This piece was inspired by an article entitled "Derek Lowe and Red Flags" by Jack Moore.
To summarize, Jack Moore of Fangraphs (and Beyond the Box Score, though not in this case), does a good job of picking up on and explaining a few of Derek Lowe's recent trends, though comes up a bit short in giving them proper context. First of all, he points out Lowe's age (entering age 37 season), a valid point that needs little additional context, all of which is most probably common knowledge if you're reading this. He then cites a 3-year decline in GB%, from 65.0% in 2007 to 60.3% (career low at that point) in 2008 to 56.3% (career low) in 2009. This is another valid point, though it's worth note that Lowe's 56.3% was the 2nd highest in baseball in 2009. Each year since 2007, his LD% and FB% have risen at the expense of his GB%, which is certainly not something you'd like to see. Some of this could be attributed to normal, chronic (i.e. slow and gradual as opposed to acute: rapid and drastic) aging effects. Some of this could be attributed to the mechanical problems in 2009 that Lowe cites here. I would argue there's little evidence of acute aging effects, though.
The third point Moore makes is that Lowe's strikeout-to-walk ratio took a major hit in 2009. It is true. In 2009 Derek Lowe struck out only 5.1 batters per 9 innings (his 3rd lowest mark as a starter). He also walked 2.9 per 9 innings, his third highest mark as a starter. Overall, his 1.76 K/BB ratio is the 3rd worst of his career, and a far cry from the 3.27 K/BB ratio he posted in 2008. Then again, there isn't much of a trend here, seeing as that 3.27 was the highest of his career as a starter, and by quite a bit (next highest was 2.65, 2005). I believe that a further examination of his peripherals is in order. For visualization purposes, refer to this chart:
I see two patterns. One, his GB% and K/9 have declined each of the past two years. Secondly, his FIP, K/BB, tRA+, and BB/9 display no definitive trend, all 4 peaking in 2008 and trough-ing in 2009. (You want your tRA+, K/BB, GB%, and K/9 as large as possible and your BB/9 and FIP as small as possible).
Diving a little deeper now, let's take a look at the pitch type values:
The slider seems to be the key pitch for Lowe. As it goes, so does he. In fact, during Lowe's best starts, I seem to remember him having the slider working, especially in his Opening Day start. In 2008 Lowe threw his slider the most he's ever thrown it (31.7% of the time), the hardest he's ever thrown it (avg velocity 82.9 MPH), and it was the most valuable it's ever been (29.0 RAA). In 2009 he threw the slider the 2nd most he's ever thrown it (26.6% of the time), the 2nd hardest he's ever thrown it (avg velocity 81.6 MPH. That was also the average velocity of the slider in 2007 when he threw it the third most he's ever thrown it (19.2% of the time)), and it was the least valuable it's ever been, by far. To me, this means he was either throwing it differently or unable to locate it. Let's take a look at some of the Pitch F/X trends for Lowe's slider:
In 2009, he swapped some depth for tilt, which led to some rather nasty results. This is expressed directly in the wSL and indirectly in his strikeout rates. It's also possible that he failed to control/command the slider in 2009, which would be expressed in increased BB rates and BABIP, but I have little way of knowing.
By my count, there are three things chiefly responsible for Lowe's sub-standard 2009 season. One is bad luck, which has been discussed at length by many. The second is the normal chronic aging effects that every 36 year old pitcher experiences. The third, the one that most likely responsible for the steep drop-off in his peripherals (tRA, K/9, BB/9, K/BB, FIP, etc..), is the ineffectiveness of his slider.
The good news is that the slider problem seems correctable. The pitches' ineffectiveness could possibly be explained by the change in movement (swapping depth for tilt, i.e. the slider flattening out, moving more right-to-left than top-to-bottom, as you see on your TV screen from the center field camera), which is consistent with mechanical issues. Control/command issues are also consistent with mechanical issues, which also could've been part of Lowe's problem in 2009. Derek Lowe cited mechanical issues as a reason for his late-season melt down in a previously linked piece by Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. The pertinent quote:
"To [pitching coach] Roger McDowell’s credit, he watched all sorts of video with me, and we finally pinpointed some of the things I was doing wrong, but I was never able to go out there and correct it."
"I can’t explain it over the phone, but it was one of the worst mechanical funks I’ve ever been in in my career. And the frustration was, I knew what I was doing but couldn’t do anything to change it."
"I’ve been working with [trainer] Chris Correnti, who is down here, and we’re doing some things to help correct it so I can get back to doing what I’ve always done."
Point being, it makes sense to associate the two events--alleged mechanical issues and drop-offs in his peripherals. I don't know if they are associated, but it sure would make a whole lot of sense.
Derek Lowe will do everything he can to correct the problem, I'm sure of that. Whether or not he'll be able to and whether or not that's the fundamental problem are entirely different questions, best left to the gods to answer, but it is encouraging to know that there's at least a chance he becomes that 3.5+ win pitcher Frank Wren paid him to be and finishes his contract having been a valuable commodity.
Moore's article is entitled "Derek Lowe and Red Flags" and his central position can be summarized by his closing paragraph:
Thanks to his ability to induce ground balls, which even after the drop is still above average, Lowe can still be a productive pitcher, but there are three very good reasons [age, declining GB%, declining K/BB] for the Braves to try and get something in return for Lowe’s unfavorable contract, especially when combined with their abundance of starting pitchers. If a team can get the Braves to eat some of Lowe’s salary, they could be getting an asset, but thanks to the red flags mentioned above, it’s unlikely that Lowe will be a 15 million dollar pitcher over the course of his contract.
I think Moore overstates it a bit. There's plenty of evidence of normal wear and tear, nobody ever denied that. However, it's quite a stretch to imply that his fundamental skills have drastically deteriorated. Maybe they have, only time will tell. In fact, the drop off in peripherals is indicative of drastic decline. However, I've also made a fairly good argument that a correctable mechanical problem could be the goat here, too, and I don't think there's a reasonable way to know which is the case. If his fundamental skills have, in fact, declined, then Moore is correct, "it's unlikely that Lowe will be a 15 million dollar pitcher over the course of his contract", to borrow his quote. For me, it's too big of an "if" to use the previous quote in isolation.
And though we have no idea of knowing whether or not Derek Lowe will be able to correct his mechanical issues (or if that was even the problem), my money is on him bouncing back in 2010.