Kyle Lohse turned in the best season of his career at age-33. Since joining the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008, Lohse has flashed the ability to be an effective pitcher. It wasn’t until his walk year that he finally put everything together. Lohse tossed 211 innings, with a 3.51 FIP. Very few pitchers are able to get better in their early-30s, but Lohse appears to have done just that. But that was with the Cardinals, a team notorious for turning mediocre veterans into useful cogs. And with Lohse likely leaving for another team this offseason, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to sustain the magic.
Lohse’s two-year breakout seems to coincide with him throwing a better slider and change-up. Lohse has utilized the change-up more frequently over the last two years, throwing it 19.2% of the time in each season. Lohse has used the change mostly against lefties, which is expected since the change-up is typically a pitch that fares well against opposite-handed hitters. However, in the last two years, Lohse has been more confident throwing the pitch to righties as well. After throwing the pitch in 3%, 7% and 8% of counts against righties from 2008-2010, Lohse has thrown it 12% of the time against righties in each of the past two seasons. It has definitely been effective, with a 10.4 pitch value in 2011, and a 4.9 pitch value last season. Those figures rank as the first and the third most value Lohse has received from his change over his career.
In order to truly keep righties off balance, Lohse prefers to use his slider. This isn’t necessarily a big change for Lohse. He’s used his slider a fair amount in the past, and does prefer to throw it when he wants to strike out a right-handed hitter. The pitch, however, has fluctuated between poor and useful pitch values over his career. And while his 4.1 pitch value in 2011 was fairly normal based on the past effectiveness with the pitch, his 12.5 figure in 2012 was a career-high. It’s tough to find a great reason for his suddenly more effective slider. Very few of his batted ball or plate discipline numbers were out of the ordinary last year. The pitch has added slightly more movement over the past two seasons, though the increase hasn’t been huge. Batters just really struggled with the pitch last season, hitting .198/.246/.267 against it.
The other thing that stands out about Lohse’s line is his .262 BABIP. Over the past two years, actually, Lohse’s BABIP has been incredibly low. And, typically, we should expect that to regress to his career-norm. Lohse may have improved two of his pitches, but that doesn’t explain why his BABIP would remain this low going forward. The good thing is, that even if his BABIP jumps back to a normal level, Lohse’s skill set is good enough to make him an effective pitcher.
The chart shows a list of pitchers that put up similar numbers during their age-32 and age-33 seasons. Those pitchers had nearly identical strikeout and walk rates to Lohse over the same period. I also included BABIP just to show that a fair amount of similar pitchers also had low BABIPs, just like Lohse. During their age-34 seasons, only Rob Reed and Phil Niekro saw their walk rates increase by a significant amount. But all five of the players on the chart still remained effective, with their FIP- numbers remaining all below league-average. Only Bryn Smith posted an ERA worse than league-average, with a 100 ERA-. The other players mainly hovered around an 80 ERA-, with the exception of Reed, how turned in an exceptional 69 ERA-. Five similar players isn’t a great sample, but it at least adds encouragement that Lohse can continue to be a solid pitcher next season.
The concerns about his low BABIP, and the fact that there’s really no reason to believe that will continue, likely means he’s due for some regression. And while it looks like his change-up has made strides over the past couple of years, it’s tough to predict his slider will be in for another big year. Even with the regression, Lohse has the skills to be a reliable innings-eating guy. That won’t put him anywhere close to the top 10 next season, but it can still make him useful in the mid-to-late rounds. It would be fair to call last season a fluke, but Lohse is probably still going to have value.