DOES DEREK LOWE THROW THE SPITTER? OR IS HE JUICING?

In the Phil’s home opener, the boobirds waited all of half an hour to get on Brett Myer’s case just because he gave up a couple (ok, three) home runs early to Atlanta. In this case, those runs held up as Derek Lowe, formerly of the Boston Red Sox and the LA Dodgers, and acquired by the Braves as an off-season free agent, did his thing and limited the Phils to just one run.

However, I am extremely curious as to why it is that Derek Lowe is suddenly such an effective pitcher at 36 years of age, an age when most pitchers are usually either washed up or on the way down. He’s known for throwing a hard sinker, and right away, looking at him pitch and throwing that sinker, it really looks like a doctored pitch, either a spitter, a scuffball, an emery ball, or something put on the ball to make it dive.

The question then is, since there are two sides to every question, is there any evidence that Derek Lowe suddenly got better in the middle of his career when it looked like he wasn’t going anywhere fast? One hint is given in Rob Neyer’s Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers (Simon & Schuster, NY, 2004), where it states about Derek Lowe that he is six foot six, weighs 214 pounds, and throws “1. Hard Sinker 2. Curve 3. Change 4. Cut Fastball Note: The Cut Fastball was added or refined in 2002, when Lowe went from relieving to starting.” Id. at p. 285. Well, so Lowe added a “cut fastball.” Really.

In 2001, out of the bullpen, Lowe allowed 103 hits in 91 and 2/3 innings, gave up 7 homers, 39 runs and 36 earned runs, and walked 29 batters, while striking out 82, with an ERA of 3.53 and a park adjusted ERC of 4.31, according to the Bill James Handbook for 2009, id. at p. 172. He won five games, and lost ten, and had 24 saves in 30 opportunities.

The next year, 2002, when he started and “learned the cut fastball,” his numbers were dramatically better. Lowe won 21 and lost just 8, with an ERA of 2.58, an adjusted ERC of 2.13, pitching 219 2/3 innings, giving up only 166 hits, only 65 runs and 63 earned runs, allowing 17 homers, walking only 72 and striking out 127 batters.

The question becomes, how did Lowe get so much better?

The answer should be pretty obvious from the fact that the year before, in 2001, striking out 82 batters in 103 innings, Lowe wasn’t effective, while in 2002, striking out 127 batters in 220 innings, Lowe was terrific. LOWE COMMITTED TO THE SINKER, OR ELSE LEARNED HOW TO THROW THE SPITTER. Since Lowe is 6’6” tall, coming with a good fastball, curve and change, a spitter/scuff ball/doctored pitch that drops off the table in necessary situations is a great out pitch for him, especially since he was pitching in Fenway Park.

Alternatively, Lowe may just have started juicing. After all, it worked for A-Rod.

After that dramatic success, Lowe had another good year in 2003, winning 17 and losing 7, but in 2004 although he won 14 and lost only 12, his ERA ballooned up to 5.42 with a park-adjusted ERC of 5.31. Lowe was now 31 years old. Lowe led the AL in runs allowed in 2004 with 138. It was reasonable for the Red Sox to think he was beginning to embark on an age-related decline. So off to the LA Dodgers went Derek Lowe.

From 2005 through 2007, Lowe had almost identical seasons statistically, with ERAs around 3.60 and park adjusted ERCs between 3.50 and 3.70; in 2006 he led the NL in wins with 16, going 16 and 8 on the year. Every year he pitched around 210 innings, allowed around 100 runs, 90 earned runs, 15 homers, and struck out around 125 to 140 batters while only giving up 55 walks. He was like a machine.

In 2008, Lowe broke out of this pattern, and actually had a BETTER year—211 innings pitched, 194 hits, 84 runs allowed, 76 earned runs, 14 homers, 45 walks, 147 strikeouts, 14 wins and 11 losses, an ERA of 3.24 and a park adjusted ERC of 2.72. 2008 was Lowe’s best season since 2002, and this at age 35.

And now Derek Lowe comes out of the gate in the first ballgame of 2009, and twirls a masterpiece against the Phillies, a team that scored the third highest number of runs in the National League in 2008, and a lineup that is packed with lefthanded power bats.

Which brings me round to the topic sentences—is Derek Lowe throwing the spitball? Or is he just juicing? Because a 36 year old pitcher just can’t be this good. He’s BETTER now than he was two years ago, and pitching BETTER now than he did at any time in his career, except for his breakout year in 2002, which was a year when almost everyone in baseball was juicing.

I’m sorry for accusing a ballplayer of cheating, but we live in awful times, and I just don’t believe Derek Lowe is that good. The next question is, does Derek Lowe’s pitching profile resemble that of other spitballers? The answer is clearly, yes.

Ed Walsh of the White Sox threw a spitball, a fastball, a change and a curve. Don Drysdale of the Dodgers, also a 6 foot five inch right hander, very similar to Derek Lowe in almost every way, and who relied on the Vaseline ball, threw a fastball, a curve, a change, a slider and a spitter. Senator Jim Bunning of the Phillies and Tigers, also a spitball/Vaseline ball artist, and also a tall righthander, threw a slider, a fastball, a curve, a change and a spitter, usually a doctored Vaseline ball. Bunning threw a no-hitter and a perfect game in his hall of fame career.

Hugh Casey is another famous tall righthander who supposedly threw the spitball, although it’s claimed his out pitch was the sinker, supplemented by a slider, fastball and a curve. According to Neyer, Hugh Casey was pitching on the mound and threw a spitter to Mickey Owen in the 1941 World Series; that was the famous passed ball that led to the Dodgers losing the Series. Id. at p. 57.

Then you have Gaylord Perry, who was also a tall righthander, six foot four, 205 pounds in his prime, heavier later, a great spitballer, who also threw the slider, the fastball, the curve, the forkball/splitter and the change. Perry also claimed his spitter was a sinker, although after he retired he admitted it really was a spitball after all.

So comparing Derek Lowe to many of the famous spitballers, and their pitching repetoires, it would seem that there is a pretty good match. Derek Lowe is the same build as Don Drysdale and Gaylord Perry, and uses approximately the same pitches as they did. In sum, the circumstantial evidence against him is pretty strong that Derek Lowe probably is using a spitball, and not really throwing a sinker at all. Finally, you have the fact that pitchers like Gaylord Perry lasted long past their points of decline–Perry was winning twenty games at ages like 35 and 40–further evidence Lowe is greasing the ball.

–art kyriazis, philly/south jersey
home of the world champion Philadelphia Phillies

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