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The Forgettable Career and Memorable Triumphs of Kyle Lohse

Kyle Lohse was never a great pitcher, and needed St. Louis Cardinals magic to become a good one. But he did a lot with nothing much for years. That's something.

by Robert O'Connell
Jul 28 2016, 6:41pm

Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Lohse, designated for assignment by the Texas Rangers on Tuesday, has had about as bad a year as a pitcher can have. In his two starts at the big-league level, he gave up more runs than he completed innings, and he hasn't fared much better in the minors, where his ERA for AAA Round Rock is 5.06. The DFA may well signal the end of the 37-year-old right-hander's major league career. Clubs will look at every plausible option this time of year, and Lohse was a very credible big league pitcher as recently as 2014, but this nightmare season has sunk him below the level of plausibility. By statistic or eye test, he looks pretty well cooked.

Whether Lohse has thrown his last MLB pitch or catches on with one more team on the way out, he isn't likely to spark a lot of remembrance. The numbers are adequate: a mid-four ERA over 16 years, a win-loss percentage nudged just above .500. Despite his long run, Lohse never proved much of a workhorse in-season, throwing 200 innings only three times. He had average size and average stuff, and wore a determined if oddly doleful look to the mound. Pitching is hard; Lohse always reminded you of that fact.

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But for a time, he was also the star pupil and product of one of baseball's most peerless institutions: the St. Louis Cardinals Pitching Apparatus. Throughout the 2000s, Cardinals pitching coach/sage Dave Duncan and catcher Yadier Molina made a custom of shining up scuffed imports. With their guidance, projects became reliable starters, and reliable starters became aces. Chris Carpenter, a back-of-the-rotation guy in Toronto, turned into a Cy Young winner in St. Louis, but still, Lohse may beat him out for best turnaround. Arriving in Missouri at age 29 with a lifetime's worth of rough outings in Minnesota and Cincinnati already behind him, Lohse was both not good and pretty old in ballplayer years—more flotsam than reclamation project.

A throwback, in a throwback. Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Then Duncan told him what to throw, and Molina told him when and where to throw it. Lohse adopted a two-seamer, Duncan's preferred weapon against the beefed-up sluggers of the late aughts, and during his first season in St. Louis he posted the best numbers of his career to that point. That sinking fastball found the corners; a slider and changeup worked off it according to Molina's masterful direction. Things didn't stay so smooth—the next two seasons Lohse's numbers swelled up again toward his career norms—but his five-year stretch was, in sum, a success. He was a key part of the rotation that saw the Cardinals through their odds-defying stretch run and postseason in 2011. The next season, he posted the only sub-three ERA of his career.

I remember watching Lohse in those years with a fondness out of all proportion to his accomplishments. Even when he was at his peak, there were plenty of better pitchers—and more stylish ones, too, ones who could blow a fastball by a hitter instead of aim it toward the handle or tip of the bat. Nobody else, though, made the collaborative aspect of the work so clear. Lohse and Molina practiced sleight of hand seven innings at a time, with strategies founded on an understanding of Lohse's weaknesses. There was an almost therapeutic give-and-take to it. Mantras seemed involved. We do what we can with what we have.

Now, after a so-so three-year stint with the Brewers, Lohse is surplus to requirements again, which is a normal thing for someone his age to be in this sport. In fact, most of his time on professional baseball fields has been normal. He's mostly been a stock player, walking shorthand for the game's frustrations and difficulties. Kyle Lohse is forgettable, which is what makes his short, subtle triumphs worth remembering.

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