The Mariners have signed 31 year old right-handed reliever Kameron Loe to a minor league contract. Loe, a former 20th round pick by the Texas Rangers in 2002, had pitched the last three years for the Milwaukee Brewers but was non-tendered after the 2012 season. In 542.1 career MLB innings, Loe has a career 95 FIP – but -2.6 WAA. Loe pitched for the Rangers from 2004-2008 as both a starter and reliever before pitching in Japan in 2009. Loe pitched in just 5 games for the Softbank Hawks, all as a starter, and really struggled, with a 4.86 kwERA. He had to pitch most of the year in the Japanese minor leagues (the Ni-Gun), throwing 44 innings with a 4.64 kwERA. Justin Germano was a teammate of his in Softbank’s Ni-Gun, and actually performed better statistically with a 3.93 kwERA (though, not counting 2012, Germano has not been as successful in the Majors as Loe). He then came back to the States for the 2010 season, and started in the Brewers AAA as a starting pitcher in the PCL. After posting a 4.48 kwERA (and a distressingly low 79 FRA +), the Brewers called him up to help with the bullpen. Since then, he has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen and has been below average but above replacement, earning about 4 million dollars in that time.
When just looking at Loe from a scouting perspective, Loe is a very attractive pitcher. At 6-8, Loe looks like a NBA Center, and gets great downward plane on the ball. His delivery is extremely simple, his release point data looks pretty good, and he has solid movement on his pitches, especially when it comes to downward action. On his release point data, here is his 2012 chart:
This is fairly consistent, other than the two obvious dots towards the bottom. I went through the game logs to find the two pitches and found that they were from May 20th against the Twins. So I watched that outing and saw, nothing. It was an error in the Pitch F/X system. In 2011, there were a few errors as well, as shown below:
Just like he never dropped down to throw any pitches sidearm, Loe never decided to throw a couple pitches left-handed. It is not just FanGraphs either, as Brooks Baseball shows the same mistakes. It was just a mistake in the system, so ignore them.
If NPB Tracker data is right, Loe was missing a lot of velocity in Japan, but he isn’t, and never really has been, a guy who throws hard. In fact his lack of a plus fastball puts him in pretty exclusive company when it comes to successful bullpen pitching. In 2012, his sinker (he rarely throws a 4-seam fastball) averaged 90.13 MPH, after averaging 90.21 in 2011, and 89.95 MPH in 2010.
Statistically, Loe took a step back in 2012. Of course, a lot of his problems were due to homers, and we are talking about single season relief statistics, which are very volatile. Here is Loe’s batted ball distances (non-bunts) over the last 3 years.
Not only is that remarkably consistent, he was actually better in 2012 than the previous two years. How about the defensive/home run independent metrics?
They all say pretty much the same thing, 2011 was his best year, 2012 was his worst year. There wasn’t much of a velocity difference, as we saw above. He did throw less strikes by about 1 % in 2012 compared to 2011, but he still threw strikes 65.3 % of the time, which is impressive, especially for a reliever. He actually had a better zone percentage, meaning he actually threw a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone in 2012. With that said, he threw less first pitch strikes than in the past two years, and had less swinging strikes than in 2012.
There is a weird classification problem going on with his slider and curve, because of course there is. Loe doesn’t use one hardly at all, and uses the other one about a quarter of the time. In just watching Loe, it looks like a curve to me, but it averages nearly 80 MPH, which would certainly put it in the hard curve category. Of course, that would be an extremely soft slider. I wanted to compare it to other Mariner curveballs, so I made this silly looking graph below using their average horizontal and vertical movement (by inches, and I manually put them in). Each square is 5 inches, now for the key:
Loe is the smiley face, and I put him in black and red just so he will stand out. Even though he isn’t pitching with the Mariners anymore, I put Jason Vargas in there, as the cloud, for comparison. The fat moon is Joe Saunders, former Mariner Kevin Millwood is the puzzle piece, Carter Capps is the circle with an x in it, Felix is the upside down triangle, Hisashi Iwakuma is the cylinder, Erasmo Ramirez is the cross, and James Paxton is the arrow. What Jon Garland was before his year off is the arc, and Tom Wilhelmsen is the sun.
