Davidoff: Yankees preferred Lowe to Burnett in 2008

The 2008-2009 offseason was all about CC Sabathia, but the Yankees acted quickly to sign a rotation running mate in A.J. Burnett just a few days after landing the big left-hander. Ken Davidoff reports that although they signed Burnett, the Bombers actually preferred Lowe. They just had concerns about his reliance on the ground ball meshing with their porous infield defense.

Both the Yankees and Braves were in on Burnett, offering identical five-year, $82.5M contracts according to Joel Sherman. He took New York’s offer because of the club’s proximity to his Maryland home. Atlanta then turned around and signed Lowe to a four-year, $60M deal. I was actually pro-Lowe back then, thinking that the Yankees needed stability and an innings-eater. Burnett has since gone on to become a workhorse, but his injury history at the time was scary. Since those contracts were signed, the two right-handers are essentially tied in fWAR (8.6 vs. 9.0) while Burnett has a huge lead in bWAR (5.6 vs. 0.5).

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Derek Lowe, time off, and adjustments

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Last night’s win over the Rangers was headlined by Nick Swisher‘s grand slam and David Phelps‘ impressive return to the rotation, but new pickup Derek Lowe capped things off with a four-inning save to spare his bullpen mates. The veteran right-hander was flat out released by the Indians last week after two disastrous months — seriously, look how bad they were — but he made a strong first impression on the Yankees’ faithful with his sinker, changeup, and slider in the four scoreless frames. It was his first save since 2001.

As much as we want to think that a simple change of scenery can lead to improved performance, that almost never is the case. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes, and prior to yesterday’s game Lowe spoke about the work he did during the 12 days between being designated for assignment by Cleveland and signing with the Yankees. I trimmed some of the fat out of quotes, but otherwise they come courtesy of Chad Jennings and Brad Lewis

“(Getting designated for assignment) was actually a blessing in a way to be able to go back down to Fort Myers and work with the guy I normally always work with and get straightened out. I called (agent Scott Boras) last Wednesday and said, ‘I feel good enough to be able to go back and pitch the way I should.’

“When you lose your deception, you’re in a world of hurt. I had to get back to hiding the ball better … I’m a huge tinkerer. I have done it my whole career. I try to fix things mechanically, and one little tinker turns into two, turns in to — basically, you almost get lost. I’ve done it my whole career. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t … I literally said, ‘I need a repeatable delivery.’ There were some obvious glaring things I even knew that I was doing, that (since-fired Indians pitching coach) Scott Radinsky knew I was doing, but the side sessions weren’t long enough to fix it … It was great to be able to spend two or three hours really understanding what you were doing wrong and how to correct it … I’ve always been a tinkerer, so it doesn’t take a long time. It takes a good two or three days of hard work getting back right, looking at video and realizing what you have to do.”

Lowe pounded the zone last night, throwing first pitch strikes to 11 of the 14 batters he faced (79%) and a strike with 33 of his 44 pitches (75%). Only thrice did he get into a two-ball count and only once a three-ball count. Throwing strikes was a bit of a problem during his two-month slump with the Indians (only 60% strikes during the 60.1 IP sample, league average is around 67%), though that’s a chicken or the egg thing. Was he getting hit because he wasn’t locating well, or was he not throwing strikes because he was getting hit? Either way, Lowe didn’t run into that problem last night.

Thanks to the magic of PitchFX, we can take a quick look at where Lowe was locating the ball at various points this season. Here are his first nine starts with Cleveland, during which time he pitched to a 2.15 ERA (3.95 FIP) in 58.2 IP…

I wouldn’t get too caught up in the various pitch types and whatnot, right now I just want to focus on the location. Even the balls that were hit are relatively down in the zone and away from lefties, the kind of pitch very few hitters can really drive. During these nine starts, Lowe allowed just two homers and 13 doubles for a .084 ISO against. Here are his next dozen starts, that 8.80 ERA (4.87 FIP) disaster period…

Again, just looking at the location, Lowe left way more pitches up in the zone and towards the middle of the plate. He allowed six homers and 21 doubles during these 60.1 IP, good for a .151 ISO against. When you’re throwing a high-80s sinker that doesn’t sink, the pitch gets clobbered. Lowe was still a little up in the zone last night, but he did a better job of staying out of the middle of the plate.

Now obviously one four-inning appearance doesn’t mean much of anything, but it was certainly more encouraging than it would have been had he went out and gotten hammered again. Perhaps those adjustments last week helped him out, maybe it was being reunited with his former Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, or maybe it was just dumb luck and sample size noise. Either way, the Derek Lowe who was out there last night sure had the look of a potentially useful bullpen piece, the kind of guy who can soak up a few innings to spare the other relievers without letting the game get out of control.

PitchFX plots via Joe Lefkowitz’s site.

David Phelps, Derek Lowe, and the rotation

(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

The Yankees have dealt with what seems like an inordinate number of injuries this season, the latest of which has taken CC Sabathia out of the rotation for 15 days for the second time this season. The team more than survived his first DL stint — in part because it was sandwiched around the All-Star break — and are hoping for more of the same the second time around. Treading water would be fine in my book.

