In Appreciation of Derek Lowe
On the golf course Sunday for our first round of the year outside my hometown of Boston, one of my pals, an avid Sox fan but one who does not follow the rest of the league closely, was incredulous that Atlanta - once the Mecca of MLB starting pitching - would be sending Derek Lowe to the hill to start their season.
"He's a very legitimate MLB ace," I replied. For once I looked pretty smart just a few hours later, as Lowe went out and shut down the defending World Series champs. He pitched eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits and no walks along the way.
My friend's view on Lowe represents the view of many in the Boston area. He has been marginalized over the years for a number of reasons. For one, popular ESPN columnist Bill Simmons made famous "the Derek Lowe face" because he had the nerve to blow a few saves throughout the course of the 2001 season. Here is Simmons on Lowe from back in '01:
In Lowe's case, you spend the ninth inning rooting for things to go smoothly for him ... and then something happens (a single or a walk), and you start searching for signs that he's OK, and he is OK, but maybe something else happens (a stolen base, a walk) and then ... BOOM!
He makes the face.
My buddy J-Bug calls it The Derek Lowe Face...
The Derek Lowe Face is a little different. It's a frozen expression like The Aikman Face, only it's more anguished and tortured (imagine someone taking a dump and suddenly realizing that there's no toilet paper in the bathroom). And as soon as Lowe starts making that face, the umpires should halt the game and award it to whomever the Red Sox are playing. I have to admit, I'm haunted by The Derek Lowe Face.
I spend every one of his appearances saying to the TV, "Don't make it, don't make the face, stay cool, come on, stay with us, hang tough, kiddo." It never ends.
(Note to the Red Sox: I'd like to order the Ugueth Urbina please? And hold the mayo.)
Moreover, Lowe is known for his off-field partying and womanizing, which serves to hamper his image as a professional. His crotch-chop after striking out Terrence Long with the bases loaded and two outs in the final frame of Game 5 of the 2003 ALDS in Oakland did not help on this front, either. He's tall, he's gangling and his uniform does not seem to fit him very well. He does not strike many batters out. In his final year in Boston, he had the worst year of his career.
Add it all up you have a player whose terrific record of achievement manages to go overlooked. Even after winning all three post-season clinching games for the Red Sox in 2004, Boston was happy to see Lowe head west to Los Angeles after the season. Generally critical of their team's moves, Red Sox fans, although appreciative of Lowe's work over the years, did not question their team's decision to let Lowe walk. When he signed with the Atlanta Braves this past off-season, Deadspin, a site I happen to enjoy and one that I would consider to be a decent gauge for how sports fans think about various players, teams and issues, ran the following headline:
How Does A 14-11 Record Get You $60 Million? Here's How
Well, as readers of this site probably already know, Lowe has had a magnificent Major League Baseball career and does not appear to be slowing down. How did that four-year deal with the Dodgers work out - a deal the Red Sox were happy not to consider so that they could go out and get Matt Clement?
IP K/BB WHIP ERA+
2005-2008 850 2.63 1.23 122
Over the course of Lowe's Dodgers deal, 2005 through 2008, 20 other players notched 800 innings. Among them, Lowe ranks tenth in ERA+.
Santana 918.2 152
Halladay 833 144
Webb 927 143
Oswalt 883 137
Sabathia 883.1 136
Lackey 814 130
Peavy 802.1 128
Zambrano 842.1 125
Haren 878.2 123
Lowe 850 122
I wonder how many would consider Lowe to be in the company of the other names on that list. I would say the Dodgers received great return on their investment in Lowe.
Before arriving in Los Angeles, Lowe was already an accomplished player. In 278 career relief appearances, Lowe has a 2.95 ERA. In 1999 he pitched 109 innings in relief, notching a 2.63 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. The following season he tied for the AL lead with 42 saves. 2001 saw the birth of "the Derek Lowe face" - he struggled a bit - but bounced back in a big way in 2002, forming one of the best 1-2 combo's in recent memory with Pedro Martinez.
IP K/BB WHIP ERA+
Lowe 219.2 2.65 0.98 177
Pedro 199.1 5.98 0.92 202
Barry Zito won the Cy Young Award that year in a classic awards vote that ignored park effects while over-emphasizing wins (Zito was 23-5). Pedro and Lowe finished second and third, respectively. In 2003 and 2004, Lowe slipped but was still a fairly dependable option every fifth day. As much as he struggled by his standards in 2004, Lowe still made 33 starts for a team that won the World Series. He was fantastic in the post-season.
Since Lowe became a full-time starter in 2002, of all pitchers with at least 1,100 innings pitched, he ranks 9th in innings and 13th in ERA+. Over the last 25 seasons, of all pitchers to have notched at least 1,700 innings, Lowe ranks 14th in ERA+. Barring an unrealistically spectacular close to his career, Lowe's numbers will never rise to a level that garners him Hall of Fame consideration. He will end up more Jimmy Key, Kevin Appier or Bret Saberhagen than Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown or Mike Mussina. But nonetheless he has comfortably reached that next level down - the Hall of Very Good some call it - and as his record comes more into focus and some of his ancillary traits less so, time figures to treat Lowe's legacy well.