As you can see, Wilhelmsen’s curve has the most dramatic horizontal + vertical movement (which would seem obvious for even the casual Mariner fan), while Capps has the most horizontal movement. Vargas’, Saunders, and Paxton’s curves all move the other way since they are left-handers, and the movement horizontally or vertically is not very dramatic. Felix’s, as you would expect in just watching him pitch, has significant vertical movement, but not really any horizontal movement, while Millwood’s curve looks pretty good, as does Iwakuma’s. Loe’s has significant horizontal movement, but not really vertical movement.
If theoretically, we decided that Loe’s pitch is a slider, how would it compare? In velocity, it would be in the worst 30-40 sliders out of the 296 relief pitchers that have thrown at least at least 200 sliders. The pitch has a lot of horizontal movement, even compared to sliders, which would put him in the top 20, closest to Octavio Dotel. While we saw that he doesn’t have great vertical movement compared to other curveballs, compared to sliders, he has some of the best negative vertical movement, compared to the slider of Billy Wagner, who still had a good slider at the end of his career. So depending on whether you classify the pitch as a curveball or as a slider significantly effects how you view the pitch. If you call it a slider, it is a pitch you view as slow in velocity, but with good movement. If you call the pitch a curve, you note it’s good velocity, but that it doesn’t really have good vertical movement.
If called a curve, his pitch ranks as the 39th best in whiff/swing (36.10 %), and 97th best in GB/BIP % (47%). If it is a slider, it is 115th in whiff/swing, and 107th in GB/BIP. Again, it is better if looked at as a curve, but either way, it is a slightly above average to good pitch.
Loe is one of the more aggressively “throw low in the zone” pitchers I have even seen, as evidenced by his heat map.
As you can see, he works low and mainly arm-side. He obviously realizes that he doesn’t throw hard, throws mainly sinkers and slider/curves, and does a good job of keeping the ball low. When splitting the heat maps by season, we notice that Loe isn’t working as much to the arm-side, and is working glove side more as well. Since his overall numbers were a little worse in 2012, and he didn’t have a velocity drop, one wonders if this change is one of the reasons he took the step back. He threw the curveball/slider a little more in 2012 compared to 2011. He especially seemed to throw it a little more to lefties in later counts. Previously, he threw it more to righties when ahead than lefties when ahead. He changed this in 2012, spreading it about equally. Again, playing with the heat maps, this seems to explain why he worked a little more glove side in 2012. However, it doesn’t really explain the increase in homers, as he gave up 1 with the curve/slider in 2011 and 2 in 2012, and they were both hung in the strike zone.
Throwing less sinkers could explain why his ground-ball rate was slightly lower in 2012 than it had been in 2010-2011 (though 57.3 GB % is still extremely good), as we saw that his curve/slider is a worse ground-ball pitch than his sinker. However, his actual sinker was less effective (though still at 61%!) at getting grounders in 2012 than it was in 2011, and it also got less whiff/swings. His curve/slider was actually more effective according to batted ball distance in 2012 than 2011 (~260 feet to ~270 feet), and his fastball/sinker was as well (~259 feet to ~265 feet). So it is hard to see what actually caused the problem when it came to power, but throwing more breaking pitches could easily explain why he is throwing less strikes and has a less impressive strikeout to walk ratio.
Loe, as a sinkerballer, doesn’t miss a lot of bats, instead, relying on the extreme ground-ball rates mentioned above. Despite the lack of strikeouts (14.5 % in his career, 18.2 % in 2012), his sinker is actually in the top 20 since 2007 in whiff/swings, and in the top 100 in ground-balls. Perhaps because he throws just 2 pitches almost exclusively (with changeups only about 1 % of the time), he Loe has some really large platoon splits, especially when it comes to strikeouts and walks. However, since changing to just a reliever with the Brewers, the platoon splits have lessened.
He did have some minor elbow soreness in May, but he missed just a week, and has been relatively healthy his whole career. Loe isn’t as good as Shawn Kelley, who the Mariners just traded, but he provides some nice Josh Kinney insurance. In many ways, he is the very opposite of Kinney as a right-handed reliever, as he throws mainly sinkers, doesn’t walk many, and doesn’t strike many out. He has shown he can get right-handers out most of the time, and from a scouting perspective, you have to love the big right-hander with a repeatable delivery. The risks of decline can basically be ignored as he can easily be stashed in AAA if he doesn’t look good in spring training.