When the Rays signed Brandon Lowe to a six-year, $24 million contract on the eve of the 2019 season, even they couldn’t imagine it would look this good this early. Lowe currently leads the Rays in fWAR (1.6), thanks to a 136 wRC+ and plenty of defensive versatility. The second baseman/first baseman/outfielder is slashing a robust .288/.337/.551 in 42 games this season, and his 10 homers and 54 RuBIns both lead the team. He’s even chipped in with three steals, and he has a good case as the best all-around Rays position player so far this season.
How he has gotten all that value is interesting, however.
First things first, he’s gotten a bit lucky. Lowe has a BABIP of .398 so far this season, and while a 28.6 percent line drive rate coupled with a 46.9 percent hard hit rate will go a long ways in boosting a BABIP, it’s fair to expect that batting average to level off closer to .260 than .290. That’s not surprising—reasonable Rays fans never pegged Lowe as a .300 hitter.
In 2019, however, that has become even more apparent given his plate discipline. And this is where the changes from the 43 games in 2018 to the 42 games in 2019 get fascinating.
Last season, Lowe had “only” a 113 wRC+, but he had a 10.8 percent walk rate and 25.7 percent strikeout rate. Both those numbers have gone the wrong direction in 2019, with a 6.5 percent walk rate and 34.9 percent strikeout rate. And that’s not just a SSS fluke:
Lowe Plate Discipline Changes
Lowe is swinging at more pitches, across the board, and he is making less contact. His swinging strike rate is the highest in all of baseball, and his contact rate is second-lowest to only Joey Gallo. Of course, Gallo is proof that modern hitters can be wildly successful even with low contact rates. However, Gallo has a 19.1 percent walk rate to fall back on—again, Lowe in 2019 is walking in less than seven percent of his plate appearances.
Lowe was mentioned briefly in my Tommy Pham slider article last week as one of the Rays who is seeing an increase in sliders this season. Only four players have seen a bigger jump in sliders seen from 2018 to 2019 (as of Eno Sarris’ research), and sliders are the pitch Lowe has whiffed against the most often in his career to date (29.6 %).
Interestingly, as pitchers try to fool him with more sliders, that number has stayed steady. But it has been his whiffs against the “hard pitches” (fourseams, sinkers, and cutters, as defined by Brooks Baseball) that have jumped immensely in 2019.
As a whole, Lowe has actually seen more pitches in the strike zone overall this season, as seen in the plate discipline chart above. However, if we look at those “hard pitches” specifically, we can see that pitchers are far more reticent to come in the zone with them against Lowe in 2019.
Hard pitches in 2018:
Hard pitches in 2019:
This makes sense. Lowe struggled immensely when he first debuted last season, going hitless for over a week. Pitchers weren’t going to be scared, and were going to challenge the rookie. Now, he’s won American League Rookie of the Month and is leading the team in long balls, with half of those homers coming off fourseamers alone, so pitchers have adjusted, throwing more breaking pitches and offspeed, and when they do throw a fastball, keeping them outside the zone.
Lowe has proven that he belongs in the big leagues. He can mash fastballs (career .703 SLG against fourseamers), and he has excelled in 2019 so far despite a plate discipline profile that would seem to suggest otherwise. That’s the thing about plate discipline, though. It almost always comes around to get you in the end.
If Lowe wants to sustain his impressive power and continue to be one of the Rays top hitters—something he is certainly capable of doing—he’s going to need to tweak his approach at the plate to lay off some of those fastballs outside of the zone. If he can, he’ll force more of those hard pitches back into the zone and into locations where he can consistently make loud contact.
That’s easier said than done, but it could be the difference between Lowe being a C+ or an A- ballplayer for the length of his Rays contract.