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Breaking down Kyle Lohse’s 2011 success

By Ian Walton

(Note from Brian Walton: Though this is the first guest article here at The Cardinal Nation Blog since the Cardinals Social Media Night tickets contest began, family ties render its author ineligible for the prize.)

Despite the loss of Adam Wainwright for the 2011 season, the St. Louis Cardinals found themselves in a tie for first place in the National League Central, led by the third best team starting pitching earned run average in the NL following Kyle Lohse’s two hit shutout of the Washington Nationals on Thursday.

Alongside impressive starts to the year by Jamie Garcia and Kyle McClellan, Lohse has thus far rebounded from a pair of injury plagued seasons to maintain the rotation as a strength for St. Louis.  He now holds a 3-1 record with a sparkling 2.01 ERA in 2011 heading into Wednesday night’s start in Houston.

Despite asserting that Lohse was singularly responsible for the Cardinals’ failure to reach the playoffs in 2010 (link), I am encouraged by what I am seeing from him this year. Most notable has been his exceptionally strong control in 2011, allowing a mere four walks in 31 1/3 innings.  That is good for a 1.15 BB/9 rate, a significant improvement over his already strong career 2.74 BB/9.  Furthermore, he has increased his groundball percentage to 45.9% this season from a 41.9% career mark.

Lohse has a fairly diverse arsenal as he utilizes a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a changeup, a slider, and the occasional curveball.  The changeup has been his most effective pitch thrown every year since 2007 and, in fact, throughout the vast majority of his career according to Fangraphs.  As such, it is encouraging to see him with a career high changeup usage of 20.5% in 2011, up from 13.0 % in 2010 and 15.8% in 2009.

As his primary swing and miss pitch, Lohse’s changeup has a 16.9% whiff rate in 2011.  Thrown at an average of 79.2 MPH, it provides a strong contrast to his 88.9 MPH fastballs, which are thrown almost exclusively to contact.  In pitch counts with two strikes and fewer than three balls, Lohse’s changeup was thrown a whopping 36.7% of the time in 2011.

Table 1: Kyle Lohse strike percentage by pitch type

Lohse 2011
thrown vs RHB % strike vs RHB thrown vs LHB % strike vs LHB
Four Seam 69 63.8 63 65.1
Sinker 46 73.9 71 56.3
Changeup 27 59.3 56 66.1
Slider 45 82.2 12 58.3
Curveball 3 33.3 10 70

The right-handed pitching Lohse’s changeup usage against left-handed batters is 26.4%.  His changeup is particularly useful against lefties as his sinker and slider are clearly considerably less effective against those batters as shown in the table above.  I must admit to being a little confused as to why he has been favoring the sinker over the four-seam against left-handers to date, however.

As can be seen in the above graph, shown from the perspective of the catcher, Lohse’s changeups (in purple) have been kept down and away from left handed batters, hugging the edges of the strike zone unless he tries to get them to chase low.  This can be particularly deceptive when paired with his four-seam fastball (in red), which is often thrown high and inside.

Although his changeup usage against right handed batters drops to 14.0% primarily in favor of his slider, I remain encouraged by his command of his changeup as he still manages to pitch the ball low and away despite moving to the other side of the plate.

In conclusion, even beyond his 2.01 ERA this year, I like what Lohse is doing on the mound.  He has good deception and location on his changeup, and he is rightfully throwing it more than ever.  His walks are down and his groundball percentage is up.  As long as he can stay healthy and maintain his current approach, he should provide a much needed boost to the Cardinals’ playoff chances this season.

Texas Leaguers provided the graphs used in this article while both Texas Leaguers and Fangraphs provided the stats contained herein.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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