By Rob Neyer
If, two months ago, you or I had made a list of the best free-agent pitchers available this winter, it would probably have looked something like this:
1. Pedro Martinez
2. Carl Pavano
3. Brad Radke
4. Matt Clement
5. Russ Ortiz
(Sorry, couldn't resist making a joke with the fifth slot. There just wasn't any clear-cut choice there, though Odalis Perez and Kris Benson would rank among the better candidates.)
That's not how the seriously sabermetricalized teams saw things, though. According to my sources and my readings of whatever tea leaves I could find, here's what that list would have looked like:
1. Pedro Martinez
2. Brad Radke
3. Derek Lowe
4. Carl Pavano
5. Matt Clement
(No, the Red Sox didn't regard Derek Lowe so highly. Not even close. But please indulge me for a bit longer.)
Many would have ranked Derek Lowe somewhere near the bottom of the list. Maybe in the top 10, but maybe not. Most Red Sox fans are thrilled the Sox signed lame-winged Wade Miller rather lame-ERA'd Derek Lowe. So it was more than mildly surprising when the news arrived that the Los Angeles Dodgers were about to spend $36 million on four years of Derek Lowe. So surprising that my first reactions were to 1) hit the Web to see what my fellow Moneyball fans were saying, and 2) send quizzical e-mail messages to a few people I know are smarter than I. The question wasn't why Paul DePodesta would want to sign Derek Lowe. The question was why he'd want to sign him so badly.
Derek Lowe allowed 224 hits last season in 183 innings.
First, the case against Derek Lowe (and if you're one of those aforementioned Red Sox fans, feel free to skip ahead).
Lowe finished the 2004 season with a 5.42 ERA in 33 starts. He gave up 110 earned runs, which is a lot. He gave up 138 runs, earned and unearned, which was more than anybody else in the American League even though he pitched 183 innings (a lot of American Leaguers pitched more). In those same 183 innings, Lowe walked 71 batters and struck out only 105. He turns 32 in June, and isn't likely to become a better pitcher than he's been.
I think it's fairly safe to say that never in the history of free agency has a pitcher coming off such a season been rewarded with a contract like the one Lowe is about to sign. Then again, maybe Paul DePodesta knows something that nobody else knows. Or as one Web wag put it, "I think it's pretty obvious that DePo has a computer simulation that predicts an ERA under 3.00 if he uses five infielders behind Lowe."
Now, the case for Derek Lowe (and, by extension, DePodesta).
Lowe's really not the pitcher that his 2004 ERA suggests. For one thing, he was awfully unlucky. As I'm sure you know, in general a pitcher controls only three things: walks, strikeouts, and home runs. Pitchers typically give up hits on roughly 30 percent of the batted balls in play (not counting home runs). When a pitcher gives up significantly more than that, it's often the result of bad luck, and last year batters hit roughly .330 on the balls in play against Lowe.
Let's look at Lowe's walk, strikeout, and home-run numbers, per 36 batters faced, for each of the last three seasons:
BB/36 SO/36 HR/36 ERA
2002 2.0 5.4 0.51 2.58
2003 2.9 4.5 0.69 4.47
2004 3.0 4.5 0.64 5.42
In 2002, Lowe ranked among the best pitchers in the majors, due in part to excellent walk and home-run rates. But the biggest reason was one that doesn't show up here: when batters put the ball in play but didn't hit it over the fence, they got hits only 24 percent of the time. Which is an absurdly low figure. We knew he couldn't sustain that success in 2003, and he didn't, the rate zoomed back up to 30 percent. Also, Lowe's walk rate went up and his strikeout rate went down, and the result was that 4.47 ERA.
And then Lowe's ERA went up again in 2004. But look again at those other rates; they hardly changed at all. In fact, they're so close let's combine them, and look again:
BB/36 SO/36 HR/36
2002 2.0 5.4 0.51
2003-2004 3.0 4.5 0.67
Which of those lines represents Lowe's "true" ability? Both of them do. There's nothing magical about going back one year, or two years, or three years, or six. The evidence would suggest, however, that the Derek Lowe of 2003 and '04 is more "real" than the Derek Lowe of 2002.
And the real Derek Lowe projected to something like a 4.50 ERA in 2005, had he remained with the Red Sox.
He's not going to remain with the Red Sox. He's going to pitch for the Dodgers, who play in a pitcher's league and a pitcher's ballpark, and will probably feature a better defense than the one behind Lowe last season.
But as another Web wag noted, "Sure, the park and the defense will make him look better. But they would make the cheap guys look better too."
True. The list of pitchers who have superficially benefited from Dodger Stadium is a long one. For Lowe to be worth $9 million per season, there has to be something else (though perhaps not a lot else; remember, we're living in a world where Eric Milton earns $8 million per season).
And if there's a something else, it's the specific, almost freakish sort of pitcher that Lowe is.
He's an extreme groundball pitcher. Last season, Lowe was one of only two major league starters -- the other was the even more extreme Brandon Webb -- who induced more than three times as many groundballs as flyballs.
I don't know about Paul DePodesta, but I know that Billy Beane loves groundballs. Beane has related this fondness to me a number of times over the years. And in Moneyball, when the author asks him if he's concerned about Chad Bradford's religious faith, Beane responds, "No. I'm a believer, too. I just happen to believe in the power of the groundball."
But it can't just be the groundballs. You don't spend $36 million on a groundball pitcher unless he's Tim Hudson. No, I think it's Lowe's special ability to avoid home runs; last season he ranked third in the American League among starting pitchers.
Dodger Stadium, as noted above, is a pitcher's park. Has been a pitcher's park since Sandy Koufax was a young man. What it's not is tough on power hitters; over the last three seasons, Dodger Stadium's been one of the easier home-run parks in the National League. So why is it a pitcher's park? Because it just crushes doubles, triples, and batting average in general. Remove home runs from the equation, and Dodger Stadium is the pitcher-friendliest park in the league.
Derek Lowe removes home runs. The ballpark removes everything else. And suddenly we're looking at a pitcher who might, with just average luck and a good defense, post an ERA in the 3.50 range. Can he do that for all four seasons on his contract? Lowe's never been hurt, and started 98 games in his three seasons as a starter with the Red Sox.
It's a lot of theory, I know. Paul DePodesta's been working on his theory for five or six years, and I've been working on mine for three days. Some of you will suggest that I'm working as DePodesta's apologist. I'm not. But I do know DePodesta well enough to know that he's done his due diligence, and the results tell him that Derek Lowe is likely to be a good pitcher for the next few years. And since Paul won't let me rifle through his hard drive, I'm just doing the best I can. Like you, I'll be surprised if Lowe wins more than 50 games over the four seasons of his contract. But you have to admit, it's a fascinating experiment. Not to mention a costly one.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes for Insider two or three times per week during the offseason. To offer criticism, praise, or anything in between, send e-mail to mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org