The Braves and Indians consummated the first trade of the off-season today, with the Braves trading Derek Lowe to the Indians for a minor-league pitcher Chris Jones. As a 23-year-old reliever who spent the year in A-ball, Jones is not exactly a premium prospect – this deal was all about money, as Atlanta also agreed to pay $10 million of the $15 million owed to Lowe for the 2012 season.
For the Braves, Lowe was a surplus part given their existing rotation members (Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, and Brandon Beachy) and their quartet of MLB ready pitching prospects (Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, and Arodys Vizcaino). In addition, Lowe’s 2011 did nothing to endear him to Braves fans; he was arrested for DUI in April, went 9-17 with a 5.05 ERA in 187 innings of work on the season, and contributed more than his fair share to the Braves’ September collapse by allowing 25 runs over 23.2 innings in his last 5 starts.
For the Indians, Lowe represents a relatively low cost addition to a rotation that includes Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson, and Fausto Carmona. Clearly, Cleveland likes ground-ballers, but what can the Indians expect out of Lowe in 2012?
If you’re judging strictly by the results, Lowe was pretty bad last year – his ERA was 34 percent worse than league average. Since you’re reading FanGraphs, however, you probably know that single-season ERA isn’t a great predictor of future ERA, and pitchers are better evaluated using metrics like FIP, xFIP, or SIERA. By any of those marks, there are reasons for optimism about Lowe going forward, and the Indians are clearly betting on his underlying metrics being a better marker of his 2012 performance than his 2011 ERA.
However, like Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras before him, Lowe has a long history of underperformance. For his career, his ERA is 3.94, nearly three-tenths of a run higher than his 3.65 xFIP. This has gotten even more pronounced the last three seasons, as during his time in Atlanta, he ran a 4.57 ERA (16 percent below average) while posting a 3.78 xFIP (6 percent above average).
This basically boils down to two causes – Lowe has posted a .321 BABIP over the last three years, and he’s been significantly less effective with men on base. Here’s how his numbers break down with the bases empty versus when he’s forced to pitch out of the stretch:
Bases Empty: 6.6% BB%, 17.1% K%
Men On Base: 9.1% BB%, 12.9% K%
Lowe’s compounded his issues with hits on balls in play by turning into a pretty bad pitcher with men on base, which creates a cascading problem and leads to runs on the board. The Indians are essentially betting that Lowe’s BABIP woes from Atlanta may not carry over to Cleveland, and that if he posts a mark closer to league average, he won’t spend as much time pitching from the stretch. This is essentially the same bet that they made by trading for Ubaldo Jimenez in July and exercising their option on Fausto Carmona earlier in the day, as the Tribe now have three groundball pitchers who DIPS theory says should take significant steps forward next year.
However, Lowe (and his fellow-GB pitchers) might want to appeal to GM Chris Antonetti to spend the rest of the winter upgrading the team’s infield defense. Cleveland’s infield posted a combined -34 UZR last year, and none of the players expected to get significant playing time in 2012 are what you would call defensive wizards. With offense-first middle infielders like Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis, it’s not hard to see Lowe’s BABIP remaining on the high side in Cleveland. That said, Lowe is only costing them $5 million in salary – the same price Jon Garland went for last winter – so even without improvement, his ability to eat innings makes this a low-risk acquisition.
And if his BABIP problems prove to be a thing of the past, the Indians might very well have gotten a nice bargain. There are certainly worse bets to make than that a pitcher with good peripherals will see his BABIP regress to league average and improve going forward. Adding Lowe to Jimenez and Carmona essentially means the Indians have tripled-down on this bet, however, and are basically all-in on DIPS theory. It’s an interesting call for a team with mediocre gloves around the infield, but it will be worth watching to see how it works out.
I am political science professor at the University of North Carolina. I grew up watching the Braves on TBS and acquired Red Sox fandom during the 1986 World Series. My other hobbies include cooking, good red wine, curing meats, and obsessing over Alabama football---Roll Tide! Follow me on Twitter @ProfJRoberts.