By exercising their club option on Fausto Carmona and trading for Derek Lowe, the Indians have assembled a rotation that is already accepting nicknames about being the best ground-ball rotation in the American League. Last season, Lowe, Justin Masterson, and Carmona ranked third, eighth, and ninth, respectively, in groundball percentage among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, according to baseball prospectus. With all of those groundballs headed their way, one is to wonder how the Indians are fixed for infield defense. After July 22, when Jason Kipnis joined the infield and gave it the shape it would take for the rest of the season, the Indians were the fourth-best team in the AL at converting grounders into outs, yielding 211 hits on 860 balls in play (a .245 average). Over the course of the season, both the Indians and the Braves allowed a .242 batting average on groundballs, so Lowe can’t expect a huge boost in defensive support from the switch. Most of the Indians’ infield is young and entrenched, so that’s likely as good as things are going to get. In Lowe, the Indians have acquired a pitcher who in one sense seems primed to bounce back from a subpar season but in another, perhaps equally important sense, seems like a poor bet to improve. On the one hand, Lowe posted a 3.67 FIP, a quarter of a run better than the 3.92 he managed while recording anERA over a run lower than last season’s 5.05 in 2010, and his walk and strikeout rates have remained fairly stable over the past few seasons. It would take only a small step from there to look at Lowe’s high BABIP and sizeable ERA-FIP differential and forecast a return to form.
There is another hand, though, and what it holds for Lowe isn’t quite as encouraging. He will turn 39 next June and according to Brooks Baseball his fastball has lost roughly 3.5 miles per hour since 2007, the start of the PITCHf/x era. He’ll also be moving from the NL to the AL, which won’t help cushion him from the effects of age. What will be even more interesting is to see who catches for Lowe. With is hard sinker and new-found slider, the Indians will need a catcher that is able to stop those balls in the dirt. The Indians will have to decide whether Lou Marson or Carlos Santana will get the bulk of the catching duties when Lowe starts.
That said, Lowe is still durable, having made at least 32 starts for 10 straight seasons while avoiding the DL entirely, and the Braves will be paying two-thirds of his salary. He’s not likely to be any better than a back-of-the-rotation arm, and the downside is even worse, but for the first time in a few years, the Indians have the makings of a rotation free of the likes of Mitch Talbot and Jeanmar Gomez. With Fausto still on the team, fans can only hope that he can fix his mechanical problems with new pitching coach Scott Radinski. When Carmona was at his best, in 2007, nearly 65 percent of his balls in play were hit on the ground. Over the last three seasons, that percentage has settled in around 56 percent, a significant decline given Carmona’s inability to miss bats. Striking out just over five batters per nine simply doesn’t cut it without pinpoint control, and Carmona’s relationship with the strike zone has ranged from superficial to outright estranged. Unless Lowe proves to be as adept at reminding other pitchers how to throw their sinkers as he is at throwing his own, it’s hard to envision Carmona justifying the Indians’ expense. His return will leave them with at least two starters whose groundball rate has seen better days, though at least Ubaldo Jimenez is still affordable.