When the Hot Stove season began, rumors hit the baseball world that Kyle Lohse was going to angle for the same kind of money C.J. Wilson got as the top free-agent pitcher of the 2011-12 offseason. Whether that leak came from Lohse, agent Scott Boras or someone unrelated to either, it was a ridiculous demand, and it may be stinging Lohse even now, with little over a month left before Spring Training. He remains unsigned, and may not have even received an offer yet from any team.
Lohse (Boras having seemingly written the line for him) has advanced the theory that the specter of a lost draft pick (which any team signing him would face, thanks to the St. Louis Cardinals having extended a qualifying offer to him in November) has pinned down his value.
He’s at least partially right. Edwin Jackson and Anibal Sanchez both signed handsome multi-year deals in December. Ryan Dempster got a two-year, $26.5-million deal. Jake Peavy got two years and $29.5 million. Even Joe Blanton, Brandon McCarthy, Jeremy Guthrie, Francisco Liriano and Carlos Villanueva have nabbed two- or three-year commitments. Dan Haren got the pillow contract Lohse might have pursued under the old rules, because the Washington Nationals didn’t have to give up a pick to get him.
It’s more than the pick, though. Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and Nick Swisher all got their big contracts despite those picks, and some teams very much in need of starting pitching have resorted to less desirable options like Brett Myers, Scott Feldman, John Lannan and Kevin Correia. Presumably, by now, Lohse and Boras have at least softened their demands, and might be open to a mid-market three-year deal. Why has no team even seriously weighed that notion yet?
There are at least three reasons.
1. Yadier Molina and Dave Duncan
For years, St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan was the consummate guru/fixer of all lost and wandering pitchers. Da Vinci in baseball pants. Chris Carpenter remains Duncan’s masterpiece, but by one narrative, Lohse is the ‘Vitruvian Man’ to Carpenter’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Duncan took Lohse in as a below-average starter, nurtured him through a bizarre series of forearm problems, and watched Lohse emerge as a front-line hurler (by results, anyway) in 2011.
Family issues called Duncan away before 2012, which was really Lohse’s major breakout. Duncan’s signature sinker remained with Lohse, but Lohse throws it differently, spots it higher and relies more on fly balls and called strikes with that pitch than past Duncan pupils. It doesn’t seem that Duncan directly catalyzed Lohse’s sudden revival.
Yadier Molina probably played a much larger role. In 2012, only eight percent of all Lohse’s pitches inside the strike zone went for balls; the league average was 13.7 percent. At the same time, of Lohse’s pitches outside the zone, 11.7 percent were called strikes nonetheless. The league average there is 7.7 percent. All told, that’s 152 extra strikes Lohse got by fooling umpires. Molina likely deserves a lot of the credit, for great pitch framing.
He can’t get it all. Lohse has terrific command and control (4.6-percent walk rate) and likely leads umpires with his own precision at times. Still, teams are surely cognizant of numbers as wild as Lohse’s on those borderline pitches, and probably give him (at most) half credit for that phenomenon.
2. Stuff, Strikeouts and the Modern Starter
Partially as a result of those 152 strikes begot on non-swings, Lohse got 35 percent of his strikeouts in 2012 looking. The league average is 26 percent. Lohse made batters swing and miss on 7.3 percent of all pitches in 2012, a career best, but that’s still 25 percent off the league average of 9.1 percent. In total, he had his best strikeout season since 2008, fanning 16.8 percent of opposing batters, but again, that was far short of even the league-average rate for starting pitchers.
This is how Lohse succeeds. He’s a fast worker, throws his sinker up in the zone to induce lots of swings, and seeks weak contact. Batters hit just .267 on balls in play against him in 2012, and both his seasonal (5.6 percent) and career (7.1 percent, per Baseball-Reference) home run rates on fly balls are substantially below the average.
It’s possible these are real skills. Some pitchers are able to outperform what statheads call their “peripheral indicators,” things like the strikeout, swinging-strike and HR/FB rates. It’s rare, though, and it likely takes much more than two strong seasons to convince modern front offices it’s going to keep happening.
