Kyle Lohse, the Worst, and The Best Pitching Performances in Brewers History

On March 25th, 2013, Kyle Lohse signed a three-year, $33-million-dollar contract with the Milwaukee Brewers. The right-hander signed late in the offseason, and in fact, he was one of the only quality players left on the market during that time. This was rather uncommon. Most free agent deals aren’t signed at the end of March, and certainly not for the Brewers. Of course, the qualifying deal attached to Lohse made his circumstances a little different than most.

For the first two season of his deal, Lohse faired quite well. He accumulated a 2.1 WARP in 2013 and a 1.8 WARP in 2014. Lohse is also a well-established FIP-beater. While FIP is generally a useful stat when trying to isolate a pitcher’s true skill set, there are some hurlers who consistently out produce their FIP numbers. Chris Young and Johnny Cueto, two current free agents, come to mind in this department. Matt Cain was another until his arm functionally fell off. These types of pitchers will typically compile consistently low BABIPs. The idea is that they are able to consistently produce weak contact. Chris Young is able to do this by creating a lot of infield pop flies from pitching high in the zone and using his extreme length to his advantage on the mound.

For Lohse, though, all that changed this year. He couldn’t keep his on-field run prevention below his FIP, creating one of the worst seasons of his career, if not the worst. It was also his worst season with Milwaukee. In fact, it was one of the worst pitching performances in Brewers history. Lohse, who represented consistent solid performance for much of his Brewers career, suddenly became an albatross.

So now, let’s put Lohse’s 2015 performance into Brewers historical context. For some refreshing, Colin Anderle also did this to a certain extent. He asked the question as to whether Lohse was the worst opening day starter in Brewers history. In short, the answer was no. While Lohse’s 2015 performance was bad for Brewers opening day starters, it was not historically terrible. Instead, that title was given to Mark Knudson, who finished the 1991 campaign with an 8.64 DRA in 35 innings pitched. This to say, for the following study don’t expect Lohse to have the worst pitching season in Brewers history, but adding some historical perspective will give us a chance to appreciate just how bad it was.

The visual bellow will incorporate three parts. The main being the PWARP of the pitcher, which is on the Y-axis. Therefore, the lower down the circle the worse the pitcher performed that year, and the higher up the circle the better the pitcher performed that year. The color is dependent of the DRA-. In DRA- lower is better, or, in this case, green is better. The greener the color, the better the DRA- the redder the color the worse the DRA-. Finally, innings pitched is determined by the size of the circle, minimum of 50 innings pitched.

Since the Brewers became a franchise in 1969, with the inception of the Seattle Pilots, a total of 453 pitchers have pitched at least 50 innings in a single season for the organization. A total of 103 pitchers have posted a negative PWARP during that time, and as one can tell from the graph, Kyle Lohse’s 2015 performance was one of them. This isn’t surprising as Lohse’s struggles in 2015 have been well-documented. What you perhaps did not know is that Lohse had the 15th worst PWARP season in Brewers history at -1.07. Lohse’s DRA- only ranked 42nd worse in Brewers history, but since Lohse pitched a healthy amount of innings (as can be seen with the size of his circle), he ended up raking up the 15th worst PWARP in Brewers history.

Kyle Lohse, though, evidently wasn’t the worst — thankfully for him. That undesirable award goes to Jose Cabrera in 2002 (he’s the small red dot at the bottom middle of the graph). Cabrera was acquired by the Brew Crew before the 2002 season from Atlanta. The Brewers were mired in a prolonged rebuilding phase — they were coming off ten-straight losing seasons — but the trade and the use of Cabrera still signaled flaws in their analysis. Cabrera was coming off a year where he achieved an ERA of 2.88 but throughout his career Cabrera always posted sub-par FIP numbers. Let’s not even get into his DRA numbers. He displayed a poor ability to strikeout hitters while giving away too many walks. In some ways, if Cabrera was a pitcher in today’s age, he probably wouldn’t have gotten the same opportunity. The biggest bugaboo for the Brewers was that they let him start 11 games when he had never started a single game prior to the 2002 season. They also let him pitch a career high in innings with 103.3. All these elements ended with him accumulating a -1.9 PWARP, the worst in any single Brewers season. It also was part of a culmination of factors which contributed to the worst Brewers season in their history, as they lost 106 games in 2002 — their only season with more than 100 losses.

