With Kyle Lohse likely to get the start against the Cubs on Sunday, I thought we could take a moment to ponder his potential impact on this club along with some other general observations. Given the Cardinals’ reputation with projecting pitchers’ returns from injury, I had little hope that Lohse would take the mound again in 2010, especially since his injury was apparently so rare amongst other pitchers.
Much of the Cardinals’ fanbase developed unreasonable expectations for Kyle Lohse when he had a career year in 2008 (200 IP, solid 3.89 FIP, 3.1 WAR)… all for a bargain price of $4.25 million. Unfortunately, the front office bought into the hype and extended Lohse through 2012. According to Cot’s Contracts, he’ll make a guaranteed $11.875 million (each year) in the final two years of the deal. From a value standpoint, assuming that a free agent win costs around $4 million, he’d have to perform at his career peak in 2011 and 2012 to justify future paychecks. Not a likely proposition for a guy that’s only been worth 1.6 WAR in 2009 and 2010 combined.
First, let’s take a look at the three guys at the back end of the rotation: Lohse, Suppan, and Hawksworth. What is the makeup of each player’s arsenal of pitches (taken from Fangraphs)?
They all go to the fastball between 56-59% of the time. The major differences are in their secondary offerings: Lohse has a slider (-1.77 runs/100 pitches), Hawksworth has a changeup (-1.64 runs/100 pitches), and Suppan has a mish-mash of other junk (changeup being only pitch with positive value at .8 runs/100 pitches). Remember that pitch values do not account for pitch sequences so a negative value does not necessarily mean that a pitcher has lost something on a given pitch, or that the pitch itself is bad. Sure, it could indicate either of those scenarios… but it could also simply be a matter of hitters knowing when (specific pitch count, always follows another pitch, etc.) a given pitcher will throw a certain pitch. In other words, if the hitter is expecting any given pitch, he likely has a better chance at hitting it hard regardless of its velocity or movement.
Since Lohse’s other offerings for 2010 season are pretty much in line with career norms (FB and CB slightly below average; CH above average), I’m mostly interested in his slider and how it has changed (if at all) since it had been an above average offering since 2007 (until now). The table below was generated with numbers from Joe Lefkowitz’s site which provides awesome pitch f/x data (though 2007 data was unavailable).
Though his velocity has decreased on the pitch since 2008, it’s not by a lot. Seems doubtful that a pitch only .8 mph slower than last year would cause it to suddently be a below average offering. However, it does appear that Lohse’s slider has been noticeably flatter in 2010 as evidence by less horizontal movement. Furthermore, Lohse has thrown the slider much more often in 2010 to both RH (32.3%) and LH (12.8%) batters. For comparison’s sake, he threw sliders to RHB 25.7% and LHB 4.5% of the time in 2008.
Given the flatter nature of the pitch, perhaps hitters are making more solid contact when they do connect even though their swinging strike percentage is stable. Another possibility is that hitters are able to sit on the pitch more often since he has thrown it more often this year. At any rate, seems like a poor combination for a pitch to be thrown more often despite having less movement and (however slightly) decreased velocity. Maybe the forearm injury can provide another explanation. Seems reasonable to allow that it may have been harder for him to throw off-speed pitches given their more complicated grips. It’ll be interesting to see if some of that horizontal movement returns now that he’s supposedly healthy.
With that said, it is important to remember that Lohse’s struggles probably cannot be explained by his less effective slider or even the injuries that have complicated his past two seasons. In reality, it’s more likely that Lohse’s ability just doesn’t match the numbers that he managed to accumulate in 2008. Though he may not be as good as he was then, he may not be as bad as we’ve seen since. I guess that’s the silver lining.
The question for 2010, of course, is how much better does he make the Cardinals than if Jeff Suppan or Blake Hawksworth were taking the ball every fifth day? Utilizing Fangraphs’ seven part win value series on pitching WAR (scroll to bottom of page) and Nick Steiner’s VEB fanpost as guides, I calculated the difference in projected WAR between these three pitchers. I utilized ZiPS’ rest of season projections (FIP) and gave each player eight remaining starts at their average innings per start in 2010. My calculations had Lohse, Hawksworth, and Suppan at .49, .32, and .08 WAR respectively for the rest of the season. Unsurprisingly, Lohse is apparently the best option of the three.