Taking Sabathia’s start tonight is David Phelps, who has emerged as a pretty important setup-type reliever since being recalled from Triple-A about three weeks ago. The recently signed Derek Lowe will join the bullpen and serve as the new long man. Phelps has made three spot starts this year and told reporters yesterday that he’s good for 75-80 pitches tonight, but we’ll see. The Rangers and their swings will tell us exactly when Phelps is running out of gas, and frankly I would be surprised if he makes it through five full innings against that lineup.

That’s part of the reason why I wonder if the Yankees are better off running Lowe out there for the start while keeping their young right-hander in the bullpen for the time being. Both Sabathia and the team insist that he will return to the rotation after the minimum 15 days, meaning he’s only going to miss two starts. Rather than having Phelps available as a potential two-inning setup arm during these next two weeks, the Yankees will have him as a four or maybe five inning starter* for two games. Given the recent struggles of Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova as well as Freddy Garcia‘s generally short leash, having a strong multi-inning reliever is an obvious boon.

Now obviously the problem here is that Lowe is terrible. He pitched to an 8.80 ERA (4.86 FIP) with more walks (27) than strikeouts (26) in his last dozen starts and 60.1 IP for the Indians, and I have a hard time thinking he’ll be much better with the uniform change. Granted, an 8.80 ERA is quite extreme and he might not be that bad going forward, but I wouldn’t expect much. Replacement level. That sounds about right, and you don’t really want that guy in the rotation. The thing is that with two starts, anything can happen. We know he’ll be bad over the long haul, but not necessarily in one or two individual games.

Given all the injuries, the Yankees don’t have many alternatives to bolster their pitching staff in Sabathia’s absence right now. It’s either Phelps on a pitch count or Lowe, who they could run into the ground without a care in the world. Adam Warren did start for Triple-A Empire State yesterday, so he’s definitely not an option. Are the Yankees better off using Phelps for his four or maybe five innings tonight and then again on Saturday while Lowe masquerades as the long man, or by running Lowe out there for the two starts while having Phelps available as needed in relief? I don’t know the right answer, but I do think the Yankees are better off with the latter.

This isn’t Joba Chamberlain all over again — that was a completely different animal. I wanted Joba to remain a starter long-term because I felt that’s where he would provide the greatest impact. I do feel the same way about Phelps, but he’s already in the bullpen and this is the middle of the season. The Yankees have what we really hope is a temporary, two-start hole to plug. If they needed a starter for the rest of the season, then by all means stick the kid in the rotation. But for two starts? I don’t see the big deal, especially since he’s turned into such an important part of the relief corps. Plus I dislike the constant changing of roles, though perhaps that is just a stigma from Joba.

Either way, the starting rotation is taking a big hit with the loss of Sabathia. I’m not sure that compounding the problem by weakening the bullpen is the best solution, especially given the general shakiness surrounding some of the other rotation spots at the moment. Lowe’s almost certainly going to get pounded regardless of role, and there’s a chance Phelps will as a starter as well given the quality of the competition* and his pitch limits. I’d rather just keep the kid in the bullpen and maximize his impact by using him in medium-to-high-leverage spots throughout the week rather than just once every five days with Sabathia on the shelf.

The goal at the big league level is to win games, and I think we sometimes forget that because we want our prospect crushes validated. Especially with a guy like Phelps, a non-top prospect who essentially comes in as an underdog. Those guys are easy to fall in love with. Replacing Phelps with Lowe in the bullpen is a clear downgrade, a big enough one that I don’t think starting a limited Phelps over an unlimited Lowe makes it worth it for the Yankees. I think it could turn out to be a net negative in short order, especially if Hughes decides not complete five innings again or they get stuck in an extra-innings game at some point this week. The Yankees just have to rearrange some pitching furniture during Sabathia’s absence, not rob Peter to pay Paul.

* After tonight’s start against the Rangers, Phelps lines up to start against the Red Sox. So yeah, he’s running into two great offenses with some kind of pitch limit. No ideal.

It’s official: Derek Lowe’s a Yankee

The Yankees have officially signed Derek Lowe and will use him out of the bullpen, the team announced. They only owe the veteran right-hander the pro-rated portion of the league minimum with the Braves and Indians on the hook for the remainder of his $15M salary. Ryota Igarashi has unsurprisingly been optioned back to Triple-A to clear a room on the 25-man roster. The 40-man roster is now full.

David Phelps to start on Monday, Igarashi recalled

Via Marc Carig, right-hander David Phelps will start in place of CC Sabathia on Monday. The just-signed Derek Lowe will back him up out of the bullpen. Sabathia was placed on the DL with a stiff elbow earlier today. Joel Sherman says the Yankees will recall Ryota Igarashi for tomorrow’s game before activating Lowe in time for Monday’s game.

