Brandon Lowe was outstanding in 2020. He had what would have been his second consecutive All-Star season had the Midsummer Classic happened this year, and he finished 8th in MVP voting when the award was announced last night.
#Rays Brandon Lowe finished 8th in AL MVP voting, got 1 4th place vote and 7 for 5th, was named on 29 of 30 ballots— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) November 12, 2020
His wRC+ of 150 ranked 19th among position players, and his 2.3 fWAR led all Rays players by nearly a full win. He’s good, and he could net a solid return on the trade market.
So why would the Rays look to trade him?
Well, they may well not be; however, if there’s one thing we know about the Rays, it’s that they are always looking to make a deal. And if there’s a second thing we know about the Rays, it’s that they don’t mind shipping out beloved/seemingly valuable players and trusting their process.
The case to trade Lowe doesn’t necessarily come down to an expected drop in production from his bat, but let’s take a look at a few numbers on that front before shifting the argument in the second half of this article.
Lowe’s 2020 regular season represented a massive leap forward in regards to what had been his previous biggest weakness: his plate discipline.
Here’s a look at Lowe’s career statistics from FanGraphs:
Lowe Career Plate Discipline
There are a lot of good signs for Lowe in that chart if you’re looking for Lowe to return to form next season. We’re dealing in small samples each season unfortunately (699 PA in total with about half of those coming in 2019), but there was actually significant progress, across the from 2019 to 2020. His swing rate on pitches outside the zone dropped over seven percent, while his contact rate improved and his swinging strike rate fell. All of that leads to more contact, of course.
And while 2018 and 2020 have only a few more PA combined than 2019 (and in all transparency, this entire sample size is basically one full season), there are two seasons in which Lowe had reasonable plate discipline numbers, compared to one season in which he struggled with these metrics—a season in which he still had a 125 wRC+.
However, it’s worth noting that in 2019 Lowe was quite fortunate. In a season in which he walked less and struck out more, his average on balls in play was far better and more fortunate (.377 BABIP) than his career has been as a whole (where he still has a higher than average .332 BABIP).
What could have led to this? Was Lowe was simply selling out more on his swings to put better balls into play? Let’s check Baseball Savant to see if that was true:
Lowe Expected Results (Baseball Savant)
Outside of his 2019 batting average, which was certainly buoyed by a .377 BABIP, the underlying numbers pretty much support the results (the “x” stats mirroring the traditional stats, that is).
But that 2019 contact rate looms large. Lowe definitely hits the ball hard, but it’s difficult to see any batter “deserve” a .377 BABIP, and it’s why his expected batting average in 2019 was just .239 compared to the .270 he actually hit. It’s also part of the reason why the 2021 ZIPS projection just released by FanGraphs pegs Lowe with a .756 OPS (.239/.314/.441), despite finishing with a far better OPS than that in each of his three seasons (his career OPS is a robust .855).
Now with solid defense and positional flexibility, that .756 OPS (which does seem a little low, even factoring in some of the good luck Lowe has had throughout his 699 plate appearance career so far) makes Lowe a 2.5-3.0 win player—a hot commodity for any team, especially given his age (26) and incredibly team-friendly deal ($4M/year through 2024).
At this point, the reader may fairly be asking him/herself: So wait, why would the Rays want to trade this young, cheap, talented asset?
The case begins and ends with fit. Two different kinds of fit.
In 2020, the Rays ranked 29th in baseball in strikeout rate, at 26.9 percent. Only the 23-35 Tigers struck out more often. This clearly wasn’t much of a detriment to the Rays in the regular season, as their wRC+ of 109 ranked ninth in baseball. However, in the postseason, both Lowe, and the Rays strikeout-laden lineup, potentially showed a bit more of their flaws under the microscope of playoffs. The team slashed a collective .211/.289/.404 for a .693 OPS that ranked 10th among the 16 postseason teams. Their strikeout rate bumped over 30 percent in the postseason, the highest of any of the teams to make it out of the first round.
This didn’t stop the team from winning a pennant, of course, but for a team looking to improve at every margin they can, the offense, and particularly the high strikeout rate of the offense could be a potential spot to improve upon.
The postseason has become the land of 98ers, with high-velocity arms taking more and more of the share of the pie, as teams rely on strictly their best arms to power their postseason runs.
As Ben Lindbergh studied for Grantland, there is indeed a correlation between high-contact teams doing better against high velocity pitchers, leading to Eno Sarris’ war call throughout this postseason, with the team with the lower strikeout rate for their batters winning nearly every series. (Naturally, it was the Rays who kept flummoxing Sarris and “going against the odds” by striking out more in their series, while collecting Ws all the way to the World Series.)
This is not to say the Rays need to totally revamp their lineup, but Lowe, a player who could potentially be vulnerable to the more extreme matchups of the postseason (whether his .459 postseason OPS was the result of a small sample or more specific scrutiny from opposing managers is too difficult to parse in a statistically reliable manner here), could be a potential place to change tacks.
Picking out Lowe as an option to ship out also makes sense given his position. Of the Rays top four prospects, per MLB.com, three play up the middle, with Vidal Brujan and Xavier Edwards listed first as second baseman. While Wander Franco may be targeted for third, and Brujan may be in the process of converting to centerfield, the fact remains: second base is a position of depth for the Rays, and a position they could look to cash in on.