October 6, 2010 at 11:12 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves
Because of the fact that–rather than coasting into the tournament–the Braves had to deploy every available resource to earn their postseason berth, there wasn’t much of a choice to make regarding their game one starter. Derek Lowe is the only one of their front three with postseason experience and available to start on regular rest, making the decision automatic. But even if they hadn’t started Tim Hudson last weekend and Tommy Hanson had made a pair of dominant postseason starts last year, Derek Lowe is the correct choice to start game one.
In five September starts, Derek Lowe was phenomenal, posting a 1.17 ERA in 30 and 2/3 innings. Normally when something like this happens (pitcher goes on an incredible run during September after 61 consecutive mediocre starts), it’s nothing more than an illusion, usually with unsustainably good fortune on balls in play being the primary culprit. Such is not the case. In fact, Derek Lowe’s BABIP is .322 in September, meaning you could reasonably expect him to give up fewer hits given another thirty innings of identical performance. Hit luck is not what’s at play here.
Over his 30 and 2/3 September innings, Lowe struck out 29 batters and walked 3, which represents several phenomenal ratios. But that’s not the only outstanding peripheral Lowe can boast for for his September performance. When batters put the ball in play off of Lowe, they hit ground balls sixty eight percent of the time, which is equally phenomenal. Line drives were struck only thirteen percent of the time, and batters lifted the ball into the air just short of nineteen percent of the time. Furthermore, when they did manage to hit a fly ball, it didn’t make it out of the infield twelve percent of the time.
His September FIP was 1.90, his xFIP was 2.24, his batted-ball FIP was 1.66, his SIERA was 2.17. Pick any ERA estimator you like, but you’ll come to pretty much the same conclusion: he pitched about as well–that is, incredibly well–as his ERA would indicate.
Now that we’ve established that Lowe pitched as brilliantly as his results in September, a bit on what’s responsible for his miraculous turn-around. The answer is quite simple: the slider. From opening day to August 29th, Lowe threw his fastball (sinker) approximately 73% of the time, his slider 14% of the time, and his change-up 13% of the time. From September 8th through season’s end, Lowe more than doubled his slider usage, throwing it around 33% of the time. In fact, his pitch usage pattern in September is nearly identical to his usage pattern in 2008. If you’ll recall, in 2008 Lowe was a 5-win pitcher, posting a 3.24 ERA (and a nearly identical 3.26 FIP and 3.35 xFIP; his ERA was not a fluke) over 211 innings and the ace of a Dodgers’ staff that made it to the NLCS.
In September, batters swung-and-missed at Lowe’s slider 19% of the time–about 30 percent more than the MLB average. He generated nearly as many strikeouts as he allowed hits with the pitch. Using the slider more is almost exclusively responsible for Lowe’s miraculous turn-around. In 2008, Lowe’s slider was responsible for nearly three wins by itself*. It’s his best pitch when he has it working, and when he has command of it the more he throws it the better (within reason). Right now he has it working beautifully, and as a result he’s distinguished himself as the clear-cut best option to start game one.
*With all the usual game theory assumptions applied.
Lowe’s Atlanta career has been an up-and-down experience, mostly down, but he’s figured out how to maximize his talents at the correct time. His contract deserves to be revisited in an entirely different post (and it will be over the Winter), but that’s not particularly high on the list of organizational priorities at the moment. Front and center is winning playoff games, and as well as Lowe has thrown the ball in September he gives the team the best chance of winning them.
When you look around at the other seven game one starters: Edinson Volquez, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Francisco Liriano, David Price, Cliff Lee, and Lowe’s game one opponent Tim Lincecum, you’d think Derek Lowe is a strong candidate for the worst of the group. But given how well he’s pitched as of late, it’s not clear to me at all that any one of them is a better option than Derek Lowe right now. I say this with all the sincerity in the world and without a hint of homerism, and if Derek Lowe maintains his September approach and command tomorrow, he’ll be the better pitcher on the field and he’ll give the Braves an excellent chance to win.