Will Kyle Lohse Change

Last week we talked about Jake Westbrook.  Today we look at the other half of the back of the St. Louis Cardinal rotation.

Kyle Lohse has had an adventurous 4 years in St Louis.  Signed as a free agent before the 2008 season, he posted arguably the best season of his career in 2008.  The Cardinals rewarded him with a multi-year deal, although the fanbase had some misgivings about it based on the size of the contract he was awarded.  Eager to prove his doubters wrong he started 2009 on fire, finishing April with 4 victories and a sub-2.00 ERA.

Then things derailed.  He was hit on the right forearm by Phillies pitcher Joe Blanton in his next start and was never quite as dominating. He did two stints on the DL before the All-Star Break, then had an ERA of 5.72 the rest of the season.  During the first two months of 2010 he was actually worse (ERA 5.89).  Lohse was eventually diagnosed with exertional compartment syndrome in his right forearm and had surgery to repair the damage.  He gamely came back to the rotation in August of that year; opponents said thank you by hitting .389 on balls in play off him the rest of the season.

After a full off-season of rest, and a good spring, Lohse seemed ready to reprise his 2008 form, and early in 2011 he did.  Through the first two months of last season he posted a 2.13 ERA and a 3:1 K/BB ratio.  Lohse was back.  Then he got hammered by the Cubs on June 4 at home and spent the next three months with an ERA north of 5.00.  In his last August start against Pittsburgh the light appeared to come on again; in September, when the Cardinals needed him most, he was sterling.  In 4 September starts he posted a 1.37 ERA an a 4:1 K/BB ratio.  His playoff outings were ultimately forgettable, although for his first 5 innings in Philadephia he was awesome.

Lohse lives and dies with his change-up.  Last season his change-up was his most devastating pitch, and more valuable than any season since that 2008 campaign.  Nineteen percent of his pitches were a change-up in 2011, the highest percentage of his career.  He compensated by throwing fewer curveballs and sliders; of the former he threw 37% fewer than he had in 2010, the latter about 12% fewer.  His slider was pretty effective (wSL of 4.1 by Fangraphs), but his curveball was just average (wCB 0.3), so that decision on which pitch to throw less frequently was the right one.  What’s interesting is in his previous good season with St Louis, his curveball was far more dangerous (wCB 5.9) even though he threw it about the same frequency (6.7%) as he did in 2011.

Although controlling and spotting his change-up is key to his overall success, it is the ability to throw the curveball to good effect that will define Lohse’s season.  It may be he lost the feel on that pitch due to the forearm injury; it hasn’t been there for him since the 2008 campaign, based solely on the weighted pitch values posted at Fangraphs (-1.0, -1.0, and 0.3 the last 3 seasons).  If Lohse can regain that pitch in 2012 he will be the dominant, consistent pitcher he was in 2008.  If he can’t, he will likely continue to have stretches of sublime pitching intermingled with stretches of throwing BP to major league hitters.

Watch for Lohse’s curveball during his spring training starts.

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