Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
At 39 years old, Derek Lowe's 7-3, 3.06 ERA season with the Cleveland Indians is already an anomaly.
Pitchers of his age are supposed to have their performances recede as quickly as their hairlines.
However, things get even more strange when you look inside the numbers.
First of all, Lowe moved from the National League back to the American League, a tougher environment for pitchers, especially those without overpowering stuff.
And Lowe's 20 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings make it pretty clear that the right- hander isn't looking to fool opposing hitters.
The 6.9 percent strikeout rate is the lowest of Lowe's career, more than 8 percent lower than his career rate and last in all of baseball.
Lowe has succeeded by getting batters to pound the ball into the ground at an increased rate. The right-hander leads the majors with 1.77 groundball-to- fly ball ratio.
With the high volume of infield outs, you would expect that Cleveland would have one of the better defensive infields in the league, but that's not the case.
None of the Indians' regular infielders have a UZR in the positives. Third baseman Jack Hannahan is the highest with a -0.5 UZR. Second baseman Jason Kipnis is next with -1.0, and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera follows with a -2.3. Rounding things out among the Indians' infield glovemen is first baseman Casey Kotchman, who has a UZR of -2.9, last in the majors among first basemen.
Not quite the groundball vacuum we thought it would be.
Lowe is second in baseball with a ball in play percentage of 38 percent, but due to subpar infield defense the right-hander hasn't even had particularly good luck on all of those batted balls he's allowed -- Lowe's BABIP is .310 this season, while the league average is .294 -- so there shouldn't be much of a regression there. If anything, more of Lowe's grounders may find the gloves of his infielders for the rest of the season.
Also, what his teammates are taking away in the field, they are more than adding at the plate when he pitches. Lowe is getting 4.9 runs per start from the Cleveland offense, and the Indians are averaging 6.0 runs per 27 outs while Lowe is the pitcher of record.
But that still doesn't fully explain the early season renaissance. So what is it? Has Lowe been performing a type of voodoo that steers ball toward Indians infielders?
Well, sort of.
Lowe has always been a sinkerball pitcher who pitches to contact and gets plenty of grounders. But while he's always been in love with his sinker, this season Lowe went the extra mile and got married to it.
Lowe is throwing his sinker 67 percent of the time in 2012, up 7 percent from his career average and a whopping 19 percent higher than last season, when the righty went 9-17 with a 5.05 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP with an Atlanta Braves club that competed for a playoff spot up until the last game of the season.
He's also pulled back his usage of the slider 15 percent from last season and it's clearly made a difference when you consider the type of contact he's allowed -- only 1 percent of all plate appearances have resulted in a home run for Lowe this season, down nearly a full percentage point from his career average.
While that answer is not as intriguing as a magic groundball spell, it's working just as well for Lowe, especially with runners on base.
The Indians righty has a 78.3 percent strand rate, 22nd in the majors, thanks to 12 GIDPs in 11 starts -- he had 19 GIDPs all of last season.
In Lowe's most successful seasons as a starting pitcher -- 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2010 -- he averaged more than 24 groundball double plays per year. This season, he's on track to pull off more than 30.
Fantasy owners may shy away from Lowe due to his advanced age, unsightly WHIP (1.46) or lackluster .297 BAA, but the old sinkerballer knows his craft well and is using it better than he has in years.
The high level of groundballs and GIDPs should allow Lowe to pitch deep into games, keeping him on track to record more dubyas for your fantasy staff.
As we covered Saturday when we analyzed pitchers who get no run support, a starter who can be relied on for victories can be a valuable, and difficult to find, commodity in the virtual game.
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