More than any other sport, baseball hinges on numbers. A good hitter bats .300, a great hitter goes for .335. Joe DiMaggio got the 56-game streak, Ted Williams means .400, and Henry Aaron is synonymous with 755.
Let’s take a look at Derek Lowe’s numbers last season. He finished with 33 starts, a 4.00 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP. He struck out 136 batters compared to 61 walks. Overall, his season seemed mediocre at best. A starter putting up pedestrian numbers is certainly not worth the four-year, $60 million deal Derek signed with the Braves in 2009.
But let’s delve a little deeper. He experienced a sudden turnaround after a particularly embarrassing game against the Marlins, where he was rocked for five runs on six hits and three walks, before being pulled after three innings. From his September 8th start on, he held his next five opponents to a combined four runs. All five outings resulted in a win for Atlanta, and Lowe was named NL Pitcher of the Month, finishing with a 5-0 record and a 1.17 ERA.
Lowe’s playoff numbers were equally impressive. In two starts against the Giants, he allowed just six hits over roughly 12 innings of work, ending with a 2.31 ERA. Both games resulted in a loss, with his offense providing him only two runs combined.
Derek’s dominance continued into 2011. In his first two starts, he had a microscopic ERA of 0.77 and gave up eight hits and one run over 12 innings pitched. One of the games was a loss against the Brewers when the offense not only failed to score, but also failed to advance a single runner into scoring position.
Over the course of his last nine games he has been the best pitcher in the National League. And it’s not like he has been pampered with pitch counts, innings limits or days off. He’s pitched over 30 games during all of his seasons as a full-time starter. Up to this point in his career, he has never been on the disabled list.
Now a 37-year-old pitcher does not make a significant change in his career. An old dog won’t alter his stance or grow into his frame (well, maybe grow a little TOO much into it). But 54 innings of phenomenal baseball is a large enough sample size to warrant further investigation.
Strikeouts and sliders have guided Lowe to the resurgence in his career. Derek is a big guy. At 6’6", 230 pounds, you would expect him to hurl Randy Johnson-esque flame, fan every batter he faces and whistle chin music by anybody who dares to crowd the plate. But Lowe better compares to Brandon Webb or Tim Hudson. All three are pitchers who lack dominating stuff but make up for it with great sinkers and a smattering array of off-speed pitches.
That was the old Derek. The new Derek still possesses the sinker and will generate a ton of ground ball outs. But for the first time in his career, he has a slider that he trusts.
For much of his time on the bump, Lowe would marginally modify his sinker and through it as a slider. It was not an out pitch by any means, but it worked in a pinch and could catch hitters off guard.
After months of tinkering, he has finally added a plus slider to his repertoire. He uses this slider as an out pitch against righties, notably stringing up Rickie Weeks twice on virtually the same pitch combination: a few fastballs low, a high changeup and tailing the slider off the outside corner.
Against lefties, he’s shown a great willingness to throw the slider high and inside. Hitters salivate at the chance to smack a letter-high fastball into the cheap seats, but the pitch breaks down-and-in on their wrists. Instead of a massive homer, they chop the pitch awkwardly onto the grass and into the awaiting glove of Lowe or second baseman Dan Uggla.
Speaking of Lowe’s glove, he had zero errors in 2010. That’s not a misprint, that’s zero errors for a mostly groundball pitcher who started 33 games.
But what does all of this mean? To the average baseball fan, you should probably check his availability in your fantasy league. He will guarantee you 30-plus starts, 15-plus wins and put up gaudy strikeout numbers.
To Braves fans, we have an iron man on the mound who will make hitters look foolish, give a crap every start and finally earn every penny of his contract.