as I predicted!), and Jair Jurrjens has continued to develop into one of the best young pitchers in the league. The only guy I left out? Only the biggest free agent acquisition of Frank Wren's tenure, our $60 million man, Derek Lowe.The Braves have had some great starting pitching this year: we're #4 in all of baseball in starters' ERA and starters' IP, and 3rd in OPS against and WHIP. Last night's tragedy notwithstanding, Javier Vazquez has been all we could hope and then some, Kenshin Kawakami has been a pleasant surprise (
You may remember that I was a huge Lowe booster in the offseason, but ever since his stunning 8-inning gem on Opening Day, he's been underwhelming. Tuesday's atrocity, when Bobby Cox left him in to give up 8 runs on 9 hits in the 4th, was the last straw for many, but there's just no denying it: he hasn't been that good. I still have hopes that he'll turn it around and pitch effectively over the next year and a half or so, but right now I have to eat some crow and admit that my free agent fantasy has kinda sucked.
One of my favorite things about Lowe coming into this year was his durability: seven straight years with more than 199 innings, every year he's been a full-time starter, and he's on pace for more than 200 again this year. But he's only averaging 5.9 innings per start, the first time he's been below 6 since 2004. By comparison, Javier Vazquez is averaging 6.8 innings per start, Jair Jurrjens is averaging 6.0, and Tommy Hanson's averaging 6.1; Kawakami's bringing up the rear at 5.7, but we signed him to be a back of the rotation starter anyway. Lowe was supposed to be a horse: an Opening Day starter ought to be able to go 6 innings.
His innings aren't the only thing that have declined. He's striking out way fewer people than usual and walking a few more. He's averaging 4.6 K/9 this year, after averaging 5.6 K/9 since 2002, and 2.9 BB/9, after averaging 2.5 BB/9. He may be getting a bit hit-unlucky -- his BABIP is .319 this year, way above his career mark of .293 -- but when you don't miss bats, bad things have a way of happening.
His fastball velocity is unchanged, according to Fangraphs, the same high-80s average that he always manages. But he's pitching differently: after essentially being a three-pitch pitcher (fastball, slider, change) for most of his career, last year he barely threw his changeup and threw his slider even more, and was rewarded with a career year and a fat contract. He's stayed a two-pitch pitcher this year, but he's not fooling anybody. If he went away from the change as a matter of strategy, it might be time to bring it back a bit more frequently.
The other problem? He's getting fewer ground balls, and for a sinkerballer, that's practically an existential crisis. I noted over the offseason that the one red flag about his brilliant season last year is that his groundball rate had fallen from 65% in 2007 to 60% in 2008, and he couldn't afford for it to fall much further. Well, it has fallen: right now, it stands at 56.3%, and if it gets any lower things could get ugly.
Prior to the fourth inning on Tuesday, Lowe had been disappointing but not catastrophic, with an ERA around four and a sigh of relief every time he got out of an inning unscathed. The blowup on Tuesday was partially Bobby's fault: his hand got struck by a line drive and Bobby left him in for single after single after single after single. But he's the guy who threw everything that got hammered, and it's becoming clearer that Vazquez has a 5th gear that Lowe just can't match: since Opening Day, Lowe has rarely ever dominated.
Which brings us back to the problem of depth. Tim Hudson's coming back soon, and the Braves are within hailing distance of the wild card race. Because their other four starters are healthy and pitching well, they can afford for Lowe to be a 5th starter paid like an ace, and bring Hudson along as a 6th starter/long relief man until he finds his sea legs -- it's not like he's going to be able to go 7 innings right out of the gate, either. Whatever happens, we're stuck with Lowe: his contract is essentially immoveable. For now, we'll just have to grin and bear it, and maybe give him an extra day or two off between starts in order to work in Hudson.
But if by some miracle we make it to the playoffs, he'd damn well better not be in the playoff rotation. He's our 5th-best starter.