Should Derek Lowe be moved to the bullpen?

Atlanta Braves starter Derek Lowe pitches against the Washington Nationals Tuesday night. Washington won 9-3. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Derek Lowe continued his struggles tonight against the Washington Nationals.

The Braves are 1-4 in Lowe’s last five starts, and after finishing July with a 5.86 ERA this isn’t a good sign for the Braves. It should be noted that Lowe also pitched poorly in July and August of 2010 before posting a perfect September.

Lowe couldn’t make it past the fifth inning tonight after allowing just one run in his first three innings. This has been a trend for Lowe, not only this season, but last year as well.

ERA in Innings 1-3
2010: 3.45
2011: 3.39

ERA in Innings 4+
2010: 4.59
2011: 5.84

Lowe has pitched seven innings just twice this season with his last one coming on May 17th. He pitched 7+ innings in eight of his starts last year. He’s simply not pitching into games deep enough, averaging nearly a half inning less per start than he did last year.

Among pitchers with 120+ innings pitched this season, Lowe ranks 5th worst in Quality Start percentage (42%), 4th worst in pitches per inning (17.0), and 15th worst in winning percentage (40%).

Perhaps the most disturbing number of all (aside from his unsightly salary) comes from Bill James’ Game Score system. In 2010, his average Game Score was 50.5, which ranked him 76th out of 127 qualified pitchers with 120+ innings pitched. This season, his average Game Score is 24.0. Only Kevin Correia of the Pittsburgh Pirates stands between him and last place.

While this system isn’t necessary to tell you how poorly Lowe has pitched this year, it does show you just how bad he has been compared to 2010. Maybe he’s in severe decline—he isn’t exactly young anymore—or maybe there are other factors.

One possible factor that could be contributing to Lowe’s struggles is the heat. While with Atlanta, Lowe’s worst months have come in the hottest months of the year. It’s not only hot in the South during these months, but in most areas across the country. Here’s a list of his month by month ERA totals with Atlanta.

March/April: 3.99
May: 4.20
June: 4.92
July: 4.65
August: 4.70
Sept./Oct.: 3.69

The heat can’t be blamed for everything, but it is something to consider. July is his worst month career wise which would also support this. Considering he pitched on the west coast in his years prior to joining Atlanta, that would also lend support that the heat and Derek Lowe do not get along.

Some numbers show that the defense behind him may not be performing very well in his starts. His BABIP was absurdly high in July (.359), and his low strand rate led to an ERA near 6 while his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was almost three runs lower at 3.25.

While I don’t expect Lowe to miraculously turn things around, it is feasible to believe that Lowe will be better in the future. His xFIP (expected FIP) for the year is sitting at 3.59. This doesn’t mean his ERA will fall to that level by season’s end, but it does suggest that better days might be ahead.

Should Lowe continue to pitch this poorly, however, it could force the Braves to move him to the bullpen. It’s not exactly ideal to move a player being paid $15 million per year to the ‘pen, but the Braves can’t afford to keep sending Lowe out every fifth day when the team itself is not playing very well.

The Braves are 9-10 since the All Star Break and have fallen 7.5 games behind the Phillies. Their Wild Card lead that was once at a comfortable distance is no more (two games ahead of Arizona as of this writing).

It’s not time to panic yet, but the Braves should at least consider their wealth of options on the farm if things continue in this direction.

For now, Lowe should remain in the starting rotation.  He is, after all, one of the most experienced Braves pitchers in the postseason. It probably wouldn’t hurt to give him a start off to clear his head, and give him a bit of rest.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez offered a vote of confidence for the 38-year-old after tonight’s game, while also shedding light on his future.

“We’ll get him going. We need him.” – via David O’Brien’s Twitter

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment box below. You can e-mail me suggestions or questions at jtmcadams@aol.com. Follow me on Twitter @JoeSportswriter, and you can also find me on Bleacher Report.

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