With one week remaining until the start of the regular season, it is time to pay respect to the biggest surprise in Jupiter: Kyle Lohse.
Spring training is rarely a time to get a good read on a player, especially a pitcher. It takes them a few starts to build up their arm strength to opening day levels. Often times they work on tertiary pitches or mechanical issues, and the results can be misleading. For the 2011 exhibition season, we will make an exception in the case of Kyle Lohse.
There are many in Cardinals Nation who grew restless as the right hander struggled through the last two seasons. Throw in a 4 year $40 million contract that still has 2 years to go, and there might be some justification for that frustration.
But how quickly we forget the sequence of events that lead up to that 4 yr contract.
Every other team passed on Kyle Lohse when the Philadelphia Phillies granted him free agency in October 2007 – that’s a nice way of saying they released him. With both Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder on the shelf with no timetable for their return, the Cardinals 2008 starting rotation was in shambles. The starting five were Adam Wainwright, Joel Pineiro, Braden Looper, Todd Wellemeyer and ……. well, nobody. The closest thing to a starter to be found were Anthony Reyes and Brad Thompson, and we know how that turned out in the past.
On March 13, half way through spring training, the Cardinals signed Kyle Lohse to a contract and threw him immediately into the rotation.
How quickly we forget that he went 3-0 in April, 5-0 in June, 2-1 in July and 2-0 in September. He didn’t go particularly deep into his starts, rarely pitching into the 8th inning, but he finished the season with a 15-6 record and shaved a full run off his career ERA. The man was 11-2 at the All Star Break, for goodness sakes.
That’s why Kyle Lohse got the 4 year $40 million contract – because he had pitched all season like a top of the rotation starter. He delivered a $10 million dollar performance, if such a thing even makes remote sense (I still struggle with the salaries of baseball players).
How quickly forget that he repeated that in April 2009, posting a 3-0 record including a 3 hit complete game shutout in his second start. That game was against Houston – a team that the 2010 Cardinals, with their twin aces at the top of the rotation, could not beat.
How quickly we forget that he was working on another low hit count shutout on May 23, in Kansas City when in the eighth inning, a bunt attempt went awry when Royals reliever Ron Mahay threw a pitch high and tight, hitting Lohse painfully on the right forearm.
How quickly we forget that he was never the same since. His location was off, and for a guy that doesn’t throw particularly hard, location is extremely important. He lost some of the movement on his fastball and his curve flattened out. That’s what everybody remembers – and that’s unfortunate.
How quickly we forget that he pushed himself through rehabilitation after an unprecedented surgery to repair the nerve bundle in his right forearm. He could have hung up the cleats and cashed in his paycheck, like another pitcher who I will not name. He was in the dugout, and when the time came, he worked hard to get back into shape so that he could help the team that had been so supportive of him.
Let’s put the last 2 years behind us, OK. Let’s now take a look at what we have seen out of a rested, and presumably healthy Kyle Lohse. In 5 starts (through March 25), he has a 2-0 record and has pitched well enough to win all 5 games. In those starts, he’s totaled 24 innings and only allowed 5 runs – that’s an ERA of 1.88. Most impressive is his 15 strikeouts to go with ZERO – that’s not a typo, ZERO ZILCH NADA ZIPPO walks.
If you want to get excited about anything, it’s the lack of walks. That means that Lohse has control of his pitches, and nothing builds confidence in an aggressive pitcher quicker than being able to control the location of his pitches and hitting the corners. That was the secret to his success in 2008, and the lack of that ability lead to his demise the next two years.
And it’s not just one pitch. He’s spotting his fastball high and inside to the sluggers, where they can’t reach it, but yet can’t lay off it either. He’s dropping a wicked change-up down both sides of the plate. His curve has been very effective against the lefties. And there’s late movement in his fastball that he’s keeping low and outside to the right handed hitters.
If this were the first two or three games when Lohse is facing a bunch of minor leaguers, we are not having this conversation. His last three starts have been against opening day lineups, and he hasn’t cracked. He hasn’t even blinked.
Who knows if he will carry this over to the regular season. Ray Sadecki had a career year in 1964 when staff ace Ernie Broglio broke down, and was ultimately traded to the Chicago Cubs. It would be the only time in the lefty’s career that he would win 20 games. Who knows, maybe the same thing will happen to Kyle Lohse in 2011. If so, it couldn’t happen to a better pitcher.
Regardless of how this plays out, the Kyle Lohse Fanclub is officially open for business.