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Can Nate Lowe force his way into the Rays lineup?

2019 was a strong showing from the Rays first baseman.

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Nate Lowe came into last season on most top 100 prospects lists. When the Tampa Bay Rays traded Jake Bauers it looked like the path to playing time was clear as could be.

But on Opening Day, Ji-Man Choi was still in the way, and he had a very effective season as the Rays first baseman in 2019. He became a fan favorite during the playoff run and looks to have the inside track to get initial playing time. Choi being out of options and Lowe having two is a huge hurdle to overcome.

Then the Rays signing of Yoshitomo Tsutsugo added another layer: yet another left handed bat entered the equation. Tsutsugo and Austin Meadows likely will cover left field and designated hitter against right handed pitchers, taking away another slot from Lowe.

Last year he received 169 plate appearances and appeared in 50 games, performing well and showing a strong bat. Lowe has earned a shot, but this is what happens on a competitive roster. Injuries are sure to give Lowe an opportunity at some point this season, but it’s unlikely to occur before the end of Spring Training.

It seems the route the Rays will take is the one that gives them the best chance to get through a 162 game season and likely feels unfair to Lowe.

What is expected out of Lowe at this point?

More public information is available than we had a year ago. This afternoon Eric Longenhagen gave us some information about his minor league batted ball data during his FanGraphs chat, where he asked about any exit velocity/hard hit rate info he had on Lowe (since he’ll not be eligible for the upcoming prospect lists to update).

Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Longenhagen obliged and gave us some interesting information with 93 mph average exit velocity (70 grade on the 20-80 scale). That would place him sixth in the majors last season tied with Joey Gallo and trailing only Aaron Judge, Miguel Sano, Nelson Cruz, Franmil Reyes, and Christian Yelich.

Doing this against minor league pitchers is different than against major league pitchers, but we do have MLB data. Of batters with 100+ balls in play Lowe ranked 34th with a similar 91.3 mph exit velocity, tied with guys like Bryce Harper, JD Martinez, and Juan Soto. This is very good company to be in even if it’s a small sample. By comparison, Choi ranks 45th at 91.1 mph.

Lowe’s minor league 53% hard hit rate, also provided by Longenhagen, would be among the league leaders. Last year Nelson Cruz led the majors at 52.5%. Against major league pitchers Lowe put up a 41.4% hard hit rate. 38.0% was the major league average last year. Choi put up a slightly higher 42.7% rate in 2019.

Longenhagen also revealed that Lowe averaged a 8% launch angle in the minors. This is not ideal if you can hit the ball very hard, but can still work. It’s a step up from Yandy Diaz (5.7 degrees) and Tommy Pham (5.1 degrees). However in the majors Lowe put up a 13.0 degree launch angle. This is just ahead of Choi’s 12.6 degree launch angle.

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Choi vs Lowe

The biggest difference in 2019 numbers between Lowe and Choi came in strikeout rate.

Lowe posted a 29.6% strikeout rate while Choi put up a 22.2% strikeout rate. The swinging strike rates were much closer though with Lowe having a 10.6% swinging strike rate and Choi coming in at 10.3%. Typically strikeout rate is roughly double the swinging strike rate, so if Lowe continues to whiff at these rates we should see a substantial drop in his observed strikeout rate.

The results were so similar in 2019 by almost every metric we have publicly available. I think going with Choi to start the season with Lowe as depth in case of an injury of one of the big left handed bats of Choi, Tsutsugo, or Meadows gives the Rays a better way to make it through 162 games given Lowe’s contract options, but it’s not an easy decision by any other consideration.

As far as who would put up the best results in 2020 if given the everyday job we can’t be sure. It should be very close so going with the option that gives you more depth makes sense.

I feel for Lowe who would have a better shot at getting major league playing time if he were in a different organization. The Rays have done things to clear the path in front of him while simultaneously adding potential obstacles in his way. It’s a tough draw, but one that happens in organizations with great depth overall.