Back in 1979, Sports Illustrated featured a cover with the headline “Who is Keith Hernandez and what’s he doing batting .344?” Though, at age 33 and in his 12th season, Kyle Lohse is more known than the great Hernandez was at the time (25 years old and six seasons), a similar question might apply to the Cardinal right-hander: “Who is Kyle Lohse and what is he doing with a 0.99 ERA?”
Coming off a brilliant 2011 in which he posted career-bests in FIP (3.67) and xFIP (3.94), Lohse raised expectations for 2012. But given a career FIP of 4.42, wasn’t last year a fluke, or at least an abnormality? Surely wise fans couldn’t expect him to repeat.
Yet it’s possible that both can be true: Certainly, 2011 was abnormal for Lohse, who has had only one other sub-4.00 FIP in his life (2008, his first year with the Cardinals). But just because it’s an oddity doesn’t mean that it’s a one-off. Perhaps Lohse is actually getting better.
Late-career upturns for pitchers are possible. Players like Dennis Martinez, John Tudor, Darryl Kile and Curt Schilling all improved their games after age 32, as Lohse appears to be doing (though in Schilling’s case, as in Lohse’s, it’s not known whether it was PED-inspired). After dispatching the Pirates yesterday, Lohse’s FIP is 2.21 and even his expected FIP is nifty at 3.71. Given only four starts on the new season, we’re still not convinced, and some of his success may be disguised by luck in the form of an 85% strand rate (career: 70%) and a .200 BABIP (career: .300). But a few more performances like the past week, in which he posted game FIPs of 1.66 and 1.52 against the Reds and Pirates, respectively, and small-sample dismissals will no longer be acceptable.
Lohse’s turnaround appears based on his eschewing his curveball in favor of a more-effective changeup and on controlling his walk rate, which had ballooned from 2009-2010. Specifically, he is limiting his walks to lefties, giving them free passes at about half the rate he did from 2009-2010.
Most fans by now know Kyle Lohse’s name. But the pitcher that they knew may not be the same one on the mound over the past 15 months.