Is Derek Lowe the guy that pitched 8 scoreless innings in his first 8 innings of Spring Training with the Rangers, or the guy that gave up 4 home runs in two-thirds of an inning?
Every time Neftali Feliz takes the mound, fans watch the scoreboard in hopes that his fastball reaches three digits. R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball inspires mesmerizing animated gif files and reality shows. Nobody can turn heads with a curveball like Yu Darvish.
I might be alone, but I’m fascinated by the sinker.
A good sinker induces ground balls. A great sinker misses bats altogether. A bad sinker gets launched into the upper deck. A great sinker gave Brandon Webb 3 good seasons before it gave him 3 great seasons. A good sinker can make a guy like Scott Feldman a lot of money like it did back in 2008, but when it goes bad, well....
To say Derek Lowe has had an interesting career would be an understatement. The former Seattle draft pick has had a season where he record 42 saves, a year where he went 21-8 with a 2.58 ERA which included a no-hitter, made 33 starts for Boston in a year where he put up a miserable 5.42 ERA the year before he signed with the Dodgers and promptly dropped his ERA back down to 3.61.
He learned the sinkerball in AA, a place where he, like many minor league pitchers, needed something to help set him apart from the rest of the pack. Seems like a pretty normal development for a guy in his situation, except that it doesn’t exactly work that way with the sinkerball like it does with a slider or a curveball or a changeup.
You see, the sinkerball isn’t quite as simple as gripping a ball a little bit differently. There is a part of it that must come naturally. Some people have it, and some people don’t. To Derek Lowe, it came somewhat naturally; he claims he is incapable of throwing a slider.
The sinkerball is essentially a two-seam fastball with a bad attitude. With anywhere from 6-12 inches of break, the sinkerball moves opposite of the slider, and has vertical movement along with its horizontal movement. The pitcher applies pressure with either his pointer finger or middle finger to determine how much movement (and direction) the pitch will have.
The vertical movement of the sinkerball is key. It combines late movement with the ability to change the eye level of the hitter, and thus, creating lots of ground balls. Sinkerball pitchers often start the ball over the middle of the plate and the sink takes it to the corner of the strike zone, drawing lots of [bad] swings.
That is the beauty of sinkerball, but it is also the nightmare of the sinkerball pitcher. When something is off – the pressure of the fingers, the release point, the mechanics – the result is almost always an absolute meatball. To right handed power hitters, a pitch that stays on the same vertical plane and moves in on them at 88-90 MPH is like taking batting practice, only easier. To a lefthander, a ball that stays over the plate coming out of the hand of a righthander is almost too good to be true (just ask all of the hitters who have faced Roy Halladay this Spring). It’s basically like the knuckleball in terms of how quickly a pitcher can become ineffective, only much harder to determine when the pitcher has completely lost the pitch.
When Derek Lowe signed with the Rangers, Jeff Sullivan over at FanGraphs wrote a fantastic piece on the effect that good/poor pitch framers may have had on Derek Lowe. It was this piece that got me a little bit excited to watch what Derek Lowe would look like this Spring, but after Thursday’s performance, I began to wonder if something else could be at play.
Pitch f/x data (data taken from MLB’s Gameday web application that tracks the paths of each pitch thrown in every game) has revolutionized the way that statisticians and baseball nerds view baseball. One of the many things that is recorded is the amount of vertical movement on every pitch. To dig a little deeper into what might have caused Derek Lowe’s ERA to skyrocket last year, I used pitch f/x data to tell me how much his fastball/sinker was actually sinking.
The results were actually very encouraging, especially after watching Lowe give up four bombs to the team’s biggest rival in just 6 ABs, including back-to-back shots from Pujols and Hamilton that felt like a kick in the gut. While maintaining its horizontal break over the last few years, Lowe’s sinker seems to have lost a lot of the vertical downward movement, further explaining, in addition to getting less strike calls and working from behind, why Derek Lowe hasn’t been a very good pitcher the last couple of years.
Until a couple of weeks ago. According the some Brooks Baseball pitch f/x data that I modified to better reflect the actual pitches that Lowe was throwing, Lowe’s fastball is back to sinking like it did back in 2008.
Below is the average vertical movement of Lowe’s fastball each year.
I know. And I can come up with a [bad] excuse for each one of those pitches that went out of the park Friday, but it wouldn’t really matter. The sinker to Pujols got too much of the plate. The pitch to Hamilton was actually a really bad changeup. The sinker to Kendrick was left way too far up in the zone. Hank Conger put a good swing on a sinker that, again, got too much of the plate.
I know these don’t sound like excuses, but considering that Lowe’s sinker basically hasn’t sunk in the past three seasons, Hank Conger parking one that actually did isn’t the worst thing that could happen in Spring Training. Consider the location of Lowe’s pitches over the course of his career:
Greg Maddux, Jon Daniel’s newest special assistant.
When Derek Lowe was with the Dodgers, Los Angeles twice traded for Greg Maddux late in the season (2006 and 2008). Lowe attributes Maddux for helping him “slow the game down,” and the results in Los Angeles were noticeable:
This time of year, working long hours in an accounting office churning out tax returns, I don’t get to see a lot of live baseball, so this may seem like a lot of 3 AM research for a guy that might only pitch a handful of innings in a Ranger uniform, because it is. But with the uncertainty in both the bullpen and the rotation, Derek Lowe could end up being a nice surprise in a year the Rangers might need one or two.