Remembering the Career of Kyle Lohse

Kyle Lohse had a perfectly fine MLB career that saw him pitch for six teams. (via Algorrian)

Kyle Lohse decided to announce his retirement by having a beer at a Kansas City Royals minor league game and posting the picture on Instagram. That’s a guy who knows how to retire the right way.

— Liz Roscher, Yahoo! Sports

Kyle Lohse recently announced his retirement, almost exactly twelve years after the time he was demoted in favor of Boof Bonser, and that’s how I found out that he was still in professional baseball.

Lohse had a remarkably long career, especially considering all of his memorable ups and downs. He pitched for six teams and posted a full-season ERA over 5.00 for three of them. For his final team, the Texas Rangers, he gave up 13 runs in nine and a third innings in July 2016. Those are the last innings he threw in the Show. After sitting out 2017, he signed a minor league deal this year, gave up 12 runs in 8 and 2/3 innings in Triple-A Omaha. And that was that.

One of the best ways of measuring Lohse’s astonishing longevity is this: since 2000, per baseball-reference, only nineteen pitchers have posted at least ten seasons throwing at least 170 innings. In first place, with 15, is Mark Buehrle. In second is C.C. Sabathia with 14; he could conceivably catch up with Buehrle this year, though he’s already off the pace and has only reached 170 innings once in his last four campaigns. No other pitcher has more than 12.

Lohse retired with exactly 10 — and he’s the only one of the nineteen never to have made it to the All-Star Game. He had about as good a career as an average pitcher can possibly have.

Here are the eight pitchers other than Lohse who have twirled at least seven seasons of 170 innings since 2000, while never making an All-Star game.

Non-All-Stars with 7+ 170IP seasons, since 2000
Name Yrs From
Kyle Lohse 10 2002-2014
Jeff Suppan 9 2000-2008
Rick Porcello 8 2009-2017
Jeremy Guthrie 8 2007-2014
Aaron Harang 8 2005-2015
Ricky Nolasco 7 2008-2017
Joe Blanton 7 2005-2012
Brett Myers 7 2003-2011
Jarrod Washburn 7 2001-2009
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Generated using Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index Tool. Generated 5/22/2018.

It’s kind of amazing that none of these guys ever made it to the Midsummer Classic — Porcello won a Cy Young Award, and Harang and Washburn both came in for a fourth-place finish — but this is basically a list of the best pitchers who were always available every year on your league’s fantasy waiver wire.

Porcello doesn’t really belong on this list of non-All-Stars — he’s been mediocre a whole lot, but when he’s been good he’s been really good. Harang doesn’t really belong either, as he’s a former ace whose arm was probably ruined by an eight-day stretch in 2008 during which Dusty Baker asked him to throw 239 pitches across two starts, with a four-inning relief appearance in the middle. That “fatigue[d] me beyond the point of recovery,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I started to change my arm angle to compensate for the fatigue and that’s when my forearm started to bother me.”

I’m going to ignore both of them, as well as Washburn, for similar reasons of occasional dominance.

Still, Lohse had a remarkable career. He was the second-best Native American baseball player of the last 30 years, behind only Jacoby Ellsbury, and the second-best-ever athlete to come from the Northern Section of California, near Chico, behind only Aaron Rodgers. He’s also one of the last draft-and-follow stars, as he was selected by the Cubs in the 1996 draft but did not sign until the following year, a draft practice that has been effectively banned for a decade. And as Chris Jaffe wrote here five years ago, he’s one of the only pitchers to have defeated 30 different teams.

And he was one of the first casualties of the free agent market crash, as the practice of taking a draft pick away from a team that signed a free agent who were given qualifying offers depressed the much of the free agent market beginning in the 2012-2013 offseason.

In their own ways, his colleagues were just as memorable.

Jeff Suppan is a perfect counterpart for Lohse, because they’re so very nearly the same player. By Similarity Scores, Lohse is Suppan’s third-most-similar pitcher; Suppan was 140-146 with a 4.70 ERA (104 ERA-) for seven teams across 2542 2/3 innings, while Lohse was 147-143 with a 4.40 ERA (104 ERA-) for six teams across 2531 2/3 innings.

