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Expecting Big Things for Adam Loewen in 2007?

Contrary to what you might have thought, there was no wide-spread conspiracy to make this "Orioles Week" here at BtB, and I'm sure that our Nielsen numbers (if we had any) in Baltimore and the mid-Atlantic region are perfectly acceptable. With Jeff's Orioles preview and Barten's Dave Haehnel profile, the chips just happened to fall in that order this week.

You can blame some sort of weird psychic connection among the BtB team, but since I haven't paid my Madame Chloe bill in 60 days, it's highly unlikely. Rich Lederer's categorization of pitchers by batted ball types and strikeout rates sparked my interest in Adam Loewen. Balitmore's touted pitching prospect was lumped into the high ground ball rate and high K rate group, with familiar names such as Johan Santana, Chris Carpenter, and other pitchers easily identified as front of the rotation type guys, if not outright superstars. Loewen's name on that list prompted a double take, then a spit take, followed at last by the decision to explore this matter further.

Loewen sported a GB% of 48.5% and an astonishing K/9 of 7.85 through 112+ inning pitched last season. In spite of those numbers, which typically portend great things, Loewen finished the season with a lousy 5.37 ERA and a 6-6 record. Now, I'll be the first to tell you that we sabermetric nerds don't put much stock in those anachronistic stats, but it's impossible not to wonder just how in the world a 22-year-old kid with such a high rate of grounders and prodigious ability to strike batters out fared so poorly.

Here's his line from last season (once again using my patented "hillbilly chart").

6-6, 5.37 ERA, 22 G, 19 GS, 112.1 IP, 111 H, 72 R, 67 ER, 8 HR, 62 BB, 98 K

And the peripherals,

7.85 K/9, 4.97 BB/9, 1.58 K/BB, 0.64 HR/9, .320 BABIP, 4.25 FIP

Look at that HR rate, 0.64 per nine innings! Pitchers would kill to have a HR like that. His FIP rescues him somewhat from the dustbin of mediocrity as well, but the real problem, as you can see, is Loewen's propensity to hand out walks like Oprah hands out cashmere sweaters. He walked over 12% of the 504 batters he faced with the O's last season.

Now those of you familiar with the Adam Loewen saga already know how the Orioles had to scramble to sign him before he slipped away and back into the draft, after lowballing the 4th overall pick in 2002 with a $2.5 million offer. At H-Hour, they signed him to a major league contract for a guaranteed value exceeding $4 million. That deal of course stipulated he had to be on the O's major league roster come opening day 2007, just hop, skip and jump down the calendar now. My how time flies. That stipulation won't be much of an issue now since he put in considerable time in the majors last season; however, it does put some pressure on the kid and the O's since that clause implied that he would be ready to step into the high profile role that Baltimore carved out for him back in 2002.

Throughout the 112 innings he pitched last season, Loewen at times showed the flashes of brilliance that made him worthy of a 4th overall pick as well as displaying the control problems that led to a number of frustrated fans questioning the wisdom of that pick. Take his last start of the season as a microcosm of the Adam Loewen enigma.

September 30, versus the Red Sox, Loewen starts off with a 1-2-3 first, and follows that up with a 1-2-3 second. At that point he's K'd one, induced 4 ground ball outs, and a fly out to center. Things continue to go well through the 3rd and 4th, as he racks up another 3 K, 4 ground outs, while walking just one. Things start to head south in the fifth. He walks a batter to lead off the inning, walks another one, and then loads the bases on a single to right. With the bases loaded and the insidious thoughts starting to creep into the young lefty hurler's head, he walks in a run. With one out, he then gets the DP, and the O's escape Loewen's three walk inning still leading 3-1.

And so begins the sixth. Loewen gets Lowell to ground out, before giving up a Manny home run. He then walks Will Go Round In Circles Mo Pena, who Trot "Don't Call Me Richard" Nixon sends home with a double. That's how Loewen's day and his 2006 ended, with flashes of brilliance and an ugly control problem, the twin memes that have followed him throughout his pro career, laid bare for all to see.

So what will the Brown and Orange clad baseball fans suffering through the stifling mid-Atlantic summer see out of Adam Loewen in 2007? Good question. As the esteemed Mr. Lederer pointed out, it's quite reasonable to expect improvement based on such exceptional GB% and K rates (he calls for an ERA at least half a run lower). But the control issues put the projections all over the map.

The most optimistic is the Marcel projection, which postulates this line:

4.62 ERA, 111 IP, 110 H, 57 ER, 10 HR, 50 BB, 93 K
7.54 K/9, 4.05 BB/9, 4.21 FIP, .81 HR/9

ZiPS is the least optimistic.

4.89 ERA, 171 IP, 170 H, 93 ER, 14 HR, 92 BB, 131 K
6.89 K/9, 4.84 BB/9, 4.35 FIP, .74 HR/9

And PECOTA takes the middle ground. Their projection is based in part on an increased GB% of 51%.

4.76 ERA, 166 IP, 167 H, 15 HR, 89 BB, 136 K
6.9 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9

All of those projections slate Loewen for the improvement expected based on his K and GB rates as well as make him a better than average starter...especially in the AL East.

Of course the biggest question is whether or not Loewen can get his control issues, well, under control. (puns remain lazy writing). I'm not in the Leo Mazzone equals miracle worker camp, but the success he and the O's coaching staff had with helping Bedard work out kinks in his changeup and use it more effectively should be a beacon of hope for tormented O's fans. He's got the fastball and a sweet curve, and a more effective changeup and slider, pitches he does throw, could really help him out. Of course, better pitches will inevitably mean more balls in the strike zone, which will take away some from such a glorious HR rate and allow more hits as more balls are put into play. It will also mean a shrinking K rate; however, all of those things will be much easier to live with than the self-defeating high walk rates.

Oh, and he's only 23, which helps with the whole positive outlook thing too.