Today, Derek Lowe announced he’s leaving baseball behind.
I’m officially no longer going to play the game… It’s still enjoyable, but the role I was having wasn’t fulfilling…
If you’re not playing, it’s completely self-explanatory. I’m not going to go to the Hall of Fame, so I don’t feel like I need to have a retirement speech. But I was able to play 17 years on some pretty cool teams and win a World Series. So, everyone’s got to stop playing at some point, and this is my time.
Derek Lowe was a very good pitcher — 42.3 WAR, 2671.1 IP, 176-157 career record with 86 saves, 3.72 career xFIP, and a no-hitter in Fenway Park in 2002 — though he had a knack for leaving his teams wishing for more, while enticing other teams. To say the least, he had an unusual career path.
[G]eneral manager Paul DePodesta targeted Lowe even before Lowe officially filed for free agency last fall, whereupon the Red Sox basically told him they didn’t want him back.
“Put it this way, there was a part of me as I sat there watching [Lowe pitch] Games 4 and 7 of the League Championship Series and Game 4 of the World Series that was worried,’ said DePodesta, who was seeing Lowe’s market value multiply before his eyes. “He was definitely the guy we wanted, even before the postseason started.’
–Tony Jackson, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, March 3, 2005
That was after the 2004 postseason, where Lowe made four appearances, allowing four runs in 19 innings and securing the final win in the Red Sox’s four-game World Series sweep of the Cardinals. Lowe pitched parts of eight seasons in Boston, figuring in one of the most lopsided trades in history — Heathcliff Slocumb for Lowe and Jason Varitek — and finishing third in the 2002 Cy Young voting a year after losing his job as closer.
Statistically, Derek Lowe has been OK for Boston — 4-7, 4.06 ERA, 20 saves in 23 opportunities, and one brief demotion in April. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Lowe has allowed 88 baserunners in 57.2 innings, or that he’s squandered leads or ties 10 different times in 45 appearances. Yikes. When Derek Lowe comes in from the pen, it might be best to hide your eyes. And yet those numbers don’t even tell the whole story…
The Derek Lowe Face is a little different. It’s a frozen expression like The Aikman Face, only it’s more anguished and tortured…
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.
–Bill Simmons, ESPN Page 2, July 25, 2001
Derek Lowe was taken out of high school in Dearborn, Michigan, in the eighth round of the 1991 draft, by the Seattle Mariners. He is easily one of the most successful eighth round draft picks in history. (John Sickels did a good rundown of his minor league career here.) Here’s a list of the top ten eighth rounders taken in the amateur draft, sorted by rWAR:
|Year||Tm||Pos||WAR||G||HR||BA||OPS||W-L||SV||ERA||WHIP||Drafted Out of|
|Brad Radke||1991||MIN||RHP||45.5||378||148-139||4.22||1.26||Jesuit HS (Tampa, FL)|
|Charlie Hough||1966||LAD||INF||39.5||858||216-216||61||3.75||1.30||Hialeah HS (Hialeah, FL)|
|Eric Davis||1980||CIN||SS||35.9||1626||282||.269||.841||Fremont HS (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Tim Wakefield||1988||PIT||1B||34.6||630||200-180||22||4.41||1.35||Florida Institute of Technology (Melbourne, FL)|
|Derek Lowe||1991||SEA||RHP||34.5||682||176-157||86||4.03||1.33||Ford HS (Dearborn, MI)|
|Kevin Youkilis||2001||BOS||3B||32.5||1061||150||.281||.861||University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH)|
|Brandon Webb||2000||ARI||RHP||31.4||199||87-62||3.27||1.24||University of Kentucky (Lexington, KY)|
|Jason Schmidt||1991||ATL||RHP||29.6||324||130-96||3.96||1.32||Kelso HS (Kelso, WA)|
|A.J. Burnett||1995||NYM||RHP||26.2||362||141-127||4.01||1.32||Central Arkansas Christian HS (Little Rock, AR)|
|Steve Trachsel||1991||CHC||RHP||25.4||426||143-159||4.39||1.41||California State University Long Beach (Long Beach, CA)|
The arc of Lowe’s career was similar to that of his Boston teammate Tim Wakefield. Neither possessed an overwhelming fastball, both had short stints in the bullpen and experienced far more success in the starting rotation, and both pitched well for a very long time without ever being an “ace.” Of course, while Wakefield threw a knuckleball, one of the rarest pitches in big league history (other than the gyroball, perhaps), Lowe just threw a devastating hard sinker.
That sinker was what stood out to White Sox scout Mike Sgobba, who saw him in the Arizona Fall League in 1995. Lowe had spent most of the year with the Double-A Port City Roosters in the Southern League, posting a 6.08 ERA, but Sgobba liked him:
Two seam FB (89-91) has good sink when down in zone/ 3/4 arm slot with full action/Slurve type breaking pitch (78-80) shows decent two plane break when down in zone/throws slightly across body which adds to deception/ good at holding runners and fielding position/ good make up…
Young arm with near average stuff that with some slight mechanical help could be third or fourth starter in a few years/ eager to learn / needs a positive year in AA/ good attitude/ needs added strength
Sgobba was about right on the timeframe, too. Lowe spent 1996 the high minors, saw limited playing time as a starter in 1997, and in 1998 Boston made him a full-time swingman. That worked very well, as the rubber-armed Lowe pitched 415.1 innings from 1998-2001, transitioning from swingman to closer. The highlight of his Boston career was undoubtedly in 2004, though, after he had joined Pedro Martinez at the top of the Boston rotation.