But Suppan was supposed to be more than he turned out to be, which led to frustrated expectations. Suppan was a 2nd-round draft pick by the Red Sox in 1993, and by 1995, Baseball America put him in their top 50 prospects. (Suppan’s teammates on the 1995 Trenton Thunder included Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon, who both made the same top-50 list.)

But while he pitched well in the minors, he proved allergic to his cups of coffee at Fenway Park: from 1995-1997, he twirled 157 2/3 innings in a Sox uniform with a 5.99 ERA, and the Red Sox left him unprotected in the 1998 expansion draft, where he was taken by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was even worse in the desert, struggling to a 6.68 ERA behind swingman fifth starter Amaury Telemaco and staff ace Andy Benes. The new team finished 65-97 and sold Suppan to the Royals for cash. At the tender age of 23 he appeared to have washed out of both leagues.

And then a remarkable thing happened: he became league-average. Beginning with the 1999 season, his career ERA+ was 99; prior to that, it had been 78. He remained a Royal until he became eligible for free agency and signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2003, then began pitching the half-season of his life. So just before the deadline, the Bucs traded him back to the Red Sox for Freddy Sanchez and Mike Gonzalez. As soon as he was back in Boston, his ERA jumped two runs and by October he was once again a free agent.

Still, he likely won’t be remembered for anything in the regular season. At least not by Cardinals fans, who know that he was the key to their 2006 championship. “For one week in the month of October 2006, he was Bob Gibson,” recalled Will Leitch. “Suppan essentially beat the New York Mets by himself, giving up just one run in 15 innings in the 2006 NLCS, including a terrific Game 7 start that helped the Cardinals clinch a trip to the World Series.” He was named the NLCS MVP, and though he wasn’t very good in the World Series, it didn’t much matter, as his Redbirds won in 5 games.

Jeremy Guthrie did something remarkable during his prep days: he turned down multiple draft offers and left baseball for two years. A devout Mormon, he played a year at Brigham Young University after high school, and then went on a two-year mission in Spain in 1999. McKay Christensen, a 1994 draftee by the Angels, had done the same, not returning to professional baseball until 1996. When Guthrie returned, he enrolled at Stanford and regained his prospect status, eventually going to Cleveland in the first round in 2002.

For Mormon athletes, the decision of whether to go on a mission is not cut and dry, as Sports Illustrated reported in 2012. NBA center Shawn Bradley went on a mission, but many other recent stars have not. “I set out to be the best missionary I could be as an athlete,” said Danny Ainge, who was advised by church leaders to keep playing. So were Steve Young and Dale Murphy (here’s Murphy’s story), who both became Hall of Famers in their respective sports.

Guthrie certainly had a longer career than Christensen, though his first years resembled those of Suppan. He was Baseball America’s #53 prospect going into 2004, but across 37 major league innings from 2004-2006 he had a 6.08 ERA with a 1.04 K/BB ratio. When he finally retired last year, he recalled that all the way back in 2005, a minor league teammate had gently suggested he consider hanging up his cleats. Four and a half years after taking him in the first round, Cleveland exposed him to waivers, where the Orioles selected him. He was already 27, and the end appeared nigh.

But in Baltimore, the turnaround was nearly immediate: he cut his walks and quietly became a pretty good pitcher. From 2007 to 2011, he was a rotation mainstay and as reliable a two-win pitcher as you could find in the league. They traded him to the Rockies for Jason Hammel, who has basically been something like 2007-2011 Jeremy Guthrie ever since. Guthrie gave up 21 homers in his first 90 innings in the mountain air, and his new team quickly jettisoned him, shipping him to Kansas City for Jonathan Sanchez, the control-averse southpaw whose career was in the process of coming undone.

Guthrie pitched three more years in Kansas City, relatively ineffectively, and then went back to the minors in 2016 and to the Mexican League in 2017, before making a final return to the major leagues with Washington. He described what happened next in The Players Tribune:

Down 4–0 with two outs … I walked the pitcher to load the bases.