The lack of strikeout stuff hurts Lohse perhaps worst of all. The league has never been more strikeout-and-homer-centric, and with players at most positions being selected for their power potential, pitchers need to miss bats worse than they ever have before. Lohse doesn’t do it.
He does have three solid pitches, a sinker, a slider and a change-up, and both the slider and the change induce whiffs on acceptable (though not close to elite) percentages of swings. Batters missed the sinker less than three percent of the time in 2012, though. It just isn’t a good enough primary offering to facilitate strikeouts. Teams have little patience for guys who cost a substantial amount and don’t get outs on their own these days. Lohse is too old-school.
3. Age and Injury
Last winter, despite a similar lack of strikeout ability, Mark Buehrle got a four-year, $58-million deal from the Miami Marlins. He had a few more innings pitched in his two platform years than Lohse had, but the overall picture was similar. Lohse might even have been better.
The reason Lohse will not reach (or probably even approximate) Buehrle’s number, though, is that he’s a much riskier bet than Buehrle was a year ago.
For one thing, Lohse will turn 35 in October. This season will be his age-34 year. Buehrle was 33 in 2012, so right away, we can lop off a year on a prospective deal. If Buehrle got four years, Lohse should get just three. For another, Buehrle had made at least 30 starts for 11 straight seasons prior to signing that deal, averaging a shade over 220 innings pitched. Lohse has made 30 or more starts eight times in his career, but not in a row, and has never topped 211 innings pitched.
Lohse had a bizarre forearm problem in 2009 and 2010. It began (or didn’t, no one seems to be sure) when he was hit by a pitch in May of 2009, leading to a contusion there. It was rediagnosed as a strain of his flexors in June, and he spent the next five weeks on the DL.
A groin strain sidetracked him again later that summer, and then, in September, his forearm became inflamed again. He missed another start. He was never fully healthy that winter or into the following spring, and ran up a 5.89 ERA in seven starts to begin 2010. The Cardinals shut him down, and finally, upon deeper inspection, found that Lohse had compartment syndrome in his right forearm.
That was scary. Not “he might not get another free-agent deal” scary, but “he could lose his right arm” scary. At some point (probably because of the bruising left by the hit-by-pitch), Lohse’s right forearm stopped getting the requisite blood supply. He had surgery to correct the problem, but 2010 was blown. He got back onto the mound 11 more times in August and September, but was essentially in Spring Training while everyone else was at peak readiness, and got hammered.
He’s been basically fully healthy since then. He made 63 starts the past two seasons. Compartment syndrome is not, strictly speaking, something one would expect to flare up again. On the other hand, if Lohse suffered another injury to the arm that involved substantial swelling, one assumes it would be the end of his pitching career. Tommy John surgery would not help him much, because it would probably also require more surgery to ensure that enough dead or damaged tissue was removed to maintain normal blood flow.
Why Take the Risk?
Now, there are some good signs that should not be overlooked. Despite his age, Lohse actually saw his velocity tick up in 2012, about a mile per hour on average across the board. He had his best numbers ever, as noted above, in both predictive and descriptive statistical categories. He’s not useless.
What is Lohse worth? The Jake Peavy deal is probably the best model. Both men are coming off very strong seasons, but have major injury questions, and give some reason to wonder whether they can really repeat their stellar 2012 showings. Esteban Loaiza got three years and $21 million from the Athletics after a similar breakout year at the same age seven years ago, and is Lohse’s top comparable player (per Baseball-Reference) through age 33. Inflate those salaries to fit today’s market, and that’s probably three years and $31 million or so. The total-value target for teams pursuing Lohse should be $30 million or so, and they can allow Lohse to decide whether he wants to spread that over two years or three.
A better question might be: When will Lohse and Boras accept those terms? The answer: no sooner than Valentine’s Day. Someone will overpay, or Lohse will be heading into Spring Training as a free agent.Next post: Matt Garza, Phil Hughes and Tim Lincecum: Three Case Studies of Pitching
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