Having been a Minnesota Twins fan for the last thirty years or so, there’s not much that’s been more frustrating to me than Kyle Lohse. His Twins career doesn’t look like much to be upset over, or to think anything of at all. He had four years that were close enough to average, then started out dreadfully in his fifth and was traded to the Reds for nothing at the deadline. You really had to see him on a start-by-start basis to comprehend the misery Lohse created.
Lohse had really excellent stuff — a wicked slider and a fastball that hit the mid-nineties — and could occasionally use it very well, but was one of those guys we used to say was really two people, the good one and the awful one, and you never knew which would show up. He was also (it seemed from afar) a petulant child; his relationship with the team essentially ended in late 2005 when, in the words of some (perhaps overly) ambitious AP writer, he “dented manager Ron Gardenhire’s office door, apparently with a bat, injured his finger and might have permanently fractured his already strained relationship with the Twins.”
At the time he left in mid-2006, between his attitude and his apparently diminished abilities, I would probably have bet on Lohse being out of big-league baseball for good by the end of 2007. If you’d told me then that come 2012, a 34-year-old Lohse would be one of the ten or so best pitchers in the National League and a key member of a playoff rotation, I probably would have laughed, and maybe called you names (I was meaner then). How on earth did that happen?
Well, it’s been a strange journey. He did put up ugly ERAs in the high fours with Cincinatti and Philadelphia over those first two post-Twins years, but it being 2006 and 2007 in hitters’ parks, his performance wasn’t bad at all; FanGraphs credits him with 1.3 wins in 12 NL appearances in 2006 and 2.8 in a full season in ’07.
So it shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was when he had arguably the best year of his career to date the following season, his first as a Cardinal, with a 3.78 ERA (112 ERA+) in exactly 200 innings, collecting 15 wins. Even then, though, if I’d written about it (I didn’t), I probably would have pointed to Lohse’s strikeout rate of 5.36 — not quite his career lowest to that point, but his second straight big drop, and way below the league’s average that season of 7.0 (6.7 for starters) — and concluded that at least some of it was a mirage, that the margin of error is very thin when the strikeout rate is that low, and that he wasn’t at all likely to keep it up. (The Cardinals disagreed, signing him to a four-year extension starting in 2009.)
And sure enough, in 2009 and 2010, pitching around injuries, Lohse threw 209.2 innings with a 5.54 ERA (72 ERA+). The strikeouts stayed about the same, his walks per nine moving from 2.21 in 2008 to 2.75 to 3.42. By the end of 2010, Lohse was 32 and injury prone and had had basically one good season in his career. In most situations, he’d likely be starting 2011 trying to pitch himself back into a big-league job, probably in the bullpen. But the Cardinals had signed him to that extension, which had two years left on it, and they felt the need to keep giving him chances.
And then, it just kind of happened. In 2011, Lohse found his control, and was good. This year, Lohse’s control got even better (1.621 per 9, 4th in the NL), and he started striking guys out again, at his best rate since 2006 (though still below average,, and he was very good. He led the league in starts and winning percentage — the first two times he’s led a league in anything — and his 2.86 ERA was fifth in the NL, his 134 ERA+ sixth, his 3.8 K/BB 8th. He was tenth in Baseball-Reference’s WAR, eleventh in Fangraphs’…and 21st in WARP, but that’s no fun. After picking up the win for the Cardinals last night, he’s given up just two runs in 12.2 postseason innings, good for a 1.42 ERA. He actually wasn’t great last night — five walks, for the first time this year, and seven hits — but still. Generally speaking, he’s been really, legitimately good.
Now, he’s probably been lucky, too, and/or benefiting from good defense. He’s managed to give up fewer home runs over the last few years despite getting fewer balls on the ground. He’s managed to hold opponents under a .270 BABIP the past two seasons, despite (per FanGraphs) high line drive rates, the highest of his career in 2012. He’s definitely pitching differently than he used to (more changeups, fewer fastballs, and, of course, much better command), and after two years and 400 innings, I think it’s fair to assume that the changes he’s made have had a lot to do with his success (even beyond the K/BB rate), but it’s equally fair to view the actual numbers with a bit of skepticism. He’s been really good, but probably not 2.86 ERA good.
Still, though: Kyle Lohse, good pitcher. More than that, best or second-best starter on a good-pitching team that’s getting very close to the World Series. You still see fans on Twitter use him as something of a joke sometimes; I still think of him as the wildly inconsistent baby he was with the Twins. His performance this season, and this postseason, ought to be enough to get us to stop all that.