Kyle Lohse has been one of the more underappreciated starting pitchers in baseball for the last few seasons. In 95 starts from 2011 through 2013, Lohse racked up 7.4 fWAR. That might not make him a perennial All-Star, but it does make him a capable fantasy pitcher, especially when he's tied to a better-than-average team, as is the case with the 2014 Brewers. Even when he's at the lower bound of his performance, Lohse's floor is that of a backend starter in mixed leagues.
Lohse, however, has not been at that lower bound at all this season. He's off to arguably the best start of his career, posting a 2.70 ERA, 2.99 FIP, 1.05 WHIP and 40 strikeouts against 11 non-intentional walks in 40 innings. It shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Lohse has compiled impressive rate stats in six starts. His ERA has been below 3.40 each of the previous three seasons, and his FIP has been better than 3.70 in two of those three years. He's clearly capable of limiting the opposition for a run of six or eight or 10 starts. What has been a surprise, though, is his ability to miss bats this year. Lohse has never had a K/9 that topped seven or a strikeout rate better than 17.1 percent. He's obliterating his career highs in both of those this year, with nine K/9 and a 24.2-percent strikeout rate. Even if those taper off some, Lohse appears to be ticketed for a career year in the strikeout department.
What is equally surprising is the diversity of Lohse's strikeouts. In his last start, a six-inning, nine-strikeout performance against the Cardinals on Tuesday, Lohse got strike three with his fastball, slider and curveball. You can see the results here:
Lohse's average fastball velocity remains in the high-80s, but according to Brooks Baseball, he's getting more horizontal movement on both his four-seamer and sinker than he has since 2007. Still, Lohse's primary offering when the catcher puts down one finger is his sinker, which has a swinging-strike rate of 3.5 percent. He's thrown that 243 times compared with 29 four-seamers. If Lohse is going to keep striking out batters at anywhere near his current rate, his changeup and breaking pitchers are going to have to do the heavy lifting.
The good news is that they have done just that thus far in 2014. From a swing-and-miss standpoint, Lohse's best offering has been his changeup. He has thrown the pitch 91 times this year, and hitters have a 22-percent swinging-strike rate against it. It has been particularly confounding for lefties, as Lohse has been able to offset their platoon advantage by getting them to swing at and miss the changeup 34.3 percent of the time. Not surprisingly, that pitch, too, has had nasty horizontal movement, registering -7.56 inches (a negative number indicates a pitch that moves away from a left-handed batter). Lohse is throwing the changeup 15.1 percent of the time, which is right in line with how frequently he threw it last year. He is simply getting better production from it in 2014. Opposing hitters have managed just a .120/.185/.160 slash line against the change.
|Kyle Lohse's 2014 Stats|
Lohse features both a slider and a curveball, and while he throws the slider far more often (about one-third of the time versus about one-tenth), both have been quite effective for him this year. Hitters have a .191 batting average and .286 slugging percentage against his slider. They've done slightly worse against the curve, hitting and slugging an even .200. The slider has generated plenty of empty swings, 12.8 percent, but the swinging-strike rate on his curveball is just seven percent.
The effectiveness of Lohse's breaking pitches shines through brightest when looking at his outcomes against righties this year. He has thrown 129 sliders and 29 curves to same-siders, and batters haven't been able to muster a thing. They're hitting .125 against the slider, and have yet to get a hit against the curveball, even though they've swung more than one-quarter of the time. Neither offering has been anywhere near this effective over the course of Lohse's entire career. Hitters have a .239/.273/.347 slash against the slider and .284/.305/.396 line against the curve. Those may not be world-beating numbers, but they do help account for the difference between Lohse's decent fantasy performance before this season, and standout fantasy performance in the first month of 2014.
So now that we've explained Lohse's impressive April strikeout totals, what do we do with him in fantasy leagues? While he has been getting more mileage out of his changeup, slider and curveball this season, it's hard to believe that he would become a radically different pitcher, at least in terms of his strikeout profile, in his age-35 season. He's a guy who should be widely owned in mixed leagues, but his value will come down as his strikeout totals regress to where they likely belong. Now is the time to be pricing Lohse and seeing what he can fetch in a trade. Chances are the window to sell high won't be open too much longer.