When I asked Kyle Lohse if he’ll be a pitching coach someday, his response was, “In some ways, I already am.” The 35-year-old right-hander is more than a mentor to the younger members of the Milwaukee Brewers’ pitching staff. Last season he led the club in innings pitched [198.2] and ERA [3.35]. Two years ago, with the St. Louis Cardinals, he threw 211 innings and had a 2.86 ERA. Lohse relies on control. Since breaking into the big leagues in 2001 he has walked just 2.5 batters per nine innings.
Lohse talked about his evolution as a pitcher, including the formative years he spent working with Dave Duncan, when the Brewers visited Fenway Park over the weekend.
Lohse on going from a thrower to a pitcher: “When I first came up, with Minnesota, they turned me into a four-seam fastball, slider, changeup pitcher. They had me ditch my curveball. I was really just a thrower at that point. I had control issues and they felt like I could locate the four-seamer better than a two-seamer.
“I was out there trying to strike guys out and didn’t really have a set game plan. Luckily my arm was good enough that I stuck around long enough. I had a couple of decent years and a couple of down years. It wasn’t until I went to St. Louis and began working with Dave Duncan that I really became a pitcher. I figured out what it means to pitch and not just throw.”
On learning from Dave Duncan; “I had heard a lot about his philosophy but didn’t really know what it was until I got over there. The first thing he said was ‘Your fastball is going to be your two-seam. You’re going to learn to control that.’ Part of his philosophy was to pound the zone with that. You can get away with a lot more when you have movement on your fastball and stay down. I really embraced that. I also brought the curveball back in, just kind of as slow-the-guy-down pitch. Another thing he taught me was what to look for in a swing, and how to exploit the hitters’ weaknesses.
“Coaches tell you certain things and for whatever reason it just sunk in at that time. And one thing the Cardinals had that I’d never had was a lot of video to study hitters. I’m more of a visual learner, and seeing what he was talking about on video kind of opened my eyes. It went from there to me becoming a control guy, I figured out that when you get ahead of guys, they get defensive and have to hit your pitch. People talk about me pitching to contact. I’d rather strike guys out, but if I can get an out in two or three pitches because I’m locating and ahead in the count, that will result in a lot more efficient innings.”
On changing speeds and pitch classifications: “I work the corners and am going to take what’s given. I’m going to see how far the hitters will let me go out there — how far outside they‘ll swing. I’m usually not [changing speeds my fastball]. That’s what my changeup and curveball are for. I’ll flip my curveball in there once in awhile. I’ll make my slider harder or softer depending on the batter. I’ll sometimes throw more of a cutter to a lefty, or more of a slurve to a righty. [The cutter] is just harder. I’m staying through it longer and trying to make the break shorter.
“I don’t look at my PITCHf/x data a whole lot, but I have checked it out. I kind of laugh sometimes, because I guess my two-seamer will come out straight. They’ll have me down for eight or nine four-seamers when I only threw one or two. Four-seamers are pretty rare for me. It’s mostly a pitch I’ll throw inside to lefties to set up something else. Or if a guy has a hole I want to exploit, I’ll try to jam the pitch in there.”
On developing his two-seam fastball: “When I signed [in St. Louis] it was kind of late in spring, in 2008. That’s when Duncan said I’ll throw exclusively two-seamers. It took me a little bit into the season to get completely used to it — I was still a little wild with it — but it eventually came around. It was practice and more practice. I’d play catch with it, and every time I threw a ball it was a two-seamer.
“[Duncan] didn’t help with the grip. Everybody has to find his own thing, and mine is pretty simple, I’m just straight over the seams. I’ve experimented with different pitches. Joel Pineiro had his one-seam grip that he threw pretty well. It looked like a Wiffle Ball coming out, but I could never get the right [finger] pressure for it. You’re always tinkering with stuff, but [Duncan] was more about the preparation and the game plan. That‘s how he worked.”
On scouting reports and video: “I get their numbers on certain pitches, but that only tells part of the story. You have to look at video to see exactly where the pitches are, and the counts. I look at [pitchers] who are similar to me, and my past history against those hitters. You can look back and see things like, “Man, that was a good pitch, but the guy stayed on it and hit it; I better be careful in that situation and not throw that pitch,’ Or maybe he got lucky and hit a bloop double, so you feel you can go to that spot.”
On throwing to a spot: “I’m looking wherever the glove is set up, if we’re going in or out. I’m looking there and down most of the time. I’ve got my two lanes and I try to crisscross them with a sinker, changeup, or backdoor slider, I’ll drop a curve in, maybe a backdoor sinker, cutter, sometimes a four-seamer.
“When I’m setting up… I always tell the young guys they want to practice in the bullpen what they’re going to do in the game. I’m focused on a spot. If my ball is moving more that day, I might need to change the spot a little bit, but most of the time, with my sinker, I’m looking just above and to the left [of the glove], because I know it’s going to come back there. Depending on how it’s moving, I might pick the knee or just above the knee. I’m always throwing to a spot, because if you don’t have blow-away stuff you need to locate.”
On having eight strikeouts in his first 2014 start: “There were certain things I saw on video. I elevated more than I normally would and got some strikeouts on fastballs above the zone. They were two-seamers; I just let them run up, and still got movement. That’s a dangerous pitch if you leave it up in the zone, but I threw it above the zone. In a case like that, I’ll have Lucroy or Maldonado, or whoever is catching me, have his glove up a little bit more and I’ll throw above that spot. I’ll maybe throw to the mask. Like I said, everything is visual to me, and I know exactly where I want the ball to go.”
On umpires’ tendencies: “I’ve been around long enough to know which umpires are going to be tight, but everybody is human, so you never know exactly what they’re going to do. They have their tendencies, but I try not to base too much of my game plan around that. I base it more on what I can do with the hitter. Obviously, you’re going to try to exploit what you can get. Being a control guy, if I can get that ball right on the black, I’m going to do it. If not — if I have to bring it back in — I’ll bring it back in.”
On velocity; “Last game I saw some 91s, maybe a 92. But if I’m sitting around 89-90, that’s what I want. If you’re locating with movement, you can throw at just about any speed. I know 89-90 isn’t blowing anyone away, but regardless of the count, hitters don’t know if I’m going to throw a slider, a curve, a changeup or a fastball, or to which side of the plate. Being able to do that is what’s made me successful. Velocity isn’t going to be a big deal for a pitcher like me. It’s about preparation and getting ahead. If they put the ball in play, it’s going to be on my terms.”