Already aware of the struggles I was having finding the zone and executing pitches, feelings of embarrassment began to overwhelm me. What was it going to take to end this inning?

I’ll never know.

I proceeded to give up six more runs and never did get that third out.

The Nationals cut him after the game, and he decided he would not try for a second comeback.

Guthrie was also a sneaker fanatic who built himself a code-protected sneaker vault at his house to keep his Jordans safe, and wore some very striking Back to the Future-style kicks in the 2015 ALCS.

Ricky Nolasco is likely the biggest FIP outlier that any of us will see in our lifetimes. He had pretty good strikeout rates and low walk rates, but still managed to give up runs in bunches, and he drove projection systems absolutely batty in the process.

To illustrate: Ricky Nolasco’s career ERA was 4.56, while his career FIP was just 3.97 — 0.59 runs lower. In the history of baseball, there are only 11 pitchers with at least 1800 career innings pitched whose career ERA was more than ten percent higher than their FIP, and only five of them are post-World War I. (Javier Vazquez, who also famously underperformed his components, had a career ERA of 4.22 and FIP of 3.91, just eight percent higher, so he missed the cut.) They are Ricky Nolasco, Shane Reynolds, John Burkett, Dick Ruthven, and Reggie Cleveland.

Burkett’s FIP was 12 percent higher than his career ERA. Ricky Nolasco’s FIP is fifteen percent higher than his own ERA — one and a quarter times higher than the man in second place. There aren’t that many records that get passed by that much. It’s like Rickey Henderson, whose 1406 stolen bases are just under half again as many as the 938 bags swiped by former champ Lou Brock. Or Nolan Ryan, whose 2795 free passes are 52 percent more than the paltry 1833 that Steve Carlton issued. (For what it’s worth, Carlton and the man in third place, Phil Niekro, both started pitching around the same time as Ryan; so, for most of Ryan’s career, he was chasing the man who’s currently in fourth, Early Wynn.)

So Ricky Nolasco underperformed his components more than any other pitcher in the modern history of baseball. That’s pretty staggering. Ten years ago, it led to a lot of stathead arguments about what was actually important when it came to pitcher valuations.

The thing about Nolasco is, if you look at his components, he looks like an extremely valuable pitcher: Fangraphs has him at 24.7 WAR, based on his very favorable career FIP, which is right in between the career WAR totals of Ted Lilly and Matt Garza. His FIP made him look like a near-ace, despite the fact that his ERA- of 112 reveals that when it came to giving up earned runs, over the course of his career, he was 12% worse than league average. A true saber outlier, his stat line will remain least slightly immortal.

Joe Blanton was in the Moneyball draft, for better and for worse. That means that he was on Billy Beane’s draft board when Michael Lewis was in the room, capturing the Athletics front office’s judgments in sentences that will forever be assessed in retrospect, like this one: “Blanton was the second best pitcher in the draft, in Billy’s view, behind Stanford pitcher Jeremy Guthrie.”

The Athletics had seven picks in the first round and supplemental round that year, and they had to go for players who wouldn’t require huge bonuses; that meant that Boras clients like Guthrie were effectively untouchable. Still, they wanted him. The pitchers drafted in 2002 who were left off the A’s draft board altogether are an astonishing group: in addition to prominent draft busts like ChadBryan Bullington (first overall) and Adam Loewen (3rd), they include Zack Greinke, Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, and Jon Lester. (The A’s famously hated drafting high school pitchers.) Joe Blanton was high on everyone’s draft board in 2002, and he turned into a decent inning-eating starter, as did Guthrie. Everyone makes fun of the A’s for things like the Moneyball draft obsession with Jeremy Brown, but they didn’t really get the Blanton pick wrong; he’s actually one of the more successful players ever taken with the 24th overall pick.

