB’s lower third in payroll like the Tribe.

Chris
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Chris
4 years 8 months ago

He’s very cheap when you look at how the Indians wanted to add a back end starter to the rotation this off season and compare estimated contract values of other back end SP’s in free agency.

I seriously doubt that they could have found anyone cheaper in free agency or at a lower cost of talent through a trade

Expos67
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Expos67
4 years 8 months ago

Lowe costs virtually nothing to the Indians, so the risk is very good. With him or Tomlin being the no.4 and 5 starters, the rotation is complete…for the start of the year at least.

Honestly, would you trust more Jeanmar Gomez/Zach McAllister or Derek Lowe? I go with Lowe because if he got something left in the tank, boy, the cost/revenue ratio will explode and if the Indians aren’t contending, he makes a very nice trade bait. If not, well a 23-year-old reliever who spent the year in A-ball isn’t exactly a big loss.

ColoradoBravesFan
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ColoradoBravesFan
4 years 8 months ago

As a Braves Fan I watched Lowe all this past season, The biggest problem was he did not go deep into games the second half of the season. Lowe would give up 1 or 2 runs in the first 4 innings, then he would get into trouble in the 5th inning. So, after 75 pitches in 5 and 1/3 innings Lowe gets pulled with the team down 4 runs and men on second and third. It really burned out the Braves Bullpen when 2 other starters went out with injury.

Lowe just could not get a double play ball when needed. If he rebounds and can go deeper, he should be a solid 3 or 4 for the Indians. Braves need the $5M more than Lowe.

GTStD
Member
GTStD
4 years 8 months ago

While much has been made of his late season issues, I find myself wondering if perhaps a portion of that was due to some undiagnosed injury. As several have noted, towards the end of the season, he just wasn’t relying on the sinker as much, and it wasn’t breaking as well. Yet for all that, he still accumulated 2+ fWAR over the season. If he regresses slightly in terms of BABIP, and doesn’t have the same issues late next season, it’s not too difficult to see him putting up another 2-win season. He’s not a #1 or even a #3 starter, but he’s probably worth $5 million out of the back end of the rotation in Cleveland, who really only have 3 bonafide MLB starters anyways.

From Atlanta’s perspective, it’s probably worth the $10 million to get their young guns into his spot, which should amount to 3-4 wins at least out of that rotation spot between whichever kids get those starts. Add in Chris Jones, an extra young arm to put into Atlanta’s minor league stockpile with the ceiling of probably a LOOGY or 6th inning guy doesn’t really hurt, even if he’s not brimming with potential.

All in all, I’d say it’s a pretty standard Frank Wren trade, which I’m starting to appreciate more and more. The Braves get better with Lowe not in the rotation, the Indians might get better with him, and Wren gets some salary flexibility to try and find another OF or SS.

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