Looking for a high-priced starter? How about a middle-aged middle reliever? Be careful if those searches take you to Derek Lowe and Takashi Saito. The erstwhile Dodgers have not only left Los Angeles behind, but possibly their best form.
A quick refresher
The Red Sox signed Saito to a one-year deal and used him in a set-up role in 2009. Boston seems to have moved on, but NPB reports no fewer than eight teams are interested in Saito’s services in 2010. Someone will have the then 40-year old in camp come spring.
Lowe is no spring chicken in baseball years—he’ll turn 37 on June 1. His contract is looking more like a burden each day, and the pitching-rich Braves may be looking to unload it.
Lowe has heard the rumors, but is more focused on staying in the rotation and working out an issue with his mechanics:
[I]t was one of the worst mechanical funks I’ve ever been in in my career. And the frustration was, I knew what I was doing but couldn’t do anything to change it…. I’ve been working with (trainer) Chris Correnti, who is down here, and we’re doing some things to help correct it so I can get back to doing what I’ve always done.
I can’t help but wonder if the funk had something to do with his late-season blister, which shortened one start, but didn’t keep him out of his final three of 2009.
Signs of decline
Both Lowe and Saito have shown a few significant, and sometimes alarming, changes in a few of my favorite rate stats. Swings and misses (Whiff), balls in play (GB, FB, LD and PU), slugging rate on contact (SLGCON) and run values (rv100 and rv100E).
Let’s start with whiffs, an attribute that is arguably more important for a relief pitcher.
The drop-off, subtle in 2008 and severe in 2009, is the first alarm bell for both Lowe and Saito. Both are down about 33 percent over the PITCHf/x era.
Lowe is known for his ground ball skills. He’s gone from elite to good in this regard, still above average but far below his 2007 level. Saito has gone from above average to average and then below average over the course of three seasons.
Saito has retained a knack for getting pop-ups (a skill Lowe has never possessed, nor required) but is no longer immune to line drives.
Add all that up, and you’ve got two guys who are hit harder now than they were two years ago.
Okay, so Saito was ridiculous in 2007 and had nowhere else to go but down. Both remain near average for their respective roles.
Roll it all up
Both Lowe and Saito are missing fewer bats, giving up more fly balls and, most likely, are getting hit harder. Or are getting unlucky.
Run values help with that last point. rv100, based on hits and outs allowed (by count, no regard to base/game state) can be compared to rv100E, which is based on batted ball types. For both stats, negative numbers indicate runs saved per 100 pitches relative to the 2007-2009 MLB average.
rv100E should iron out some of the ups and downs with batted ball outcomes. All outcomes are regressed to league average. That includes the number of grounders that become singles all the way to the number of fly balls that become home runs. Balls not in play (strikes and balls) are measured the same way with both stats. For Lowe and Saito, I don’t see any reason to think “oh, he was just unlucky” in 2009. Lowe, maybe a little bit unlucky, but Saito may be a wee bit lucky.
Saito’s decline is the most alarming. Lowe remains a decent starter and Saito a decent reliever, but neither are the stars they once were. Considering their advanced age (for athletes), a rebound probably isn’t something to put many of your chips on. The drop-offs, rolled up into the run values, come from multiple sources—whiffs and batted balls. Here’s another.
Both Lowe and Saito have lost some velocity. Saito appears to have recovered some, but not all, of the speed he had prior to the injury.
click for larger versions
Lowe is staying put. With three years and a hefty price tag, the Braves will be hard pressed to move him. Saito will sign a reasonably priced major league deal with a National League team. It will be for a single season in a set-up role of some sort. The Braves have to hope Lowe comes back strong in 2010, or accepts a bullpen role in the not-too-distant future.
References & Resources
PITCHf/x data from MLBAM and Sportvision
Pitch classifications by the author
Jack Moore also wrote about Lowe at Fangraphs, raising similar concerns about his age, ground ball rate and K:BB ratio.