PEORIA, Ariz. – Mark Lowe worked the numbers and they surprised him.
Coming off the most successful season of his career, the Seattle reliever pitched in 75 games last year and threw 80 innings. When he started thinking about all the pitches he’d needed, he understood why his arm was tired in September.
“My only goal every time out is to be out of there in 15 pitches or less,” Lowe said after a nine-pitch inning Monday. “That’s been my focus and I’ve had seven outings. Six of them I’ve gotten out of there in 15 or less.”
It was the second of Lowe’s first back-to-back games this spring, and the efficiency has made him a different pitcher.
“I threw 13 pitches (Sunday) and today nine. I’m ready to go the next day. As a late-inning guy, you want to be ready to go every single day,” Lowe said. “There’s a big difference between 10 and 17 or 18 pitches on your body the next day.”
Lowe looked at 2009 and did the math.
“I had 80 innings last year. Let’s say I throw five extra pitches in each one of those innings,” Lowe said. “That’s 400 extra pitches to get outs that I don’t have to throw if I’m around the zone.”
The Mariners are all for making Lowe more efficient, and perhaps giving him a third pitch – beyond his fastball and slider – to throw a hitter.
“We’d like him to throw something off-speed, a breaking ball or change-up like Shawn Kelley. When you’ve got a power arm, there are times – especially late in the year – when that power isn’t going to be there,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “Last year, Mark would reach back and try to throw the fastball harder, and it didn’t work.”
“We use him so much, we rely on him so much, it’s hard not to call for him in the eighth inning with a lead. I’ve got to protect him a little more this year, but there’s a world of difference between throwing 10-12 pitches and 25 in a night. It would make life simpler if he threw less and I could use him more,” Wakamatsu said, laughing.
Lowe remembers trying to overthrow late last season, when the innings and pitches began catching up with him. He’s made an adjustment in his delivery that might help.
“I’m coming set with my hands lower. I used to come set right behind my ear, but now I’m lower to keep me a lot more relaxed with not so much tension before every pitch,” Lowe said. “I take a deep breath before every pitch and I’m trying to stay loose. I get in trouble when I overthrow and try to force the ball instead of just letting it happen. I think keeping my hands down low helps relax me and for some reason it gives me more angle on my pitches.”
Lowe, 26, is something of a walking, throwing modern miracle of medicine. Dr. Lewis Yocum performed surgery that in essence put new bone in his right elbow in 2006, warning Lowe beforehand it might end his career.
Lowe came back, still throwing in the high 90s, and re-established a career as a setup man in Seattle.
“I’ve already spent an offseason and a half here in Arizona rehabbing, and it’s not very fun,” Lowe said. “But I’m glad I did because I appreciate everything I have now. I appreciate the opportunity to go out there at 9 o’clock every night and throw up a zero for my team.”
There is a danger to going out there every night.
“I pitched 75 games last year and I felt the toll that it took on my body in September,” Lowe said. “I focused on that this off-season in my workouts. I’m planning on pitching in October, and September is pretty much August for us.”
The key for Lowe is cutting down his pitch count. Having hitters know him could give him an edge, he said.
“Guys who’ve seen you know they don’t want to get to two strikes. They don’t know if I’m going to throw a fastball or a slider, so they’re aggressive early in the count.
“I would rather get a guy out in one pitch than strike him out in five,” Lowe said. “Strikeouts are a selfish stat to me. They’re fun but if you can get out in seven or eight pitches, why throw 15 and have three strikeouts?”
Good as Lowe was last season, to many fans he’s best remembered as the leader of a relief corps known as much for its collection of ancient helmets and its choreographed strolls to the Safeco Field bullpen as its pitching.
This year, it’s a new team.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys. We still don’t know who’s going to be the 25 guys to start the season,” Lowe said. “A lot of relationships carry over from last year to this year.”
Will they lose those helmets?
“I liked the helmets,” Lowe said. “We’ve got permission to have them in the bullpen at home, and in the clubhouse on the road. I don’t want to give up the helmets.”