The off-season has already been a bit of a whirlwind for veteran right-handed pitcher Derek Lowe. In September, Lowe started five games for the Atlanta Braves, a month that ended with the sinker-ball pitcher boasting a tumultuous 8.75 ERA and a WHIP of 1.99 with the opposition hitting succeeding at a sky-high rate of .373. With his Atlanta Braves collapsing and infusing young starting pitchers into their ranks, Lowe knew that his days were numbered.
Hoping that a change would occur sooner than later, the 38-year-old Lowe had several conversations with Braves general manager Frank Wren. It would only be a couple of days later when Lowe would be told that he was traded to Cleveland for minor league prospect Chris Jones with Atlanta paying $10 million of the $15 million that the player would be due in 2012. It was a trade wher Indians general manager Chris Antonetti would later tell WFNY that Cleveland was the inquirer, knowing that the Braves could be in for some turnover, hoping that he could add yet another quality, durable, inning-eating arm to his stable – one which was considerably bruised and battered by the end of 2011 – for a cost considerably lower than what the team would be forced to allocate within the open market.
In turn, Lowe has his sites set on a fresh beginning. As fresh as a 14-year veteran can have, anyway.
“I’m excited,” said Lowe Thursday morning via conference call. “Any time you go to a new up-and-coming team, it’s exciting. These guys are young with a ton of potential. It’s up to me to bring experience and to pitch better.”
With pitching “better’ being the operative phrase, Lowe has not had much “off” in his off-season. Working largely with Braves pitching coach Rodger McDowell last year, Lowe was in what he had described as a “mechanical funk” which both men endeavored to correct. Said funk led to his pitches being flat, non-competitive and very, very hittable. Both Lowe and McDowell knew what the issues were – both physical and mental - but merely could not correct them in the span for which Lowe’s 2011 season will largely be remembered.
Last winter, Lowe took a lot of time off for reasons he could not explain. Perhaps it was fatigue, perhaps it was a relative feeling of complacence about his career and being able to go into each season without missing time with injuries or major mechanical issues. After all, when one can string together a professional career with the longevity and relative success of Lowe, who can blame him for finding an area of comfort in his ways? This time around, however, things are considerably different with Lowe taking only two weeks off from the game of baseball. He has been working to improve ever since, spening countless hours with a long-time friend and pitching coach in Ft. Myers, Florida, the same man who had worked with both he and Pedro Martinez when both men were with the Boston Red Sox, winning a championship in 2004.
With the present-day Indians now boasting one of the most dominant ground-ball inducing teams in recent history, having the recently-added Lowe back on his game is of utmost importance. He will be the first to admit that, as his fastball started to lose it’s luster in 2011, he relied on breaking balls and off-speed pitches all too often.
“I’ve had the chance to do a lot of self-evaluation this off-season,” said Lowe. “I had become a breaking ball pitcher, and for me to have success, that’s not the way to go. You have to be able to command your fastball, throw it down and away. And that’s something that I lost the ability to do last year. “
Lowe’s success thrives on health and his ability to locate his fastball, induce contact, and letting his defense take care of the rest. Having a routine, working hard, and letting every fifth day be the easiest one of the bunch. Lowe enjoys the game and enjoys putting in the time which is required to take the hill and have success, knowing that some days will be better than others.
And while he will attribute a lot of his health – nary a stint on the major league disabled his through his entire career – to a dash luck coupled with a lot of hard work, the other part of the equation has continued to be a constant variable. With a career ERA of 3.94, Lowe was dealt an extremely unlucky hand in the shape of a ballooned batting average on balls in play (BABiP) and the Braves bullpen allowing inherited runners. The Indians, conversely, are betting on Lowe’s numbers returning back to normal, allowing a young defense to do the rest of the work.
“A defense makes us look really good,” Lowe tells WFNY. “I’ve always tried to work fast, keep them feeling that a ball is going to be hit to them. They’re young, athletic and them make the routine plays. They can get you out of big innings by turning that double play that’s not expected to be turned. It’s going to be all about pitching and defense.”
Lowe says that he will lean on a lot of his teammates this upcoming season, but is not concerned about returning to the American League – typically the arch-enemy of pitch-to-contact starters. With the Indians offense coming off of a season that saw them come in 26th in WAR (14.6) and strikeout rate (20.7), efficient, inning-consuming starts are imperative. And for the innings to be consumed, the Indians defense will need to continue to improve – they were dead last in UZR in 2011 despite the lore which surrounds Asdrubal Cabrera (who was somehow a Gold Glove nominee) – as additional years are added to the resumes of Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis.
For the 2012 Indians to flourish, the above-mentioned players all have a lot of work to do this off-season. The good news is, Lowe’s off-season has already concluded as he has wasted no time getting prepared for his first start as a member of the Tribe.