Ostensibly, Kyle Lohse and I talked about the evolution of his approach last week before a game against the Giants. He showed me some grips and talked about how his arsenal has changed since he was in Minnesota. But — as it happens when you start talking about baseball’s intricacies — our conversation ended up straying into the economics of baseball, the psychology of the pitcher/hitter matchup, and even performance-enhancing drugs.
Apparently, the Minnesota system likes the changeup as much as the Oakland system does. “You couldn’t get through Double-A without a changeup,” Lohse said of his time in the Twins’ minors, “I tried every grip: circle change, two-seam, four-seam, and I couldn’t get anything to work, they were all too hard until I found that one.” As you can see, his current changeup looks like a split-finger in the middle of his hand, but he calls it a “vulcan.” That pitch has probably been his best pitch throughout his career, but for Lohse, the reason he liked it at first was simple: “it comes out like a four-seamer so they don’t see it right away.”
Things have changed some since he left the American League. “Obviously in St. Louis, I switched pretty much all four-seamers to two-seamers,” Lohse said of his time under Dave Duncan‘s tutelage. The pitcher says the pitching mix decision was all his, but that it was a natural decision given the coach’s philosophy of “pound the zone down, use the sinker, don’t be afraid of contact, and keep the pitch down.” PITCHf/x has a hard time with his two fastballs, but Brooks Baseball confirms: In 2007, Lohse threw half four-seamers and half two-seamers. Since then, he’s thrown about 88% of his fastballs with the two-seam grip.
But that wasn’t the only driver of his resurgence in St. Louis. Coming into those years, Lohse threw strike one at about a league average rate. 2008, he was getting his feet wet. “I went through ’09 and ’10 where I was hurt and I’d like to erase all of those stats,” Lohse said. Since 2011, Lohse is third among qualified pitchers at getting strike one. And that focus on strike one is one of the “main things” Lohse points to when people want to know what the difference is now: “Get ahead of guys and make pitches.”
Mostly strike one helps you be less predictable. “If I make my pitches and get ahead of the count, and they don’t know which of my four pitches is coming on which side of the plate, odds are pretty good in my favor,” Lohse said, adding: “You become a little more predictable when you are behind in the count; There’s less of a tendency to get caught going into patterns when you are ahead.”
But pitchers have to remain vigilant about falling into patterns even if they focus on strike one. “About half way through 2011, we started noticing a lot of lefties sitting soft,” Lohse said. “So now, pound ’em in with the fastball/slider — once you see the swing change, or the way they take it, the changeup down and away is back open.” Since May first of 2011, Lohse’s slider usage against lefties has doubled.
Even these days, with four pitches working and ahead in the count most of the time, Lohse has to have backup plans. “You got plan A. What you see on film, what you see in the numbers,” Lohse said he tells young pitchers. “Well, what happens when you go warm up and you don’t have your stuff that day? … Or you notice they game-planned pretty good for this game.” When that happens, you better have “Plan B: Where you execute one pitch at a time.”
One of Lohse’s plan Bs has come into effect this year. He changed the grip on his curveball. Lohse: “It’s got a little more depth to it. Not as big as a hump. Before you could see it go up out of my hand, and you don’t want that.” The Brewers starter is now using the pitch almost ten percent of the time (up from six percent), and it’s showing an inch less vertical drop — which might be fitting of a new grip (below, right) that looks a little more like a slider grip. Lohse is using the pitch as “a cheap strike, first pitch, dropping it in there,” as he put it — almost a quarter of the time on the first pitch, second most in his arsenal.
Lohse joked that the new curveball was the result of “a little extra time this offseason to experiment,” so we started talking about baseball’s new rules that resulted in his late signing with Milwaukee. He was up front about his main belief — “Teams obviously were wary of giving up the first round draft pick” — but also opened up with more specifics: “Teams with protected picks weren’t going to pick me because they were in a rebuilding mode,” and weren’t looking for a “win-now kind of guy,” while contenders “didn’t want to give up the pick.”
It was a “strange offseason” according to the pitcher, but he’s interested in what will happen going forward. “We’ll see how the second year of the CBA works out,” Lohse said. “You didn’t see as many trades this year, did you? All these older guys who are coming up on free agency are more valuable to hold on to and then you can offer them the qualifying offer, one year, you don’t have to give them a multi-year deal, and you might even get a compensation pick. I personally think it’s going to kill the free agent market for some of the veterans with eight, nine, ten years of experience. Free agents that teams don’t want to give a three-year deal to, they don’t have to now. If they turn down the qualifying offer, they can use that against them.”
It worked out well for Lohse despite the strange path, and he’s happy with his team despite some of the trying obstacles set in their path. The new home park with it’s homer-happy ways? “You can use it as an excuse, or you can use it as a motivator,” said Lohse. “I’ve given up a lot more homers this year and it hasn’t necessarily all been at home. On the flip side, most of them have been solos.” Strike one, still helping him out.
When the conversation turned to his teammates, we inevitably crossed steroid’s path. Lohse joked that “apparently everyone was doing them” back in 2001 when he first came up with the Twins, and that “maybe those ERAs in the fours I was putting up weren’t that bad” when “every second basemen was hitting thirty homers.” But when it comes to temptations of his own, he shakes his head: “I bet on myself — take my chances on me, not looking for a shortcut, and I work hard and I’m proud to say I’ve never done anything like that.”
“If you’re going to be successful here, you have to trust yourself,” said Lohse, offering a segue. Sometimes you just have to put your best up against another’s best. When he looks at a lefty batting .350 against changeups, Lohse thinks “that’s not my changeup.” He’d rather know how that player did against his changeup. And stay out of bad counts where he needs to throw it. And even if a hitter’s strength lines up with his own, Lohse says you can “learn how to use that” by teasing hitters with pitches they like, just a bit too far from the zone.
For a pitcher that was once thought of as surly and hot-headed, Lohse comes off remarkably even-tempered and wise. “Whatever’s working, that’s what I’m going to go with,” is his primary motto, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t worked and thought hard about getting himself in the right position to succeed. Throw strike one, execute four pitches, and remain unpredictable: that’s Kyle Lohse.