Yankees sign Derek Lowe

Beard’s gotta go, just ask the other Derek. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

CC Sabathia is headed to the DL with elbow stiffness, and the Yankees have replaced him with another innings eater. Marc Carig reports that the Bombers have signed Derek Lowe while Joel Sherman adds that he has agreed to pitch out of the bullpen as a long reliever. He’s expected to join the team on Monday. David Phelps will start in Sabathia’s place on Monday, and Ryota Igarashi will come up to fill the vacant roster spot for tomorrow. The Yankees have an open 40-man roster spot, so no additional move is required.

Lowe, 39, was released by the Indians earlier this week, meaning the Yankees will only be on the hook for the pro-rated portion of the league minimum. The veteran right-hander pitched to a 5.52 ERA (4.47 FIP) in 21 starts and 119 innings for Cleveland this year, though he walked more batters (45) than he struck out (41). He also got hammered in his last dozen starts, pitching to an 8.80 ERA. That’s why he was released. Lowe still generates a ton of ground balls (60.0%) with his upper-80s sinker, though left-handers have just crushed him this year (.412 wOBA).

Although he hasn’t pitched out of the bullpen since 2007, Lowe spent a number of years closing for the Red Sox earlier in his career. He’s familiar with a relief role, so it shouldn’t be a huge adjustment. The Yankees also don’t have to worry too much about him and the whole New York/big market/pennant race pressure thing after all his time in Boston, plus they know first hand that he can handle a playoff-type atmosphere. I don’t put much stock in that stuff, but at least there are no concerns here.

I kinda had a feeling this was coming after we learned about Sabathia’s injury only because it was an easy move to make. Lowe was a free agent with a fixed price (practically free), and a guy who could soak up some innings without issue — he’s thrown at least 180 innings every year since 2001. Adam Warren figures to remain in Triple-A for the time being, but he was the other alternative for Monday’s start and Sabathia’s roster spot. Lowe’s signing is a depth move, another example of an older and accomplished player accepting a reduced role with the Yankees.

Scouting The Trade Market: Derek Lowe

Three offseasons ago, everyone knew that the Yankees were going to make a major run at CC Sabathia. The rest of their starting pitching plans were a little unclear, but it seemed like a safe bet that they were going to pursue another free agent starter. They ultimately landed A.J. Burnett, but the other candidate was the sinkerballing Derek Lowe, who ended up with the Braves.

Atlanta has the most pitching depth in baseball, even after trading Rodrigo Lopez to the Cubs last week. Aside from their five Opening Day starters (Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, and the currently DL’ed Brandon Beachy), they also had top prospects Mike Minor and Julio Teheran in Triple-A and the lesser known but still effect Todd Redmond. The Braves are very much in contention and maintain that they have no interest in trading Lowe, but everyone has a price. Let’s start with the cons…

The Cons

  • It’s hard to believe, but Lowe will turn 38 on June 1st. And with that age comes with a loss of velocity, as his famed sinker now sits more 86-89 than 89-91 like it did a few years ago.
  • Lowe would be more than just a second half rental. He’s under contract next season for the decidedly not team friendly price of $15M. He makes the same amount this year, so he’ll cost about $2.5M per month the rest of the way. That is no bargain.
  • It’s been more than six years since Lowe pitched in the American League or in a hitter’s ballpark.
  • Lowe’s recent DUI case was thrown out, but it’s still an unnecessary distraction and an obvious character flaw.

The Pros

  • Despite his age and declining velocity, Lowe is still really effective. His 55.8% ground ball rate this year is his worst since the data started being recorded in 2002, but it’s still a top ten mark in all of baseball.
  • Lowe is one of the most durable pitchers in the game, throwing at least 190 innings in each of the last six years and in eight of the last nine. In the one off year, he still made it to the mound for 182.2 IP.
  • Lowe’s strikeout rate has actually been going up over the last few years, and right now it sits at 7.79 K/9 with 9.2% swings and misses. Both of those are career highs as a starter. Those whiffs are the result of an increased using of his sharp slider, which is often mistaken for a cutter. He’s also throwing his changeup more than ever as well.
  • I don’t put too much stock in postseason track record, but it can’t be a bad thing that Lowe owns a 3.30 ERA in 76.1 playoffs innings since becoming a full-time starter in 2002. He’s also pitched in the World Series, for what it’s worth.

One thing to keep in mind: all those ground balls are great because dinky little seeing eye singles are better than the extra base hits that tend to result from fly balls, but the Yankees have a pretty poor defensively infield. Aside from Mark Teixeira, everyone is below-average now that Robinson Cano seemingly forgot how to use his glove.

Lowe’s contract is far from ideal, but you’d have to think the Braves would be willing to eat some of it to move him. They simply won’t get anything of value back if they don’t. Part of the problem is that Atlanta doesn’t have any obvious needs. Jason Heyward is out with a shoulder issue, but when he’s healthy their outfield is pretty much set (Heyward, Nate McLouth, and Martin Prado). None of their four infielders (Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, Alex Gonzalez, and Chipper Jones) are going anywhere, and neither is catcher Brian McCann. They have pitching as well. Of course these things have a way of changing and quickly, but right now there’s no obvious trade match between these two clubs even though Lowe’s appears to be one of the better trade candidates out there.