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2012 Player Preview: Derek Lowe

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s presumed No. 3 starter: Derek Lowe.

Background: The Seattle Mariners took Lowe, now 38, out of high school in the eighth round of the 1991 MLB amateur draft. He appeared on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list in both 1993 and 1994, but didn’t make it to the majors until 1997. He appeared in 12 games for the Mariners before being sent to Boston along with Jason Varitek in the now infamous Heathcliff Slocumb deal. The Indians acquired Lowe and $10 million of his $15 million 2012 salary for Chris Jones in November.

Last year: There’s no two ways about it—it was a rough year for Lowe. He went 9-17 (the 17 losses were the most in baseball) with a 5.05 ERA (75 ERA+) and a 1.51 WHIP, including a 6.20 second-half ERA as the Braves blew what seemed like a wholly secure wild card lead. Yet besides a small bump in his walk rate, Lowe’s peripherals were pretty much his norms, and the biggest outliers were his .327 BABIP and his 65.9 percent strand rate.

Lowe has some history of underperforming his DIPS numbers—most notably in 2004 and 2009—but he’d never experienced a discrepancy as drastic as this. Different interpretations of how well Lowe actually pitched led to drastically varying assessments of his value: FanGraphs put him at an above-average 2.5 wins above replacement, while Baseball-Reference had him below replacement level (-0.3 WAR).

Key factor: BABIP. A DIPS-ERA discrepancy as big as the one Lowe had last year has to have something to do with luck, but it’s also likely that his inability to induce weak contact in 2011 was a genuine weakness and not just statistical noise from a few bad hops—it was the third year in a row in which he allowed an above-average BABIP, and it makes sense that a 38-year-old soft tosser would be troubled by batters hitting him too hard. In addition, playing in front of an infield defense that features Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis up the middle won’t do a groundball pitcher’s BABIP any favors, especially if Lonnie Chisenhall and Matt LaPorta end up seeing significant playing time too.

2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs:

There’s quite a bit of variation here—obviously the Indians would much rather see Lowe hit Bill James’ projection than ZIPS’—but each projection follows the same basic pattern. All of the projection systems (except maybe RotoChamp) see Lowe’s true talent level declining, yet thanks to better luck they all see his ERA getting better. All five foresee his ERA getting closer to his DIPS numbers than it was last year, but he’s still expected to underperform his peripherals.

Best-case scenario: Last year was all about bad luck. He’s not the dominant force he was in his prime, but his ERA falls back to the mid-to-high 3.00 range and he makes his usual 34 starts. The Indians get over 200 innings of above-average run prevention from the pitcher they acquired for almost nothing.

Worst-case scenario: Lowe’s days as a useful pitcher are over. His natural inability to match his DIPS stats combines with a hearty dose of age-related decline to give him another ERA over 5.00. Even his clockwork-consistent durability falls by the wayside as age finally starts to catch up to him, but he doesn’t get the chance to pitch a full season anyway as he loses his rotation spot to David Huff or Jeanmar Gomez.

Most likely scenario: I’m a lot more bullish on Lowe than the projection systems are. I expect Lowe to look more like the pitcher he was in 2010, when he went 16-12 with a 4.00 ERA in 193.2 innings—predicting that he’ll match those numbers is probably too optimistic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up in that ballpark. A contending team could do a lot worse than Lowe for a No. 3 starter.

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