The ace of a pitching staff is a bit like art. I don’t think you can describe one with a clear set of rules, but you certainly know one when you see it. We all have our own thoughts on the subject, and mine is based on a radio interview with Red Schoendienst in August of 1967.
And yes, this is a carefully planned and coldly executed use of a popular search keyword “Kyle Lohse” to be able to talk about my favorite time in Cardinals history.
The 1967 Cardinals had an ace: Bob Gibson. There was little doubt about that. They also had an ace-in-training with Steve Carlton, but it would be another 2 years before that title would be given to Lefty. Unfortunately for the NL Pennant hopefuls, their ace was nowhere to be found. He was on the disabled list with a badly broken leg, suffered in a game with the Pirates a month earlier.
Any of this sound familiar ? Eerily so.
It was the way that Red was describing his rookie pitcher, Dick Hughes, that made the qualities of a staff ace perfectly clear. He didn’t use the word ace, but instead stopper. We now use that to describe another role, but what Red was talking about was an ace of the staff. Briles was the man who took Gibson’s spot in the rotation, but it was Hughes that earned the ace title in Gibby’s absence.
What did Hughes do that was so different from Briles and the other starters ? He shut down the opposition. Totally. And reliably. Every fifth day.
In the time that Gibson was out, Hughes put up a 7-2 record with an ERA of just 2.42. He went deep in all but a few of those starts, completing five and pitching in the ninth twice more. But it was more than the wins because Briles was matching Hughes, win for win. It was how Hughes controlled those games.
Schoendienst called him a stopper, because he knew that every fifth day, they were going to get a good game. Not just a good game, a dominating game. One where the team did not have to score 6 runs to win. One where the players can relax and be themselves, instead of squeezing the gloves or gripping the bat too tight. Not surprisingly, when the team relaxed, they played exceptional defense and scored bushels of runs.
If that sounds familiar, it is exactly how we have described Chris Carpenter, and more recently Adam Wainwright.
But what does this have to do with Kyle Lohse ?
Kyle Lohse tested the free agency marketplace after the 2007 season and found it a rather inhospitable place. In March, well after pitchers and catchers reported in both Spring Training leagues, the Cardinals took a chance and signed him to a one year contract.
The veteran right hander responded with a career season. He set a new career high in wins with 15, winning percentage at an eye-popping .714 (15-6), and a new low ERA of 3.78, shaving a run off his career average. Was this an anomaly or is this a new and improved Kyle Lohse ?
Following the 2008 season, the Cardinals took another chance and locked him up for the next four years at $10M per year. If he comes close to that 15-6 mark again, the $10M will be a good deal.
As the 2009 season got underway, it looked like Cardinals general manager, John Mozeliak, made a good decision in signing Lohse to that contract. He started 3-0 in April with an ERA under 2 runs per game. That included a dominating 3 hit shutout against Houston in his second start. Dominating – a word generally not associated with Kyle Lohse.
May would not be kind to Lohse. Perhaps a bit of early season dead arm, or something else entirely. All that went away on May 23, when he pitched another dominating game in Kansas City. He would win the game, allowing no runs and just four hits over 8 innings, but he would lose something terribly precious. Almost 2 years of his career.
We will now skip the next 18 months, where most Cardinals fans wanted to part ways with the the injured hurler, even though the team was still on the hook for more than $20M.
Kyle Lohse 2.0
Enter the 2011 season.
When Adam Wainwright went down to injury early in spring training, all eyes turned to the back of the rotation, wondering how they could possibly fill the void. One phrase uttered time and time again was “if Kyle Lohse could return to his 2008 form”. That was generally followed by a “but” and then a long explanation of why 2008 was a fluke and it just couldn’t happen. In an odd way, it hasn’t, because Kyle Lohse 2.0 is even better than that.
How good ? I’m so glad you asked.
Here are some things you should know about Kyle Lohse and his 9 starts so far this season.
1. With 66 1/3 innings pitched, he’s averaging 7 1/3 innings per start. His career average is less than 6 innings. We thought that Jake Westbrook (5 1/2 innings per start) was supposed to be the innings eater on the staff this year.
2. His 0.92 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) leads the National League. Three pitchers have a lower number in the American League (Josh Tomlin, Dan Haren, Alexi Ogando), and Lohse is tied with Justin Verlander, who threw a no-hitter. Pretty elite company. When considering this metric, keep in mind that Lohse’s career average is 1.410, and he’s never had a season below 1.25.
3. Part of Lohse’s WHIP success is better control. His walks are down about half per game. But the bigger component are the hits allowed. And this one is mind boggling. He’s giving up half the number of hits that he did last year, and down more than 1/3 off his career average. Kyle Lohse is getting an amazing number of 1-2-3 quick innings, which in turn leads to greater innings pitched, lower ERA, more wins, and so on.
4. In his first three innings, Lohse has been as dominant as any pitcher in recent memory. In 9 starts he’s faced nine batters twice, ten once and eleven four times. He struggled a bit in his other two starts, facing 14 and 15 batters, but in one of those games, he retired the next ten in order.
5. In his 66 1/3 innings, Lohse has given up runs in only 8 of them. In only one game did the opponents score runs in more than one inning, and one of those was a solo home run by Mike Stanton. I suspect many pitchers will do that over the young man’s career. Twice, Lohse has held the opponents scoreless. Had Albert Pujols not cut off a throw in a game against the Brewers, it might be three times. Of those 8 innings he’s allowed runs, half of them were just a single run.
And that brings us to the most impressive thing about Lohse’s 2011 season (so far).
6. The ability to turn a bad outing into a good one. There are two notable examples: April 15 against the Dodgers and May 7 against the Brewers. In both cases, he struggled early. He had problems with the strike zone, walked a lot of batters, and saw his pitch count soaring. In both cases, he finally found the umpire’s strike zone and then went to work on the outside corners. In the Dodgers game, it appeared as if he was done in the fifth inning, when a gorgeous curveball caught Casey Blake looking. Lohse would get four of the next five outs by strikeout, mostly with that exact same pitch. He did similarly against the Brewers in May. Approaching 50 pitches in the second inning, he suddenly got very economical and made it through eight innings. Unfortunately, that was the day Yovanni Gallardo nearly threw a no-hitter.
Let’s put some perspective on this. It is still early in the season, and a lot can happen. It’s far too early to be tossing around terms like ace and stopper. At the the same time, who are the only pitchers you can count on to make a good start ? That’s right, Jaime Garcia and …. wait for it …… Kyle Lohse.
I’m just happy that fans are once again appreciating the efforts of Kyle Lohse. And if you think any of this is lost on Mr. Lohse, there is no way he impersonates Tony La Russa in 2009 or 2010. It looks like he is having fun pitching again, and we are having fun watching him do just that.