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2011 Atlanta Braves Spring Training: Derek Lowe Has A Chance To Be The Dark Horse For The Braves

Derek Lowe has faced a lot of criticism since signing his deal with the Braves prior to the 2009 season. Coming off four straight seasons with ERA's below four, it was expected for Lowe to anchor the rotation with more mid-3 ERA's and good groundball numbers.

While his ERA's have been worse than his actual performances, there have still been a hail of critical remarks shot Lowe's way. As a major leaguer, Lowe has never had a groundball rate below 60% until he came to the Braves, and he has given Atlanta seasons of 56.3% and 58.8%. The HR/9 and HR/FB have not changed much, but it's fair to say Lowe has not been as productive in a Braves uniform as the organization hoped. But with two years remaining on the contract, Lowe at least stands a chance to still be the pitcher he was signed to be.

First of all, his overall numbers give this indication, if only slightly. From 2009 to 2010, his ERA dropped from 4.67 to 4.00. His FIP dropped from 4.06 to 3.89. His xFIP dropped from 4.19 to 3.65. His K/BB increased from 1.76 to 2.23. His GB% increased from 56.3% to 58.8%. He gave up fewer flyballs. Lowe did give up more line drives, but as I will show in a minute, there is a reason not to get worked up over this. So overall, Lowe's numbers saw improvement from his first year as a Brave to his second.

The biggest reason why I believe Lowe still has better production left in him is his monthly splits in 2010. From April to July, Lowe's sinker produced a line drive rate (against RHB) of 19.1%; a groundball rate of 56.5%; a flyball rate of 24.4%. Against LHB, Lowe threw more off-speed stuff, and it had mixed results. His slider produced a 50% line drive rate and only 31.8% groundball rate. However, his changeup produced a groundball rate of 70.6% and line drive rate of 8.8%. His sinker had very similar results against LHB as against RHB.

From August to the end of the season, Lowe's sinker (against RHB) produced a line drive rate of 6.6%; a groundball rate of 80.3%; a flyball rate of 13.1%. Against LHB, his sinker produced numbers similar to the ones above, so things did not change there. Despite having such good success against lefties with the changeup, he threw it far less toward the end of the season, though it continued to have solid batted ball rates. However, his slider fared much better against lefties, including a 16.7% line drive rate.

As a result, Lowe's ERA from April through July was 4.66. From August to the end of the season, it was 2.75, and that includes an unlucky August that drove his ERA up more than it should have. In August, Lowe allowed just seven walks to 23 strikeouts in 33.1 innings. In September, he had a 1.17 ERA, three walks and 29 strikeouts in 30.2 innings. Lowe was a completely different pitcher down the stretch, and he became the go-to arm for the Braves in their pennant run.

Obviously, different months in a single season is a small sample size, but such a major difference is clear to see. His sinker did a complete turnaround against right-handed batters in the final two months, and while it did not change against left-handed batters, his off-speed stuff continued to produce good results, and his slider improved dramatically. It's safe to say Lowe was a different pitcher down the stretch, and it leaves you wondering if he has that in him over a longer period. Many will count him out as he reaches his 38th birthday, but I wouldn't give up on him reaching his former production level again.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.