Blanton finished sixth overall in the 2005 Rookie of the Year vote. His teammate, closer Huston Street, won the award and went on to record 324 saves in his career. In second place was Robinson Cano, who despite his recent PED suspension, probably still has a shot at the Hall of Fame. In third, fourth, and fifth place above Blanton were Jonny Gomes, Tadahito Iguchi, and Gustavo Chacin, who more or less illustrate the famous line: “There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.”

Like Gomes, Iguchi, and Chacin, Blanton’s first season was much better than almost everything else he ever accomplished. But unlike them, his career had a second act. After nearly a decade as a below-average innings eater, Joe Blanton was released in 2014, and he initially retired. Then, after working out with Zach Duke, he decided to give it another try.

In fact, in 2015, Blanton became a teammate of Guthrie’s, working out of the Royals bullpen, though they sent him to the Pirates at the trade deadline as the Pirates tooled up for the stretch run. The following year, Blanton was in Los Angeles, leading the bullpen in appearances and innings pitched while setting up the brilliant Kenley Jansen. He appeared in four of the Dodgers’ five games against the Washington Nationals in the NLDS, throwing five scoreless innings as the Dodgers advanced.

But he gave up a grand slam in the bottom of the eighth inning in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cubs, and a two-run homer to Addison Russell in Game 5, recording the loss in both cases as the Cubs won the series 4-2. With a 5.68 ERA in the Nationals pen in 2017, he finally came to the end of his time in the major leagues.

Blanton’s next career is his wine label, Selah Wines. As their website notes, the exact meaning of the word Selah in biblical Hebrew is unknown, but “it is most often interpreted to mean ‘to pause or to reflect.'” He’s earned it.

Lohse, Suppan, Guthrie, Nolasco, and Blanton threw a combined total of 10,495 innings in the big leagues. For the most part — excepting moments of bliss like Suppan’s half-year in Pittsburgh in 2003, and Blanton’s rookie 2005, and Nolasco’s one good year in 2008 — those innings were neither good nor bad. They may have been mediocre in aggregate, but these guys weren’t throwing a textbook quality start every time. When they took the bump, they experienced occasional success, and a little more frequently, they got shelled.

But they still kept taking the ball every fifth day. They were steadfast, reliable, and occasionally they took their team on their shoulders and won a round of the playoffs almost by themselves. As Will Leitch wrote about Suppan:

Jeff Suppan, who retired yesterday, was the sort of pitcher who makes you think pitching must not be that hard. He didn’t throw hard, he didn’t have a great breaking ball, he didn’t have a deceptive motion, he didn’t do much at all, really. He seemed to just take the ball and throw it. He did that over and over and over. He wasn’t that great at it, all told. But he did it for 17 years. Part of me wonders if it’s not more impressive to do something mediocre for 17 years than to do something amazing for two.

Suppan seemed to understand this. In his statement to Jon Heyman yesterday — on his 39th birthday, and exactly six years after the death of his mother — Suppan said, “After 17 Major League seasons, I’ve squeezed everything out of my ability.” There is something charmingly modest about that statement. Superstars don’t say they “squeezed” every last drop out of their ability; they have talent oozing out of every pore. It is just us normal people who have to squeeze. And isn’t that all we all want? To squeeze what we can out of the natural limitations imposed on us? Jeff Suppan was an average — sometimes below average — pitcher. He was that for 17 years.

In baseball there is a talent pyramid, with a very small number of superstars at the top, and a much wider base occupied by a revolving door of replacement-level players taking the shuttle from Triple-A, chasing their dreams, and discovering how much harder it is to hit a hard major-league slider than it is to do anything else in sports.

There are far more middlingly successful players in baseball like Blanton and Guthrie than All-Stars like Hamels and Cy Young winners like Greinke, and still more like Bullington and Loewen who never accomplish anything of note in the majors. (Actually, both of them have pretty remarkable comeback stories of their own. But this article is long enough as it is.)