David Laurila recalled the game and then interviewed Lowe about it:
[Laurila:] On October 20, 2004, Derek Lowe had what might be the greatest pitching performance in Boston Red Sox history. It’s certainly the most underappreciated. Facing the New York Yankees in a classic Game 7, Lowe allowed one run and one hit in six innings. And he did it on just two days of rest.
Lowe: I had just pitched against them 48 hours earlier, so I had a fresh thought of what I wanted to do… At that point, you’re as nervous as all giddy up. You’re trying to act all calm, cool and collected, but you’re just looking for outs. With Jeter — for me, getting a fly-ball out isn’t ideal, but it was an out. The last thing I wanted, especially in that stadium, was a lead-off base hit, so I was happy with it.
My shoes didn’t make it. My game shoes didn’t make it to Game 7. I’m not blaming the people in New York, but they had a tendency to lose stuff at the wrong time. I got to the game and I had zero shoes. Zero.
They went to Sports Authority and all they had were Reeboks with no toe on them. I wear Nike. If you look at the tape, you’ll see that my shoes were completely black, because I wasn’t supposed to wear anything besides Nike. I pitched Game 7 wearing off-the-shelf Sports Authority shoes. And I won.
Despite his postseason heroics, the Red Sox had no interest in bringing him back, so the Dodgers signed him to a four-year, $36 million deal: “New ace has 52 wins in past 3 seasons,” proclaimed the ESPN story. He produced 13.6 WAR for them, anchoring the top of their rotation along with Brad Penny. In 2006 and 2008, Lowe had four-win seasons and the Dodgers made the playoffs, a big deal for a proud, wealthy team that went from 1997 to 2003 without making the playoffs once.
At the time, it wasn’t clear why the Sox didn’t want him, but his 2011 DUI caused some to get a sneaking suspicion:
The moral of this story is that when teams make otherwise-inexplicable player moves, like the Red Sox letting Lowe walk after he was a hero of the 2004 postseason, there’s usually a reason.
One personal memory from Lowe’s career was a game in Baltimore on Aug. 2, 2003, in which some fielding blunders got him upset and Grady Little lifted him in the sixth inning. After the game, Lowe had to be hunted down in the shower room for his postgame interview, and as he exited the showers, he had to hold onto the walls to remain upright.
Maybe, of course, it was simply a case of vertigo.
–Bill Ballou, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, May 1, 2011
If anything, Lowe was better in Los Angeles than he had been in Boston, and many considered the 35-year old to be the second-best free agent pitcher in the 2008-09 offseason, behind only C.C. Sabathia. The Atlanta Braves swooped in to offer him a four-year contract worth $60 million.
His first start in a Braves uniform was Opening Day in 2009, and he pitched a gem: eight innings, two hits, four strikeouts, no walks, no runs. It was the best game he would ever have for the Braves. His following start ended early due to a long rain delay, and his third start of the season, he gave up four earned in five innings, striking out five and walking five. Over the remainder of his time in Atlanta, he would display a lot more of the latter than the former.
(The other candidate for best start in a Braves uniform was September 13, 2010, when he went eight innings, gave up six hits, and struck out 12 men while walking none. Like his Opening Day start in 2009, that game had a Game Score of 82. Those were his only two starts with a Game Score above 73. For what it’s worth, in 101 starts with the Braves, Lowe only had 50 Quality Starts.)
It was not a successful signing, and the Braves finally dumped Lowe on the Indians in October of 2011, sending Lowe along with $10 million of his $15 million salary, receiving a fringe prospect in return. But even as a $5 million player, the 38-year old Lowe seemed pretty gassed, allowing 79 runs in 119 innings and walking more men than he struck out. The Indians designated him for assignment last August, and it seemed like all was over.
But it wasn’t, quite. The Yankees came calling to ask Lowe to help shore up their bullpen; they received him for peanuts, as the Indians and Braves were still holding the tab on his contract. Lowe hadn’t pitched out of the bullpen since 2007, but he happily obliged, and appeared to rediscover something.
His first game was an eerie mirror of his first game with the Braves: coming out of the bullpen in the sixth, he closed the game by pitching four scoreless innings, allowing two hits and no runs, and recording four strikeouts and just one walk. That was his first save since 2001. In all, with the Yankees, Lowe made 17 appearances and pitched 23.2 innings with a 3.04 ERA (3.77 FIP).
Texas signed him to a minor league contract in March, and he made the majors, but simply didn’t have it; he gave up three homers in 13 innings and got DFA’ed again in May, then turned 40 in June.
Lowe’s right. He won’t go to the Hall. But his 42.3 WAR place him squarely in the Hall of Very Good, and Laurila suggests that his Game 7 performance in 2004 “is arguably the greatest in Red Sox history.” Not bad for an eighth-round failed closer.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.