With a full 40-man roster and a seemingly pretty set MLB bullpen, the Mariners added big right-hander Kameron Loe back on February 12th by signing the veteran to a minor league deal with an invite to big league camp. Not coincidentally, Loe's signing came at the same time that Seattle dealt reliever Shawn Kelley to the Yankees. But what the low three-quarters slinging Loe does very well is something that Kelley did not do well at all.
Kameron Loe gets ground balls.
Loe has been a workhorse reliever over the past three seasons pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers, throwing 198 2/3 innings in 195 games. Over that substantial period of time, the 6-foot-8, 245 pound righty has thrown his sinker with two-thirds of his total offerings. The results have been very good for Loe, but before we get into that, first let's take a look at the approach:
(graphic courtesy of Baseball Prospectus)
More than 72% of Loe's sinkers have been thrown in the lower third of the strike zone or below. Because of that, he has induced opposing hitters into 60.0% ground balls -- the sixth highest number in all of baseball for relievers with 150 or more innings. Loe does a great job at keeping his sinker down in the zone and getting ground balls, evidenced by his GO/AO ratio that at 2.27 is more than double that of the MLB average (1.08). And although most ground ball pitchers typically outperform their FIP, Loe's 3.67 ERA over the last three years is actually slightly worse than his 3.55 FIP. That should be an indicator that Loe can do more.
Before last season I wrote about the changing dynamic of the Mariners bullpen as they moved from ground ball types with low K/9 rates to pitchers with a much higher K/9 overall. That change worked for the Mariners to a degree in 2012 as their bullpen posted the 5th best ERA (3.39) and 6th best FIP (3.72) in the American League while having the 8th best SO/9 in all of baseball (8.88) as a unit. But the Mariners pitching staff as a whole took a step back in the category of getting ground balls. Seattle ranked 27th out of the 30 teams with a GB% of just 42.9% in 2012. For a team with a very good infield -- led by perhaps the best defensive infielder in baseball in Brendan Ryan -- that strategy seems counter-intuitive.
With the walls now in their new location at Safeco Field, it makes sense that the Mariners would like to get more ground balls. We saw it with the essential swap of Jason Vargas and Joe Saunders. The two pitchers are very similar, but Saunders gets ground balls at a 45.2% rate for his career while Vargas was only at 36.5% career. The aforementioned Kelley had the worst ground ball rate on the team last year at just 28.8%. Safeco's new configuration should still play very fair, but the Mariners are wise to be looking for more ground balls.
Seattle actually lost three of their seven best pitchers in terms of generating ground balls over the course of the last year (Brandon League, Steve Delabar and Kevin Millwood) and it is clear that the Mariners are in need of more pitchers than just Saunders that can help reverse that trend. Loe is that pitcher. And with his big curveball added in, Loe also gets his fair share of swings and misses, still fitting the profile of the change that the bullpen underwent last season. So despite having a fastball that sits around 89-90, he still compiles strikeouts at a rate better than the league average and is at 7.3 SO/9 over the last three years.
So if Loe is so good and such an asset, why was he so cheap you ask? Kameron experienced an unusual -- especially for a sinker ball pitcher -- spike in his HR/FB last year, and actually in two of the last three years, but he has allowed 11 of his 19 homers over that time in hitter friendly Miller Park, and three of the nine home runs he allowed in 2012 came in his disaster of an end to the season that saw him post a 10.45 ERA and 2.33 WHIP over his final 13 appearances and 10 1/3 innings.
Kameron Loe is a pitcher that can pitch often and one that can get a lot of ground balls, two traits that make him a perfect fit in the current Seattle bullpen. And with Seattle's defense and Safeco field, Loe is a good bet to outperform his past three seasons, which were still quite good by sticking to his M.O. -- keeping the ball low.
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