Kyle Lohse retires with 2531 2/3 innings pitched, 239th of all time, just 3 1/3 behind Doug Drabek, eight innings behind Pretzels Getzien, and 11 innings behind Jeff Suppan. He’s 26 1/3 innings ahead of Andy Benes, the ace of the 1998 Diamondbacks. As soon as Zack Greinke throws another 9 2/3 innings, he’ll pass Lohse and push him to 240th on the list. All in all, that’s pretty good company to be in.


Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.
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olethros
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olethros

Lohse also followed Suppan around MLB, joining the Cardinals immediately after Suppan left for the Brewers, winning a World Series there, then joining the Brewers a couple years after Suppan left. After which both had less than stellar stints with the Royals. But despite spending over a decade playing for the same three teams, in the same order, they were never teammates.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Not quite immediately. Suppan left St. Louis after 2006, while Lohse didn’t join them until 2008.

TKDC
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Member
TKDC

Sadly, Dale Murphy is not a hall of famer.

wobatus
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wobatus
$89+ million worth of mediocrity. That’s what he earned. He was worth over $150 million. Top 200 starter in career fWAR over the last 1/2 century (# 173). He was the 10th best starter in the NL by bWAR in 2012. By fWAR he was the 21st best in MLB that year. From 2011-2014, his peak stretch, he was 34th in fWAR. 31st in ERA-. 27th lowest ERA, 10th lowest BB/9, 15th in wins. Toss out his partial rookie season, his 2 injury riddled seasons in 2009 and 2010, and the last 2 years of his career when he was… Read more »
Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

I’d include 2008 as part of Lohse’s peak years. As you said, ’09-’10 were unfortunately lost years to injury while he was in his prime, but he was a well-above average pitcher in ’08 and from ’11-’14. Legendary pitching coach Dave Duncan is usually credited for turning Lohse’s career around at the relatively late age of 29.

brewcat
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brewcat
If you talk to a Brewers fan you’ll get two totally different reactions when you mention Suppan and Lohse. JS is the poster boy for a small market team overpaying for a mediocre starter just to get in on free agency. He had an occasional start, or even stretch, where he was ok. But for most you mention his name and people around here break into hives. Lohse, on the other hand, gave the Brewers two solid years on mediocre Brewers teams, helping anchor the rotation and mentoring young starters like Gallardo, Wily Peralta and Nelson. Fans felt bad for… Read more »
njguy73
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njguy73

If saying the name “Jeff Suppan” causes the people of Milwaukee to break into hives, then then saying the name “Barry Zito” in San Francisco should be considered biological terrorism.

hahiggins
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Member
hahiggins

Lohse did have a dirty MLB Showdown card, though. What a value.
http://www.showdowncards.com/store/customer/product.php?productid=5051&cat=&page=1

LHPSU
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LHPSU

Look, I know Bullington was a bust, but what did he do to you to deserve being called “Chad”?

Ruki Motomiya
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Ruki Motomiya

I’ve always been fascinated by MLB players who were very average. I always want to keep making MLB: The Show teams with the most “average” players I can find and see what happens. So this article definitely was fun to read for me.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac
While the overall numbers may be similar, Lohse had a significantly different career path than someone like Suppan. Suppan would indeed be your prototypical average starter, with being a little above-average during his peak, and below-average at the beginning and end. However, Lohse’s career actually went differently: He started out as an average pitcher, but then he had a breakout season in 2008 at age 29 to become a well above-average (although never All-Star) level pitcher. 2009-2010 were unfortunately lost years to injury (a misdiagnosis wasted a bunch of time) that dragged down his career numbers somewhat. However, he returned… Read more »
nb
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nb

I think it’s important to discuss the misdiagnosed injury when talking about Lohse’s career, because it impacted him when he should have been at his peak. Ultimately it was traced back to being hit by a pitch on his forearm while trying to bunt, but the surgery to correct the issue didn’t take place for an entire year. Here’s a good retrospective article: http://archive.jsonline.com/sports/brewers/loshe-shares-life-lessons-with-younger-players-b99234715z1-253079471.html/

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

People can make fun of players like these, but they all had significant major league careers, meaning they were among the best baseball players in the world. Good for them.