The Cardinals recently extended Jake Westbrook and converted his 2013 mutual option to a guaranteed salary with a new mutual option for 2014. St. Louis also began to shift its focus towards keeping Adam Wainwright in town beyond next season since he’s rounding into form after elbow surgery. Both starters have pitched very well for the Cardinals this season, and are major reasons for the recent surge that has Mike Matheny‘s squad making inroads towards a wild-card berth.
It’s a tad surprising, though, that the team hasn’t engaged in any contract discussions with Kyle Lohse. An impending free agent who has pitched very well in the past two seasons, Lohse figures to draw a great deal of interest on the free-agent market. He likely will hit the market because, according to Jayson Stark, Cardinals executives have told others that they’re going to let the situation play out. Stark translated that to mean “free agency: here he comes.”
The Cardinals already have a crowded and effective starting rotation and Lohse made some sense as the odd man out. Regardless, he’s once again pitching effectively in a contract year, and he’s establishing himself as an innings-eater with good peripherals and solid run-prevention skills. That’s a roundabout way of saying that he’s a very good pitcher. Heading into his mid-30s, Lohse has begun pitching much better than his perception around would appear to indicate.
What Lohse has done over the last two seasons has mostly gotten attention for the wrong reasons — and simultaneously has been overlooked for the wrong ones. His 27-10 record, including a 13-2 mark this year, has gotten plenty of attention. But Lohse is on pace for his second consecutive 185-inning season with a sub-3.50 ERA. He’s also pitched to a 15% strikeout rate and 5% walk rate in his 56 starts during that span. Not many pitchers can boast the same line since last season.
Only 22 qualified pitchers have posted a walk rate south of 5.5% since 2011, and Lohse has the ninth-lowest rate of the bunch. Drilling down, only 12 of those pitchers have sub-3.15 ERAs: Lohse ranks eighth at 3.02, directly behind Cliff Lee. Lohse’s 3.63 FIP suggests that his run-prevention skills might be overstated, but this is now the second straight season in which he has significantly outperformed his ERA estimators. Last year, Lohse finished with a 3.39 ERA, 3.67 FIP, 4.04 xFIP and 4.26 SIERA. This year, he has a 2.61 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 4.13 xFIP and 4.25 SIERA.
His estimators have stabilized but his ERA has gone down, primarily because he has allowed fewer baserunners while stranding them at a higher percentage. He has been able to strand more runners by stepping his game up with runners on base: Lohse ranks 20th out of 98 qualified pitchers since 2011 with a .292 wOBA against with runners on base. He’s also improved his strikeout, walk and home run rates in each of the past three seasons while incorporating more sliders into his pitch mix. Lohse is now throwing his slider 23% of the time, compared to between 14% and 17% in past years.
As a result of his modified pitch selection, Lohse has stayed in the zone as frequently as before and has reduced contact even though batters swing more often. From 2006 to 2009, batters swung at roughly 24% of Lohse’s out-of-zone offerings. That’s a rate that has increased to between 29% and 30% over the past two seasons. His swing rate has increased from 40% to 43% to 46%. His rate of contact in the zone has dropped from 92% to 89%, and his out-of-zone contact has decreased from 77% to 75%.
Simply put, Lohse has been far nastier in these two years than at any point in his career. The last time he hit free agency, Lohse and agent Scott Boras overshot the market, and the 33-year old righty had to settle on a one-year deal with the Cardinals. His solid performance during the 2008 season led to a scrutinized four-year, $44 million contract that is about to expire. With Cole Hamels and Matt Cain locked up, and Zack Greinke in another contractual hemisphere, Lohse could very well sign another lucrative, mid-level contract this offseason. It’s hard to imagine anyone aside from Anibal Sanchez challenging him for that money. The major difference between then and now is that Lohse might actually deserve his deal this time around.