Lowe keeping hot start in perspective
CLEVELAND -- Derek Lowe turns 39 in two weeks and, because he is an old man in a young man's game, people tend to turn to him for perspective.
"When we were in Boston last week, they were showing highlights of the Red Sox teams from the '40s and '50s," Lowe says. "Josh Tomlin asked me, 'How'd you like playing for those teams?'"
Now that's comedy.
But we can also look to Lowe for serious perspective. So if you want a little light shed on his astounding start to the season -- a start in which he's turned back the clock to go 6-1 with a 2.05 ERA -- who better to ask than Lowe himself?
After all, with 16 seasons' worth of experience at this level, Lowe knows as well as anyone where this start registers in the grand scheme of the game.
"Who's going to remember it?" he said. "No one's going to remember what you do [early] unless you have a Josh Hamilton game or you throw a perfect game or no-hitter. If I go 6-1 now and end the year 0-5, what are you going to remember?"
If perspective, in this instance, sounds cruel, that's only because the truth can often be that way. But Lowe's perspective serves him both ways. For awhile, he is able to prevent himself from getting overly excited about the way 2012 is playing out thus far, he was equally able to shrug off a rather disastrous 2011.
Go ahead and ask an Atlanta Braves fan about Lowe's 2011. And when you do, cover the ears of any nearby children.
Lowe's 9-17 record and 5.05 ERA only tell part of the story. As Lowe himself said, it's the end of the season that registers most in the mind of the observer, and Lowe did his collapsing club no favors with an 0-5 record and 8.75 ERA in September.
So to see Lowe, mere months later and in a league with supposedly tougher lineups, pitching as well as he has (his complete-game shutout of the Twins on Tuesday was his first in seven years) qualifies as surprise.
Until Lowe provides a little more perspective.
"If you play a long time, you're going to have good years and bad years and some in between," Lowe said. "There's not always an answer for why you have a bad year. If you play 16 years and don't have a bad one, you're in Cooperstown, and I'm obviously not going there. So you're in the clump. That's how I took last year."
Others, of course, had a different opinion. It was all too easy to write Lowe off, given his inflated age and ERA, and the Braves basically did just that when they swallowed $10 million of his $15 million contract for 2012 to get rid of him, reaping only a marginal Minor Leaguer in return.
Lowe knows that someday he'll have to have what he calls "the heart to heart" where he decides what, if anything, he has left in the tank as a professional pitcher.
But that conversation didn't come in the wake of a miserable 2011.
"It had nothing to do with my age or being close to retirement," he said. "I believe in the body of work that I have. I never looked at last year as, 'God, my stuff is diminishing.'"
Lowe instead points to two factors -- a lighter frame that fatigued and the absence of an effective sinker. He became more of a breaking-ball pitcher -- and a hard-hit one, at that.
To combat both conundrums, Lowe put on 20 pounds over the winter to get himself back into what he believes to be his sufficient shape, and he made some mechanical adjustments that have allowed him to regain trust in a sinker that he is now throwing almost exclusively.
And the sinkerball is the reason for the most amazing aspect of Lowe's resurgence. He is having all this success despite a glaring lack of strikeouts. He was the first pitcher in a decade to toss a complete-game shutout without striking anybody out, and his 5.8 strikeout percentage is the lowest among all qualifying Major League starters.
"I don't have what you'd call a strikeout pitch," he said, stating the obvious. "All my pitches are hittable."
But if those hittable pitches become ground balls -- and no starter in baseball is inducing a higher percentage of groundballs than Lowe (65.4) -- that's just fine.
In fact, the way things are going, Lowe might finish the season with as many ground-ball double plays (he's induced 10) as strikeouts (he currently has 13).
"That," he said with a smile, "would be awesome."
Surely, Lowe can't keep up this success sans strikeouts, can he? At some point, all those balls put in play have to come back to bite him, don't they?
Well, one would think. But Lowe is benefiting from the fact that a higher percentage of those balls he allows in play this season are being converted into outs. Last year, his Fielding Independent Pitching mark, as calculated by FanGraphs (it's a mark that measures what a player's ERA should have looked like, assuming performances on balls in play were league average) was 3.70, clearly much better than that actual 5.05 mark.
When this point is presented to Lowe, he dismisses it as "that cybermetric stuff." But he does see at least one major difference between his surroundings here and in Atlanta.
"Atlanta is one of the fastest infields in all of baseball," he said. "And it wasn't like we didn't try [to change it]. We asked many different times to see if you could grow the grass longer. But it's just something they believe in, and it's been like that for 20 years. Obviously, it doesn't mean you can't have success there, because many people have had success there. But any time you have a slower infield, it gives us a better chance."
The bottom line with Lowe, who makes his next start Sunday against the Marlins, is that he's taken the mound eight times for the Indians and given them a chance to win each time. He is probably the biggest reason they are alone atop the American League Central.
Will they still be in that spot come September? And will Lowe still be pitching this well? The answers are undefined and probably entwined. So for now, Lowe will take his success as it comes, and he'll hope it's still coming when it matters most.
"No one ever remembers what you do in April or May," he said. "Everybody remembers what you do from Aug. 15 on. So you just try to stay afloat until then. The last six weeks is when the fun begins."
Take it from a man with plenty of perspective.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.