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What can the Brewers expect from Kyle Lohse this year?

Kyle Lohse opens his second season with the Brewers tonight against the Braves. He was the best starter for them last year. Can we expect that again?

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

He may not have gotten the nod for Opening Day, but there should be no question Kyle Lohse is the best starter in the Brewers rotation. Over the last 3 years he’s had the 16th lowest ERA in all of baseball among qualified starters. However, it’s kind of hard to analyze Lohse because he was also 49th in FIP over the same time period. I feel like this is where a lot of disagreement surrounding his value comes from. He’s outperformed his FIP by a significant margin (3.19 ERA VS 3.75 FIP) over the last three years and that leads some people to assume he’s been getting lucky. I would say that assumption is wrong.

Here’s how his last three years look compared to league average:

K% BB% HR/9 F-Strike SwStr% Contact% AVG WHIP BABIP
Lg 2011 17.7 7.5 0.98 59.9 8.1 81.8 .256 1.32 .293
Lohse 14.3 5.4 0.76 67.7 5.9 86.3 .244 1.17 .269
Lg 2012 18.7 7.4 1.09 60.5 8.6 80.8 .256 1.32 .294
Lohse 16.6 4.4 0.81 68.6 7.1 84.2 .234 1.09 .262
Lg 2013 18.9 7.4 1.01 60.6 8.7 80.7 .255 1.31 .295
Lohse 15.5 4.5 1.18 65.9 7.3 83.8 .256 1.17 .276

Lohse’s strikeout, swinging strike, and contact rates are worse than league average and that might mislead one to believe he’s not a very good pitcher. He pitches to contact instead of trying to strikeout everyone though, so I would argue this is just indicative of the type of pitcher he is. His BABIP and (for the most part) AVG are much better than average which suggests that he’s pretty good at inducing weak or poor contact. Another thing to note is his above average first-strike rate. Getting ahead of batters allows him to use the pitches he wants, to induce that poor contact. He also has a very good walk rate. This all shows up in his better than average WHIP. If there’s anything to be concerned about, it’s his HR/9 which jumped up in his first year with the Brewers, though that's not surprising considering the park. I wouldn't worry too much because that element is mitigated by the fact that he doesn’t allow a lot of base runners.

All of this (except for the home runs) is evidence that Lohse is able to beat his FIP not in spite of his skill set but because of it. He isn’t ever going to strike guys out a ton but it doesn’t matter.  That’s not what he’s trying to do. What’s important is that he’s good at getting guys to swing at the pitches he wants them to swing at, thereby inducing poor contact, and getting outs that way. Because of that he is a lot more dependent on his fielders than a pitcher that relies on strikeouts. It’s a complicated equation so it’s hard to say if the defense this year will be better, worse, or the same as last year.

Scooter Gennett, though not much better than average at best, is a better defender than Rickie Weeks who is a poor defender. Lyle Overbay, despite any other shortcomings, is still an above average defender at first base.  Mark Reynolds is not. The outfield defense takes a bit of hit with Khris Davis in left, but the Brewers still have an elite defender in Carlos Gomez and solidly average defender in Ryan Braun. Logan Schafer is a top notch defender and on days where he fills in for Davis I would argue the Brewers have one of the best outfield defenses in the game.

If Lohse can continue to induce poor contact, I’m not too concerned about who plays behind him. The Brewers worst defenders (Davis, Weeks, and Reynolds) probably aren’t so bad as to be liabilities and probably won’t be playing every time Lohse pitches so it’s unlikely to be that big of a problem anyway. I feel pretty confident that he’s going to put together another nice season for the Brewers. Hopefully that starts today.