Lowe will look for starting job before deciding to return as reliever

Via Peter Botte and George King: Derek Lowe will look for an opportunity as a starting pitcher this offseason before deciding whether to return to the Yankees as a reliever. “I would like to start again,” he said. “I knew when I came here I was going to be a reliever. My first priority is to start.”

Lowe, 39, was picked up off the scrap heap in August and had his moments with the Yankees, most notably his four-inning save against the Rangers and some order-restoring middle relief work in the final weeks of the season. All told, he pitched to a 3.04 ERA (3.77 FIP) in 23.2 relief innings with New York. The Yankees will definitely need to bring in a reliever or two this offseason (especially if Rafael Soriano opts out), but I would be stunned if they considered Lowe for a starting job next year.

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Derek Lowe pitching his way onto the postseason roster

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

When the Yankees signed Derek Lowe in August it was tough to think of it as an impact move. Lowe had started off the season well enough, pitching to a 3.06 ERA through his first 11 starts. But then that nearly 1:1 K/BB ratio started catching up with him. His next 10 starts were pure disaster, an 8.77 ERA and more walks than strikeouts. At this late stage in his career, it was tough to expect anything of him. If not for the injury to CC Sabathia, the Yankees might not even have signed Lowe in the first place.

Yet Lowe came onto the scene strong, holding down the fort for the final four innings against Texas, preserving a win for David Phelps. But it didn’t take long for the wheels to fall off again. He allowed at least one run in each of his next six outings, which included a blown game against Toronto. It seemed like the end of meaningful appearances for Lowe. But after last night’s two-inning win, perhaps Lowe has changed some opinions. It might have punched his ticket to the postseason roster.

No, we should not evaluate Lowe based on a single performance. If we did that we could just as easily base it on the one-out, four-hit, two-run appearance he had against Baltimore a month ago. Or we could even look to the crazy 10-9 win over Oakland a couple of weeks ago, when Lowe allowed the tying run that pushed the game into extras. The case for Lowe on the postseason roster involves a brief but positive trend, coupled with a generally positive performance in pinstripes.

Since signing with the Yankees in mid-August Lowe has thrown 23.2 innings in 17 appearances, holding opponents to a .261/.306/.370 line. That’s not elite, but it’s serviceable for a middle reliever who can go multiple innings. He has also managed to keep home runs in check while striking out more than twice the number he’s walked. He has also kept inherited runners in check, allowing just one of nine to score. Again, not world-beating, but certainly worthy of consideration.

Furthermore, Lowe has stepped up his game since sitting down for nine days in mid-September. Since coming in to relieve a knocked-around Phil Hughes during the doubleheader against Toronto, Lowe has allowed just seven hits in 12.1 innings, striking out five and walking four (one intentional). He has allowed just two runs in that span and has held opponents to a .171/.244/.171 line. Yes, he has not allowed an extra base hit in that time, which is one reason why he’s kept runs off the board. (In fact, he hasn’t allowed an extra base hit all month.)

When evaluating pitchers for postseason rosters, we needn’t consider the whole picture. What a pitcher did in April probably has little bearing on what he’ll do in October. The season goes through phases, and as we’ve seen so many times in the past the hot hand prevails. Lowe has certainly been on a hot streak lately, which should be enough to warrant an LDS roster spot. They do have an extra spot, as only six of seven bullpen spots seem set in stone (Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, Clay Rapada, David Phelps). The Yanks could go with Cody Eppley, but they might prefer someone who can give them length and perhaps face a lefty or two.

Even when the Yankees signed Lowe it didn’t appear he’d be a strong candidate for the postseason roster. They did, after all, sign him after he’d been cut by the Indians, who had little to gain or lose by releasing him. After his first few performances it looked like he’d be out of consideration, but he’s changed that perception in the last few weeks — a time when the Yankees needed him the most. The performance last night in Boston might have just put his name onto the ALDS roster.

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).

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.