Thursday, February 4, 2010

Atlanta Braves X-Factors: Derek Lowe

An X-Factor is, according to, an "unknown factor...which adds a a certain value to [an] object, element, or person."

(I know it's a general term, but bear with me...this is a poor attempt at a "hook" for this series)

For the Atlanta Braves, I believe there are several players (I think I've settled on five) that could easily have the word "X-Factor" slipped into their description for the upcoming season.

In the first edition of this series, I am going to be running up and down Derek Lowe and his potential impact on the team in 2010.

To avoid me rambling on for 200-300 words here, I think it's best that we go ahead and begin...

Last offseason the Braves, in haste following the less-than-pleasant departure of John Smoltz, inked then-35-year-old Derek Lowe to a four-year, $60 million deal to serve as the team's ace in front of the likes of Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez, Kenshin Kawakami (who was signed shortly after Lowe), and one of two Tommy's (Glavine and/or Hanson).

And Lowe delivered...a 4.67 ERA with 111 Ks (to 63 BBs) while allowing a league-high 232 in 194.2 innings.

But hey, at least 15 wins?

It doesn't take too much to recognize that Lowe had a pretty bad year...especially at $15 million.

It looked even worse next to his teammates who posted 2.60, 2.87, 3.86, and 2.89 ERAs (respective to the order I had above).

That's why the Braves did everything they could to dump Lowe off to a team willing to take on the majority of the right-hander's ace-like deal after they inked Tim Hudson to an extension.

But, when the Braves could find no takers, they had to move down to their other non-cornerstone, move-able starter and deal Javier Vazquez to the New York Yankees for Melky Cabrera and a pair of Minor Leaguers (Mike Dunn and Arodys Vizcaino).

So, as it stands right now, the Bravos are heading into Spring Training with a rotation looking a little like this:

1 R Tim Hudson
2 R Jair Jurrjens
3 R Tommy Hanson
4 R Derek Lowe
5 R Kenshin Kawakami

And for 1, 2, 3, and 5, you have to expect some special things.

Hudson's just that much further away from Tommy John Surgery; Jair Jurrjens' and Tommy Hanson's dynamic arms should only come out with more firepower in '10; and Kenshin Kawakami only improved last year as he adjusted to the cultural aspects, ball, mound, and hitters of Major League Baseball last season.

Lowe, the guy that was expected to be the "given" for the Braves' rotation for the next three years when he signed last offseason, stands as the only real "iffy" factor in the Braves' rotation as we look upon it here two weeks prior to pitchers and catchers reporting.

So, what should we be looking for from Derek Lowe in 2010?

After all, he's not getting any younger and hitter's aren't going to be cutting he any slack.

Well, I have a couple of thoughts...

First thing, I'm expecting the sinker to be a little more effective this go-'round.

Last season, Lowe had the lowest ground ball rate of his career (well, for as long as FanGraphs has been keeping up with GB%) at 56.3%.

That's compared to (including last season) a 63.4% career rate.

If you recall, the Jon and Boog (who has been replaced by the utterly disgraceful Chip Caray) discussed Lowe "tinkering" with his grip on his trademark sinker because of the increasing "sloppiness" from using his other grip.

This was around late-June and early-July.

And if you look at his month-by-month ERAs, you can see where this tinkering worked a bit.

In April and May, the Michigan native had very Lowe-like numbers as he posted 3.10 and 3.76 earned run averages, respectively.

In June, his ERA jumped to a Jo-Jo Reyes-esq 6.54 ERA, his worst numbers of any month in which he started more than one game.

If he did indeed make the adjustments that I just mentioned around the time that I stated, then it shows, as his ERA fell down to a very respectable 3.38.

Now, in August and September, his three digits went back to 5.08 and 5.61.

There were probably a variety of reasons for this, as he was probably runnin' on empty and losing heart before ultimately becoming completely heartless (the first link is for classic rock lovers, the second for modern pop-rock lovers, the last for Kanye fans).

But, I think the biggest factors were cropping up on the tips of D-Lowe's fingers in the form of blisters developing from his "adjusted" grip on his sinker.

This season, given nearly five full months to fix mechanical and grip-based issues, I think we can expect Lowe to come close to logging of full season's worth of 2009's positive months while reverting to his usual plus-60 groundball rate.

Number two, Lowe's got a chip on his shoulder.

In an interview with Mark Bowman this offseason, Lowe expressed his displeasure with the trade winds blowing through his backyard.

After the Vazquez trade he spoke with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O'Brien and, basically, said that everything was in the past and he was excited about the upcoming season as he threw in a couple of other cliches that PO-ed ballplayers always use.

I don't know about you, but Lowe seems to have the personality conducive to turning anger into positive results.

That tenacity on the mound, you know.

I don't know the guy personally, so I cannot say that with certainty...but the TV tells me that it's there.

And if it is really there, then I think Lowe will have a very, very, very, (x10), strong season just so he can prove his critics wrong.

Cy Young?

Probably not.

But a strong veteran presence putting up better-than-league-average numbers?


To sum it up...

I'm not looking for Lowe to come in and dominate the league like his contract suggests he should (as he's making $1 million less than Justin Verlander's average salary shiny new 5-year extension in Mo-Town).

Those days are behind him.

But, I am expecting Lowe to come into with a fire inside and a nasty, non-blister-inducing sinker ready to join his fellow Brave starters in posting all sub-4.00 ERAs (you know, to make it a set).

If he can do that, I can live with saying "hey, if you average it out, JJ, Hanson, and Lowe average out to about $5 MM a piece...that's pretty reasonable" for another couple of years because that would mean that the Braves would have the best starting rotation in baseball.

Here's a toast to D-Lowe... we move on to Troy Glaus in the next "Atlanta Braves X-Factors."

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