The Braves' Derek Lowe Throws the Fewest Strikes In MLB (And That's OK)

Derek Lowe doesn't have to throw strikes to get strikes.

According to FanGraphs, Derek Lowe has thrown fewer balls in the strike zone than any other qualified MLB starter. And only one pitcher is even close:

  1. Derek Lowe, 33.7% pitches in the strike zone (Zone%)
  2. Kyle Drabek, 34.1%
  3. Livan Hernandez, 38.7%
  4. Shaun Marcum, 39.7%
  5. Jon Lester, 40.5%

Lowe throws 5% fewer pitches in the strike zone than anyone else in baseball except Kyle Drabek, and Drabek has struggled mightily this season (4.98 ERA, 4.96 FIP, and more walks than strikeouts). Yet Lowe has been fairly successful, posting a 3.73 ERA, 3.48 FIP, and racking up 1.3 WAR (in both versions). That puts him on track for a 3.4-WAR season, which is pretty darn good.

The other three pitchers on the list have had varying degrees of success this season as well. Livan and Lester have been decent, and Marcum has been fantastic. The question is: how can a pitcher be successful while throwing so few pitches in the strike zone?

Let's look at Lowe's start last night against the Marlins as an example. He held the Marlins hitless through 6 innings, and ended up with a line of 6.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, and 5 K. That's a successful start by any measure. Amazingly, Lowe threw only 30 of 86 pitches in the strike zone, according to PitchF/X. That's 34.9%, a very low figure.

Despite throwing so many pitches out of the zone, Lowe's final count was 55 strikes and 31 balls (64.0% strikes), which is just above the league average. Part of this is due to the fact that hitters seem to like swinging at out-of-zone pitches against Lowe. He got all 8 of his swings-and-misses, plus four called strikes and four foul balls, on out-of-zone pitches. That's 16 pitches that "should" have been balls that instead went for strikes.

Florida batters also put 11 balls in play on out-of-zone pitches against Lowe. While both the Marlins' hits came on out-of-zone pitches, they also made 9 outs. I'm sure Lowe would take 2 hits out of 11 balls in play any day.

I'm guessing that hitters swung so often against these out-of-zone pitches mainly because they looked like they would be in the zone. But since Lowe throws mostly sinkers and sliders, most of them ended up sinking/sliding out of the zone.

More analysis, including PitchF/X graphs, after the jump.

When Lowe actually threw a pitch in the strike zone, the Marlins batters couldn't do anything with it. They only swung at 12 of 30 pitches in the zone, resulting in 8 balls in play (all outs) and four foul balls. Of the 18 pitches taken, 17 were called strikes. So that's 8 outs and 21 strikes out of 30 pitches. Perhaps the fact that Lowe was throwing so many pitches out of the zone might have made it so the hitters were a bit off-guard when he did throw a strike.

So Lowe got the Marlins to actually swing more often at pitches out of the zone (47.3% out of zone vs. 40.0% in zone). Regardless of where the pitch was, the Marlins couldn't seem to do anything with it. Of the 19 balls they hit in play, 14 were on the ground. 

Why were so many of the balls hit on the ground, and why did hitters swing at so many balls out of the zone? The answer to both, I think, can be explained with some graphs. The following graphs show the location of each of Lowe's pitches, first against right-handed batters and then against left-handed batters. The graphs are from the catcher's/umpire's perspective, so left is outside to a left-handed hitter and right is outside to a right-handed hitter.


Both graphs via the excellent PitchF/X resource,

See the pattern? Low and outside, low and outside, over and over again. It's no secret that Lowe likes to pitch low in the zone and on the outside corner, but it really is striking just how much he does it when he's going well, like he was last night.

Notice also that when Lowe misses, he nearly always misses outside or low, rather than high or inside. This is advantageous because hitters are much more likely to do damage on pitches up in the zone or inside than low or outside. The same goes, but moreso, for pitches in the strike zone. When Lowe keeps the ball down and away, he is extremely hard to hit, as the Marlins learned last night.

So to summarize, here's how you can throw barely 1/3 of your pitches in the strike zone and be successful:

  1. Throw strikes in the lower third and outer third of the zone.
  2. When you miss, miss low and away, not up and in.
  3. Throw pitches that look like strikes but aren't, like sinkers and sliders that start in the zone but end up outside the zone.
  4. And the prerequisite for all of this: have great command of your pitches. You can't do any of the first 3 things without it.
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