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From Busch to Miller, Kyle Lohse Finds a New Home

Given his initial contract demands, three years at about $15 million per year, and what he signed for, three years at $11 million per year, it’s hard to argue that Kyle Lohse was one of the offseason winners. That said, the initial responses to the deal seem to point to the idea that even if Lohse lost, the Brewers didn’t exactly win by signing him. The money isn’t likely to be an issue with the deal – Lohse only needs to be worth about two wins a season to justify the cost – but the loss of a draft pick to a division rival is an abstract cost for which Lohse won’t be able to directly answer.

But the money is spent, Lohse is a Brewer, and the question at this point is whether or not he’ll be able to provide the team with value above and beyond the two wins necessary to justify his contract.

Lohse is a fundamentally different pitcher than he was with the Twins or even in his early days with the Cardinals. He used to work primarily off his low-90s fastball, falling back on his slider and changeup as his secondary pitches. He’s no longer averaging 90 mph on his four-seam fastball and now works largely off his sinker and slider with an occasional changeup mixed in when he needs to get a swing and miss. The change has been a positive one as he put together back-to-back seasons with a better-than-average ERA- for the first time in his career in 2011 and 2012. His walk rate has dropped for three straight seasons and his strikeout rate has risen over the same time period, moving his K/BB ratio from a rather dire 1.54 in 2010 to a solid 3.76 in 2012, which tied him for 15th best in baseball among qualified starters.

But judging Lohse’s future based on last season’s success is probably going to lead to heartbreak. It was the first time he had broken 200 innings since 2008, his highest K/9 since 2006, and a .262 BABIP even despite a falling groundball rate and a career-highest 23.9 percent line drive rate. Even if he maintains his 6.0 K/9, that BABIP is ripe for regression and will push up his WHIP. This isn’t to say that he’ll suddenly post a .364 BABIP the way he did in 2010, but even a modest 20-30 point increase would disrupt the rater tenuously great profile he put together last season.

The move to Miller Park will also do the right-hander no favors. While Busch Stadium doesn’t rival PETCO Park or Target Field as a pitcher-haven, it is more forgiving than Miller, which is particularly punitive when it comes to right-handed pitchers and extra-base hits. Combine this with the aforementioned BABIP regression and the fact that the Brewers were one of only three teams last season to turn fewer than 70 percent of the balls in play into outs and Lohse looks even less likely to repeat the rate stat success he had last season. This doomsaying may seem as though I’m projecting Lohse to be downright dire next season and that’s not quite the case, but when he isn’t going to add much in the way of strikeouts, fluctuations in his rates are going to alter his value pretty substantially.

Steamer, which is normally my go-to system for pitcher projections, has him down for a pretty pedestrian 1.28 WHIP and a 4.24 ERA, the worst of any we have on the site. My own sense is that he’ll be a little better than that, closer to ZiPS 1.20 and 3.63 projections, which would be more than workable in most leagues if his strikeout rate were close to league average, but it is not. He’s absolutely rosterable in deep mixed and NL-Only leagues, but shallow mixed players would be better off looking elsewhere for a pitcher who can get close to Lohse’s expected contribution in the rate categories while actually helping grab strikeouts. Chad Billingsley, Brandon McCarthy, and Jason Hammel are three pitchers I’d rather have than Lohse and are all being drafted after him in ESPN mocks. McCarthy is the closest to Lohse’s skill set if rate stats are at a premium, but I don’t have nearly the regression concerns with him as I do with Lohse.

Holistically speaking, I think Lohse will do fine in Milwaukee and does improve their rotation, but he’s always been a better real-life option than a fantasy one and the move to Miller Park does nothing to change that.