Oliver Perez vs. Derek Lowe: 2010 and Beyond

CHRIS PUMMER: A pair of big-ticket free agent pitchers represented the National League East teams they landed with last season in a microcosm.

Derek Lowe didn’t live up to expectations after signing a four-year, $60 million deal with the Braves, while Oliver Perez pitched poorly and got hurt after inking his three-year, $36 million pact.

Not only was Lowe a reason Atlanta fell short of the playoffs, and Perez just another injury victim in New York, but the 2010 success of both teams depends in part on those players rebounding. Even if neither bounces back to their advertised levels of play, both needs to give his some value for the big dollars they hauled in last offseason.

In my opinion, Lowe is the more likely of the two to do that.

Lowe just suffered his worst year since moving to the NL after the 2004 season, but why was he so terrible?

A large part of it has to be what happened to balls put in play against Lowe. Hitters rapped him for a .301 average, 55 points higher than what they’d done the previous year and almost 40 points above what he’s allowed in his career. His batting average allowed on balls in play was also the highest it’s been since Lowe’s been a full-time starter, and when hitters did put the ball in play the result went for extra bases those hitters slugged almost 100 points better against Lowe than they did in 2008.

Unless something happened to Lowe to make him more hittable, we should expect him to regress back to being at least a league-average starter. So did something happen?

Lowe’s strikeout rate dropped from 6.3 K/9 to 5.1. But that’s not a precipitous drop for a groundballer like Lowe, who was still very good in 2006 with the same strikeout rate. His walk rate was also up from 1.9/9 inn. to 2.9, but still isn’t out of line with his career.

Of course, Lowe’s most important skill — his ability to get ground balls — also fell off. His 1.30 groundball/flyball ratio was also his worst as a starter.

Lowe’s PitchFx data at Fangraphs.com shows he lost about an MPH of velocity on most of his pitches, but that’s not a precipitous drop that’s doing to determine success or failure. His movement was also the same on all of his pitches except his slider. Lowe went from throwing it a third of the time in 2008 to less than a quarter of the time last season, probably because it wasn’t working for him. (In fact, R.J. Anderson at Fangraphs rote about Lowe’s difficulty with his slider.)

So does Lowe need that slider to be successful? Probably not. He threw it only 17 percent of the time in 2007, mixing in more fastballs, changeups and an occasional cutter. In 2008 Lowe leaned on the slider, and then last year tried to mix in more two-seam fastballs while struggling with the slider.

The good news for the Braves is that Lowe’s awful 2009 doesn’t look like a pitcher falling off the cliff because of his age, which is a worry with a pitcher who will be 37-years-old next year.

If Lowe can either regain the feel for his slider, or adjust for not being able to throw it as often, he should be an effective pitcher again in 2010. He’ll still have to keep fighting off age to keep his contract from being a disaster for the Braves. But that he threw almost 200 healthy innings in 2009, while Perez must return from an injury, makes him a better bet to approximate the value of his contract.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Well, Chris and I don’t disagree much about the numbers- Lowe’s down across the board, and turning 37. Whether that is a reason for optimism or not is another story. I think it represents the likelihood that Lowe, fresh off of an 88 ERA+, is likely to be around that or below it for the remainder of his three years and $45 million.

That sets a bar Oliver Perez is likely to clear with room to spare over the final two years of his contract- at half the price of Derek Lowe- $24 million.

Perez, prior to his injury-ruined 2009, posted ERA+ of 100 in 2008 and 120 in 2007. His injury was to his knee; not arm, shoulder or elbow-related. He is currently at work in Arizona, doing offseason training. This alone is an encouraging sign, given how little he did during the offseasons in years past.

He’ll also be 28 years old in 2010- physically in the prime of his career.

Make no mistake about it, a pitcher coming off of an injury is no guarantee. But a healthy Perez has been considerably better than the 2009 edition of Derek Lowe. Time and reality are converging to bring Derek Lowe’s career to an unceremonious close. It isn’t time to declare Atlanta the winner in the choice of Lowe over Perez just yet.

The night is young.

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