Setting the Bar for the Cardinals' $12.1875-Million Number Four Starter

One of the ripples affecting the 2011 Cardinals club in the wake of the injury to staff ace Adam Wainwright's right elbow is Kyle Lohse receiving a promotion by default that will result in him pitching in the fourth game of the season instead of the fifth. The fortunes of the pitcher whose contract has made him the goat of the VEB collective are suddenly more closely tied to those of the club. Expectations for the once-sturdy innings eater in the wake of a motocross-injury-shortened season which saw him pitch the fewest innings since his rookie season are understandably low, setting fans up for a potentially pleasant surprise. Looking at the numbers for Jaime Garcia last week actually caused my expectations for Lohse to rise to a level I suspect to be higher than most of the citizens of Cardinal Nation.

In 2008, Lohse was plucked from the bargain bin by John Mozeliak and the pairing of Lohse and Duncan proved a good one that season. Coming off a 2007 season that saw his GB rate drop to a career low 36.9%, Duncan helped Lohse to once again coerce grounders out of the opposition. Consequently, Lohse's GB rate rose nearly nine percent to 45.8%, a new career high. Lohse posted a 3.86 FIP over 200 IP that season and signed the much-maligned contract extension that caused him to go from being one of Mozeliak's best free agent signings as GM to one of the worst. Contributing to his descent in the eyes of Cardinal Nation were injury problems. Lohse only threw 117.2 mediocre innings in 2009 with a 4.55 FIP (4.74 ERA) and a WAR of just 0.8. But this would have been a welcome performance when compared to his 2010:  92 IP, 6.55 ERA, 4.42 FIP, and 0.7 WAR.

What immediately sticks out about Lohse last season is that his FIP was actually better in 2010 than it was in 2009, a fact that seems impossible. The gap between Lohse's FIP and ERA is cavernous at 2.13, but also heartening due to some of his peripherals. Lohse is not going to have opponents post a .364 BABIP again this season and Lohse's LOB% is not going to be 59.6% for a second straight year. Prior to 2010, Lohse's career-high opposition BABIP was .333 and his career-low LOB% was 65.4%. This year there is no reason to expect Lohse's LOB% to do anything but rise, probably to about 70% (as his career average LOB% is 69.8%). The BABIP for opposing batsmen ought to shrink to something closer to his career average .305 BABIP, especially given Lohse's batted ball profile:  Lohse's 2010 LD rate of 19% is lower than it was in 2008 (22.1%) and for his career (20.7%) while his GB and FB rates really are not all that different from career levels. 

These statistics are what helped me to set a bit of a higher bar for Lohse heading into the season, but we cannot forget that he is coming off a surgery that is rare for a pitcher to undergo. For that reason, we have to follow the lead tom s. set for us on Saturday and carefully comb the Spring Training reports so that one can put entirely too much stock in a three-inning outing, the media's summary of it, and any quotes from Dave Duncan or Kyle Lohse regarding how he felt and looked on the mound.

 

Without PItch F/X and the full Gameday presentation available on stlcardinals.com, it is really difficult to gauge pitchers in Spring Training. One necessarily must go by the tidbits tweeted and written by the beat writers watching the games. For the Cardinal Beat at the Post-Dispatch's website, Derrick Goold summarizes Lohse's first start of the spring and the final out he recorded:

Lohse completed three strong innings against the Houston Astros, with his best inning coming in the final inning and his most revealing at-bat coming from the final hitter he faced.

With the Cardinals' leading 5-1 on a gusty day at Osceola County Stadium, Lohse got two outs from his first three pitches of the third inning. He then fell behind 2-0 to Houston Astros right fielder Hunter Pence. The Astros' No. 3 hitter then fouled off three consecutive pitches as Lohse worked his way back into the count.

The Cardinals righty then fed Pence a full-count off-speed pitch. The bottom dropped out and Pence swung over for Lohse's second strikeout of the outing.

One of the other tried and true Duncan methods is to throw fastballs. Before coming to St. Louis, Lohse's FB rate dropped steadily from his early years when it was over 63% to a career-low of 52.6% in 2007. Under Duncan, it shot up to 60.1% in Lohse's excellent 2008 season. It fell to 56.8% in 2009 but was back up to 59.2% last season. What is interesting about this fact is that Lohse's fastball is not all that great. Using the Fangraphs pitch value metric, it was worth -21.7 runs in 2007. It is not any wonder that he was throwing it so less often. In 2008, it was worth -12.9 runs. But, it was that pitch that set up his slider, curveball, and changeup. All were above-average pitches for him in 2008. His slider was worth 4.6 runs; his curve, 5.9; and, his change, 9.6 runs. By comparison, last season Lohse's fastball was worth -17.0 runs; his slider, -4.7; curve, -1.0; and, his change, 1.3. Lohse's fastball is a necessary foil to his off-speed pitches, which are his most effective offerings. To succeed, Lohse needs to get good movement on these pitches and to spot them. So, reading Goold's description of an off-speed pitch to Hunter Pence which had the bottom drop out of it is heartening news.

Obviously, it is incredibly early in the spring to be declaring Lohse to be a success. The 2008 Butte College Outstanding Alumnus has as his first Google-suggested auto-search "Kyle Lohse tattoo" after all, but this is quite appropriate for 2011 as Lohse's success will largely depend on the health of this freshly tattooed and permanently scarred limb. As we are gauging Lohse's early starts this season, let's pay attention to his GB rate, LOB%, BABIP, and how successful he is at throwing his off-speed pitches. 

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