Indians place Lowe-risk bet on durable righty
Hurler working to fix mechanics, rebound from September swoon
CLEVELAND -- The Indians' hope, with the $5 million investment known as Derek Lowe, is that the 38-year-old right-hander will keep them grounded.Grounded in the symbolic sense, certainly, as those who have been around the block a time or 10 have a way of keeping the young'ins surrounding them focused, humble and hungry. And that's a particularly pertinent point on this pitching staff, as nary a veteran soul exists outside of Lowe. He is the only member of this staff who was in the bigs prior to 2006. "By no means am I a know-it-all," Lowe told the Cleveland reporters on a conference call Thursday. "But there's definitely ways to lead by example." But Lowe, late of the Braves, can also keep the Tribe grounded in a physical sense. As in, ground balls. As in, the overwhelming object of the Indians' affection when constructing a starting staff. Lowe has proven he can get grounders, even in the shakiest of seasons. The 2011 season, in which he went 9-17 with a 5.05 ERA, was easily the worst of Lowe's 10 as a Major League starter, and yet he still had the second-highest ground-ball rate (59 percent) of anybody in the bigs. He trailed only Jake Westbrook (59.3) in that regard, and Indians fans know all about Westbrook's grounding influence. When he comes to Cleveland in search of a comeback campaign next spring, Lowe will have plenty of company in the ground-ball department. Staff ace Justin Masterson (55.1) and Fausto Carmona (54.8) ranked seventh and eighth in the bigs in ground-ball percentage last season. And though not nearly up to that level, Ubaldo Jimenez also created grounders at a rate (47.2) slightly above the average (44.4). "You want ground-ball pitchers, for so many obvious reasons, and we have them," Lowe said. "I look forward to it. A lot of people didn't give us credit or give us a chance when I was in L.A. (from 2005-08), but we found a way, because we could pitch. I think that's how it can be in Cleveland. Any time you can put the ball on the ground, you have a better chance." Lowe has a chance to reclaim his career after a frustrating 2011 that culminated in a September spiral of epic proportions for him and his team. The Braves famously tanked despite holding a 10 1/2-game Wild Card lead on the Cardinals as late as Aug. 25, and Lowe, who went 0-5 with an 8.75 ERA in five September starts, did nothing to stop it. "I don't want to call it laziness," he said, "but I think we lost that edge we had all year. We felt we had such a big lead ... We lost that edge we had all year of just trying to win that game, as simple as that sounds. Maybe we didn't have the same urgency we should have had. It just snowballed out of control." Lowe could say the same about his own numbers. He said he and Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell identified a major mechanical flaw in Lowe's delivery, but they couldn't find a way to fix it. "I knew what I was doing, I just couldn't stop it," Lowe said. "When I got in the game, my pitching was non-competitive. I was bending over so much, every pitch was flat. It's something we would have liked to change and tried to change in a short period of time, and it didn't happen. You learn from it, and make sure you don't do it again." Lowe has already begun the process of addressing the flaw. He's begun his offseason workout program with his trainer in Fort Myers, Fla., trying, as he put it, to get his "muscle memory" back in order. "I've really done a lot of self-evaluation," he said. "I've become a breaking-ball pitcher. For me to have success, that's not the best way to go. I have to command the fastball down and away. That's something I lacked last year." Of course, two obvious issues are staring Lowe in the face. One is age, and Lowe's is not insignificant. And the other is the transition to the American League, and that's proven in the past not to be insignificant, either. Lowe hasn't pitched in the AL since the 2004 season with the Red Sox. So while he might be the veteran of this staff, he'll nonetheless have to lean on those around him for some perspective on his opponents. But one thing it would appear the Indians can count on with Lowe -- beyond ground balls -- is durability. Even as his overall numbers have sagged a bit the last three seasons, he's averaged 192 innings pitched in that span. Ever since he became a full-time starter in 2002, he's never made fewer than 32 starts in a season, never amassed fewer than 182 2/3 innings pitched. What's the secret? "Some luck," he admitted. "I'll be the first to tell you. But hard work, too. I think it's something that I've always believed in. You may not be able to outwork the next guy, but that's what you try to do. I enjoy putting in the time. For me, it's more mental. I know if you put the work in every five days, game day is the easiest day. It's putting in the time and effort to make every start." The Indians didn't waste any time grabbing Lowe this offseason. The Braves had a rotation surplus and were looking to unload Lowe and as much of his $15 million salary as possible. They ate $10 million of that total, and all they got back was a low-level Minor Leaguer named Chris Jones, who has spent all of his five professional seasons in A-ball. So for the Tribe, Lowe is a relatively low-risk, back-end option, given the costs that can accrue in searching for a free-agent starter. And for $5 million, they hope he'll keep them grounded in every sense.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.