The Milwaukee Brewers starting rotation remains a question mark heading into 2014 in part because they’re relying on 35-year-old Kyle Lohse to be the ace. Though the skepticism surrounding Lohse’s effectiveness in the second year of his three-year deal is understandable, his career transformation over the last three seasons should put fans at ease, and it all comes down to one pitch: the sinker.
In 2010, Lohse started to seriously develop a sinker into his repertoire and used that pitch on a somewhat regular basis. Unfortunately, he ended up getting injured and struggled through 18 starts. The next season, he committed fully to implementing the sinker while nearly abandoning his four-seam (read: straight) fastball. Upping his sinker use to 54.9 percent and throwing the fastball only 4.0 percent of the time made him a whole new pitcher that batters would need to adjust to facing.
Ahead to 2012, Lohse continued to fine-tune his craft as he mixed in the fastball (10 percent) and the slider (23 percent) to keep hitters guessing. His primary pitch remained the sinker, still tossing it nearly 43 percent of the time, a move that continued to induce more ground balls and helped him avoid the home runs that had been killing his early career.
In the nine years prior to using the sinker (2001-2009), Lohse gave up 1.2 home runs per nine innings (HR/9). From 2010-12, his HR/9 rate dropped to 0.8, which amounts to 8.5 fewer home runs allowed per year over 190 innings per season. That improvement alone could make a mediocre pitcher into a top-of-the-rotation arm. However, Lohse also improved his overall command by having more trust in his sinker, leading to a pair of great seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.
2011: 14-8, 3.39 ERA, 1.168 WHIP, 2.64 K/BB
2012: 16-3, 2.86 ERA, 1.090 WHIP, 3.76 K/BB – All career-highs
As for Lohse’s debut season in Milwaukee, the numbers were consistent despite concerns he was leaving the “pitching school” in St. Louis and moving to homer-friendly Miller Park. His ERA and WHIP were in line with 2011 numbers, while his K/BB rate was the second-best mark of his career.
Not surprisingly, the home run rate jumped back up, but it wasn’t only because of his home ballpark. Though his career rejuvenation has been predicated on a great sinker, Lohse continued his habit of throwing it even less last season, down to 31.8 percent from 43 percent in 2012, and almost 55 pecent in 2011. He actually went to his straight fastball more often than in the past, most likely adding to the home run total. But again, he posted solid overall stats.
2013: 11-10, 3.35 ERA, 1.168 WHIP, 3.47 K/BB
This makes his 2013 season more impressive, if not a bit peculiar that he’d go away from his bread-and-butter pitch. While baseball is a game of adjustments and Lohse may have been looking to cross up hitters by going against the grain, it is odd to slightly eschew the pitch that extended his career and earned him 10s of millions of dollars. There may have been other reasons contributing to the change in tactic.
The biggest impact came from Lohse not enjoying a regular Spring Training as he didn’t sign with the Brewers until March 25. The abnormal routine and late arrival played a role in his abysmal May performance (6.51 ERA) as he battled through dead arm and some elbow irritation, even missing a start. After fighting through that tough stretch — a month where the Brewers sunk their season with a 6-22 record — Lohse was every bit the ace for Milwaukee.
There’s always the risk for injury and decline in a 35-year-old pitcher, but Lohse’s pitching style and recent trends suggest he will continue to be a high-quality pitcher for the Brewers and serve the role of the top starter in 2014. Take a moment to think about what his season was like outside of one month with arm problems. While it’s not always fair to take out a string of performances to evaluate a player’s production, it’s warranted in doing so with Lohse’s outings in May of 2013.
Removing those five starts (27.2 IP), ask yourself if you would be interested in having this pitcher at the top of the rotation:
27 starts, 171 IP, 11-6 record, 2.84 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 4.03 K/BB.