Originally written on Waiting For Next Year  |  Last updated 5/16/12

When the Indians traded for Derek Lowe immediately after the 2011 season, I thought it was a pretty shrewd move.  They were buying low—PUNS!!—on a pitcher who had run into some incredibly tough luck during the 2011 campaign.  Atlanta seemed a bit eager to cut bait with him due to his terrible close to the 2011 season: from August 2nd until the end of the season, opposing batters hit .316/.370.485 off Lowe over 57.2 innings resulting in a 6.24 ERA.

But anyone with even a cursory grasp of pitching peripherals could see that Lowe’s 2011 season had all the traditional markings of an outlier. His batting average on balls in play was unusually high at .327. He stranded fewer than 66% of his base runners.  His walks were up a bit from his career rate, sure, but he actually increased his strikeout rate too.  Have a look:

GB% BABiP LOB% K% BB% Career 62.6% 0.296 69.7% 15.4% 7.0% 2011 59.0% 0.327 65.9% 16.5% 8.4%

More than anything, 2011 looked like one of those unfortunate seasons where everything seemed to go wrong: batted balls became hits and base runners became runs more often than normal. That stuff is mostly random—pitchers tend to hover around .300 on batted balls and a 70% strand-rate no matter who they are—and the Indians were right to jump on the bargain when they did.

So for $5 million (the Barves, by the by, are paying Derek Lowe $10 million this season not to pitch for them) and a non-prospect, it seemed more than worth the risk. The Indians had every reason to believe that Derek Lowe would revert to the pitcher he’d been throughout his career.  For reference, here are Lowe’s career numbers as a starter:

ERA WHIP K/9 K/BB 4.07 1.335 5.6 2.09

Those are good numbers. Not great numbers, mind, but combine them with veteran leadership, durability, and any other intangibles you want to tack on for good measure and they’re plenty worth a $5 million gamble.

So as I said: I was onboard with this move.  Seemed to make good sense—never too much middle-of-the-road pitching, and whatnot.

But what we’ve seen so far in 2012 has been anything but middle-of-the-road.  After yesterday’s complete game shutout of the Minnesota Twins, Lowe is sitting pretty with a 6-1 record and a 2.05 ERA.  Among qualified AL starters he now ranks first in ERA, first in groundball percentage, first in pitcher wins and twelfth in innings pitched.  He has done all this while sustaining a completely normal BABiP, by the way, of 0.300.

So what gives?  How did a mid-rotation, soon-to-be 39 year old groundballer just become Roy Halladay?  I’ll be honest: I have no idea.

All the normal places I look suggest that this just shouldn’t be happening.  For instance, if Lowe has a completely normal BABiP rate of .300, how is he stranding almost 85% of his base runners (he’s fourth in the league)?  You’d think that if his batted balls drop in for hits at a normal rate, he’s bound to have more of those runners score, no?

Furthermore, his peripherals so far this season are actually much worse than they were last year.  As mentioned above, Lowe struck out 16.5% of the batters he faced in 2011 and has struck out 15.4% for his career.  So far in 2012?  It’s only 5.8% (!), which makes him, BY FAR, the least strikeout-prone pitcher in the AL this season.

I should mention here that I have a piece in the works that would argue that low K-rates are no big deal, as long as your walk-rate goes down accordingly.  You want to maintain between 2 and 3 strikeouts for every walk you issue, no matter if you strikeout 25% of batters or 6%.  After all, Josh Tomlin struck out only 4.84 batters per nine innings pitched last season but still had a brilliant K/BB of 4.24—good for fourth best in the AL—due to his excellent command.

So back to Lowe: who cares if he’s not striking anyone out, as long as he’s not walking anyone either, right?  But he is walking people—a lot of them, in fact.  At least in relation to his strikeouts.  Right now, Lowe’s K/BB ratio is 0.76, meaning that for every strikeout he records, he allows about 1.3 walks.  Remember, you want that K/BB ratio to be above 2.00. Last season the worst AL K/BB rate belonged to Brad Penny at 1.19.  No one else sustained a rate below 1.63.  Right now the Indians have two starters below 1.00—with Ubaldo checking in at an execrable 0.80.  For the record, Derek Lowe’s current K/BB ratio of 0.76 is the worst among MLB starters this year.

So if his peripherals are bad and his luck is average, how is Lowe sustaining this run?  It seems to contradict what we know about the way baseball works.

Well, there are probably a few reasons.

First, his luck isn’t exactly “average” so far this year.  While his BABiP is plenty normal, he’s allowing home runs on only 5.7% of his flyballs, compared to about 12.3% for his career.  We probably shouldn’t expect that to continue: flyballs typically become home runs at a pretty steady rate, and 5.7% is really low.

On top of the home runs, Lowe has already induced 10 ground ball double plays in only 223 plate appearances, which leads the Major Leagues.  For his career, he’s recorded a GIDP once every 36 plate appearances, but this season it’s once every 22.  That’s a huge jump—and probably unsustainable, what with old dogs and new tricks being what they are—that likely contributes significantly to his oddly high strand-rate this season.

Maybe the Luck Fairy is just paying Lowe back for all the trouble heaped on him in his final few months in Atlanta?  After all, for someone who just couldn’t catch a break near the end of last season, it would seem just if there were some cosmic redistribution—recompense for all those seeing-eye singles that drove him out of Atlanta in such infamy.

But that’s not how luck works—at least not in this instance.  Because when we say luck, what we really mean is “random variation”.  And anyone who’s ever sat at a roulette wheel knows that the next spin has nothing to do with the previous five.  Just because the ball landed black five times in a row doesn’t mean it’s any more likely to land red on the next spin.  That’s not how probability works, and when we measure the random statistics like HR/FB and LOB%, the story is the same.  Blips and streaks happen, but that doesn’t mean the roulette ball is weighted, and it doesn’t mean the Derek Lowe is Sandy Koufax.

I know these sorts of pieces are not typically well-received: it comes off as cynical pessimism of the worst sort, when all I’m really trying to do is answer the questions that pop into my mind.  I’m not trying to beat up on Derek Lowe, honest.  As I said above, I loved the trade that brought him here, and I think he’s going to be a valuable piece of our team, both because of his on-field performance and his clubhouse leadership.  I think the trade looked even smarter in retrospect, when Fausto got held up at a Dominican airport, and smarter still on May 16, with Lowe leading the AL in everything that matters.

This was a good trade, and I’m happy we made it.  We’re a better team for rostering Derek Lowe, and even though I’d be pretty surprised if Derek Lowe wins the ERA title this season, the numbers he’s putting up now—perhaps against all odds—still count.

We’re a first place team with a pitcher who’s leading the league in ERA.  While it might not last, that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it.

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