Last year, watching Kyle Lohse pitch was one of the (few) highlights of watching Brewers baseball. Once he finally settled in, Lohse was an amazing presence on the mound. He had his bad outings like everyone else, but day in and day out, he was precise, he pounded the strike zone, and he went right after hitters.
This year, it’s started to feel quite different. Even before an ankle injury knocked him out of an August outing, Kyle Lohse had too many appearances in which he was “battling out there.” (This is announcer-speak for “he stinks tonight.”). Lohse continued to be subpar as he tried to recover from the injury, and wasn’t much better after he came back in late August. The pitcher I loved to watch is hard to see.
Why is this happening? The most concerning possibility is age. Kyle Lohse has a “baseball age” of 35 this year, and that’s pretty old for a starting pitcher to remain effective. Jeff Zimmerman is the current guru on baseball player aging curves, and along with Bill Petti, he posted this aging curve for various attributes of starting pitchers a few years ago:
The graph is a bit intimidating at first, but what it does is use a starter’s youth as the “zero point” for these statistics, and showing how they all proceed to head in the wrong direction (which depending on the statistic, can be up or down) as the pitcher ages.
To use a few examples, by the time a pitcher turns 35, he is expected to lose at least 4 mph off his pitches, add over a run to his FIP (Fielder-Independent Pitching) metric, and lose about 1.5 strikeouts per nine innings he pitches. In short, the 30s are not kind to starting pitchers, and it would be entirely understandable, although unfortunate, if Kyle Lohse was succumbing to the inevitable.
Except, that’s not what is happening. Although Lohse certainly no longer has the body of a 23-year-old, there is absolutely no evidence of age-related decline in 2014:
Kyle Lohse’s breakout season was 32, after he recovered from injury and succumbed to the dark magic of Dave Duncan with the Cardinals. Since that time, Lohse has:
- Essentially maintained his sinker velocity at about 90 miles per hour;
- Improved his swinging-strike rate;
- Improved his strikeout rate;
- Held his walk rate largely steady and better than league-average; and
- Slightly increased his home run rate, which correlates more with the shift to Miller Park than any age-related decline.
In short, Kyle Lohse does not seem to be experiencing any age-related decline at all — which is pretty incredible.
But how about that feeling we have that he is not pitching as well? Is he getting worse results from batter to batter?
Somewhat. His first-strike percentage is down to 64.3%, which is notable, but that’s still well above average for a starter. But, that doesn’t seem to be unduly lengthening at-bats. Here are Lohse’s pitches per plate appearance over the last four years:
|Season||Pitches per Plate Appearance|
Moreover, the other signs are generally positive: he is generating more swinging strikes, more swings, more swings at pitches outside the zone, and less contact than he ever has. I would like to see more strikes thrown, particularly with the elite framing talent the Brewers bring with Lucroy and Maldonado, but these statistics do not paint a picture of a struggling pitcher. Rather, they indicate a pitcher who, to the extent he struggles occasionally to hit the zone, still throws pitches that make hitters want to offer. That’s not an unreasonable trade-off.Is Lohse as efficient as he was in St. Louis? No. But he’s close, and certainly better than he was in 2013.
There is one area of concern, and that is Lohse’s strike zone percentage. At 43.7%, he is below-league average (45%) for the first time in years. In the first half, Lohse’s K%-BB% was a typically-excellent 13.9%; in the second half of this season, he is down to an abysmal 5.0%. This is what has been making him tough to watch as of late.
And, these frustrating results may have a mechanical cause. Over the past few years, Lohse has consistently released his sinker and slider from around 6.3 feet above the mound, with the curve ball about a tenth of a foot higher. Over the first half of the year, his release point was close to that, but in the second half, his release point has jumped up to 6.45 feet for his sinker and slider, and over 6.5 feet for his curve ball. The altered release point coincides nicely with Lohse’s declining results, and whatever its cause, it’s fair to say the new release point is not working.
At the moment, the Brewers seem determined never to win another game. Should they decide to change their mind, it is good to know that Lohse’s problems appear to be correctable, and that if nothing else, he so far is holding the aging process at bay.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw.
All data is from Fangraphs, ESPN, and/or Brooks Baseball.