On the brighter side, this visual also shows us the best single-season pitching performance in Brewers history. You see that big green circle at the middle top of the graph? That’s the 1988 season pitched by Ted Higuera. Higuera was purchased in 1983 from the Indios de Ciudad Juárez of the Mexican League. He made his Major League debut in 1985 at the age of 27 and proceeded to play his entire career for the Brewers.

Higuera was an instant success when joining the Brewers. The lefty always pitched more than 200 innings, limited home runs, and had low walk rates. In 1988, he put it all together, pitching his usual 200 innings (227.3 to be exact), producing a low walk rate, and compiling quality strikeout numbers. Mainly, though, it was his ability to limit hard contact that made him so successful. In 1988, he only allowed opponents to have a .214 TAv against him. This all culminated in his 7.53 PWARP, which is the best in Brewers history. Unfortunately, the vanguard for sabermetrics hadn’t arrived yet and Higuera. Even though he posted the second best PWARP of any pitcher in the Major Leagues that year, didn’t get any Cy Young considerations. He didn’t even make the All-Star team.

The biggest crime for that season though was that Roger Clemens finished 6th in Cy Young voting, losing out to Frank Viola. Clemens in 1988 finished with a 10.02 PWARP, which was by far the best in all of baseball and one of the greatest single-season pitching performances in Major League history. It was 2.49 PWARP better than Higuera who again finished in second in that department. Viola who won the Cy Young had a 6.35 PWARP, which isn’t even close to Clemens and is more than a full win under Higuera.

Unfortunately for Higuera, he would never again reach the heights of 1988. His career was then hampered by a slew of injuries, the main one being a torn rotator cuff in 1991. He missed all of the 1992 seasons, and only saw limited time in 1993 and 1994 where his performance declined significantly. The 1994 season proved to be his final season in the big leagues.

In the midst of my research, I noticed something interesting. Here are the 10 best single season DRA- in Brewers history (min 50 IP):

1 Trevor Hoffman 2009 54 32
2 Francisco Rodriguez 2015 57 52
3 Ted Higuera 1988 227.3 54
4 Dan Plesac 1988 52.3 57
5 Luis Vizcaino 2002 81.3 58
6 Matt Wise 2005 64.3 58
7 Michael Blazek 2015 55.7 58
8 Doug Jones 1997 80.3 59
9 Rollie Fingers 1981 78 61
10 Tom Murphy 1974 123 62

I’m sure by now you’ve noticed a few familiar names. Yes, Higuera’s 1988 season ranks third, which is amazing considering the number of innings he pitched. But, I’m talking about the Francisco Rodriguez’s 2015 DRA- at second place and Michael Blazek in seventh place. Rodriguez who was just traded to the Tigers for Javier Betancourt and a player to be named later, posted one of the best relief pitching years in Brewers history. Considering Rodriguez posted a couple of solid but not great seasons for the Brewers, it’s easy to overlook just how good Rodriguez was in 2015. He has lost a lot of velocity on his fastball, but his changeup is now as good as ever and he’s using it a ton. We don’t exactly think about Rodriguez with the likes of Kimbrel and Chapman, but in 2015 he posted a better DRA- than both pitchers and had a very similar PWARP to Chapman’s, which was notably better than Kimbrel.

As for Michael Blazek, I’ve already discussed how great his rookie season was. His 58 DRA- represents the greatest rookie relief pitching performance in Brewers history. It’s also just as good as Chapman’s DRA- and significantly better than Kimbrel’s 71 DRA-. Blazek also finished with a better PWARP than Kimbrel. cFIP does like Chapman and Kimbrel better going forward, with good reason. They’ve both been great for a while and they both throw a lot harder than Rodriguez and Blazek. That being said, for just 2015, both Blazek and Rodriguez were better than Kimbrel, and when it comes to Rodriguez, he produced an equivalent performance to Chapman’s. The biggest difference is that both Chapman and Kimbrel get all of the attention while Rodriguez and Blazek get pegged as solid relievers who had a good year. They are both solid reliever but, no, they didn’t have good years, they had great years.

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