clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is Josh Lowe ready for a larger role in 2023?

The LHB that has been here all along

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Rookies, and rookie batters in particular, are almost always not that good. From 2015 through 2022, rookies slashed an uninspiring .238/.303/.387 with an 86 wRC+ and 1.03 fWAR/600 PA. Let’s compare that to the non-rookies during that same time: .252/.322/.420 with a 100 wRC+ and 2.00 fWAR/600 PA. It’s clear, then, that the floor for rookie position players is lower than for your average MLB player.

Which brings us to Josh Lowe.

Thankfully, you’re only a rookie once (unless you’re Randy Arozarena - he was a rookie for like 73 years). The Rays outfielder Josh Lowe exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2022. So just normal progression would suggest that he’s likely to look better at the plate in 2023.

If that’s enough to convince you to hop on the J Lo bandwagon for 2023, great! You can stop reading now. If you need a little more convincing in the form of fancy numbers, keep scrolling.

What do the projections say?

If you’re not going to listen to me, would you listen to a computer? Here’s what some of the most popular projection systems think about Lowe for 2023 along with his career numbers so far:

Josh Lowe Projections and Career Stats

Model BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR/ 100 PA
Model BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR/ 100 PA
Steamer 9.7% 31.3% 0.228 0.308 0.393 105 0.31
THE BAT 8.5% 33.1% 0.217 0.283 0.353 88 0.19
ATC 9.2% 32.6% 0.336 0.301 0.367 90 0.11
FGDC 9.7% 31.3% 0.228 0.308 0.393 105 0.32
ZiPS 9.3% 32.8% 0.227 0.299 0.381 93* 0.30
Career Stats 8.0% 33.0% 0.225 0.291 0.346 86 0.20

*ZiPS uses OPS+ instead of wRC+, but for our purposes, it’s close enough; they’re very similar stats used to compare a batter’s performance to the rest of the league

As we can see, 4 of the 5 projection systems I mentioned expect Lowe to put together a better season than he did in 2022 - with THE BAT dissenting from the majority on the offensive side of things and ATC not loving Lowe’s defense.

While it’s clear that the big fancy projection models expect him to take a step forward in 2023, it’s really just a baby step. His projected improvements aren’t nearly enough to put a dent in the 200 more runs Neander is looking for from this offense. Could he overperform these numbers? Of course. It’s worth noting that from 2018 through 2021, the Rays actually beat their ZiPS projections as a team before underperforming by 2 wins in 2022. What would it take for Lowe to join in the Rays tradition of beating expectations?

Step 1: Platoon and Run

While it might not seem like it at face value, a healthy Manuel Margot could do wonders in helping Lowe flip the bird to THE BAT and other doubters. Lowe would be best deployed in a platoon type of role with Margot (or any other RH OF) where the Rays can hide him on the bench against LHP in order to maximize his production. As it turns out, Lowe has been more than just serviceable against RHP in his short time in the majors while abysmal against LHP:

Josh Lowe Career Splits

Handedness PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Handedness PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
vs LHP 46 8.7% 41.3% 0.095 0.174 0.095 -15
vs RHP 154 7.8% 30.5% 0.264 0.327 0.421 117

These are relatively small sample sizes of 46 and 156 PA, so these numbers aren’t stable yet and there will be some variance. However, it’s clear that Lowe has been better against RHP (this is also evident in his minor league splits for his career). If the Rays can get 110-115 wRC+ from Lowe across 200-300 PA, that would certainly help the team on their mission for more offense.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Should Lowe even bother showing up to the ballpark on days where the team is facing a lefty?

Yes, because he has some other useful tools. Throughout his time in the minor leagues, Lowe maintained a 98th percentile wSB (weighted stolen base runs - a metric Fangraphs used to measure how many runs above average a player is worth in their ability to steal bases). He also showcased an 87th percentile sprint speed in MLB last year. This speed paired with his good instincts on the bases helped him maintain a BsR/100 PA (a Fangraphs baserunning stat measuring overall value on the bases that I adjusted to a 100 PA scale) of 1.06 - better than 92.3% of all other base runners in the league. It also helps that he has only been caught stealing twice in his last 57(!) stolen base attempts (an elite 96.5% success rate) between the majors and AAA, including a perfect 4/4 at the major league level so far.

The upcoming rule changes, specifically the larger bases and pitcher pick-off limit, are expected to favor base runners to an extent. It’ll be interesting to see how they affect Lowe on the base paths, but we can be fairly certain they will give him an opportunity to make the most of his skillset.

Speaking of rule changes, the shift ban could help him out a little bit too. He was shifted against in just 19.3% of his PA in 2022, but his wOBA was just over 100 points higher when he wasn’t shifted (.296 wOBA with the shift compared to just .194 with it). It’s such a small sample so we really can’t definitively say that he’ll benefit, but it’s something to keep an eye on moving forward.

There are some questions about his defensive instincts and glove work in the outfield, so I’d be hesitant to throw him out there as a defensive replacement following his pinch running appearances. But he was *so close* on several occasions in the 40-45% catch probability range, I think with more experience in a corner outfield spot, he can be an average defender (as long as he doesn’t try to catch any more fly balls with his face). For what it’s worth, his arm strength when throwing in the outfield ranked in the 85th percentile. It wasn’t the most accurate arm, but it’s still a nice tool to have and potentially build on.

Platooning, base running, and fringy corner outfield defending can help him meet and maybe even exceed his projections. The Rays are historically pretty good with player optimization, so I’m confident Lowe will benefit from being in more favorable situations going forward. I also noticed him starting to do a few things at the plate differently that might make us start associating the Rays with batter development and optimization the same way we associate them with pitcher development and optimization.

Step 2: Keep Getting Those Reps

Excluding his cup of coffee in 2021, Josh Lowe struggled to find his footing to begin his major league career. He began to show some signs of life after he spent some time in Durham for almost two months. Yes, I know we’ll be working with relatively small sample sizes here, so keep that in mind.

Josh Lowe 2022 Growth

Stat Before Demotion to AAA After Promotion from AAA
Stat Before Demotion to AAA After Promotion from AAA
PA 70 127
wOBA 0.258 0.285
xwOBA 0.239 0.289
wRC+ 70 90
Whiff% 35.6% 31.0%

The swing and miss is still there, and it’s more of a feature than a bug. Part of Lowe’s identity at the plate is a long swing (although he has shown the ability to shorten it to turn on pitches inside) with a bat path that follows a bit of an uppercut. This is well documented in scouting reports throughout his time in the minors - part of why he struggles with velocity, especially when it’s located up in the zone.

It’s no secret that Josh Lowe struggled to handle big league velocity in 2022. Among all batters who saw at least 50 pitches greater than or equal to 95mph, Lowe had a worse whiff% on those pitches than 91.7% of batters. He wasn’t exactly hitting the cover off of any other type of pitch, but anything in the mid 90s and greater was his kryptonite.

I know this seems like doom and gloom, but I found a silver lining here - he actually started catching up to the velocity as the season went on. The production we had been waiting for was starting to happen.

During his first stint in the majors in 2022, Lowe managed to put just 2 of 21 pitches swung at in play with a velocity greater than or equal to 95mph. This works out to a poor 9.5%, the worst mark among 279 batters who saw at least 20 of these pitches during the same time frame in which Lowe played during his first go around in the majors. It’s just 2 balls in play so it’s a small sample, but he had a .110 xwOBAcon on those 2 balls in play which placed him in the 1st percentile - he had no answer for major league velocity.

Fast forward to his second stint, and Lowe showed some growth: he managed to put 24.2% of those pitches swung at in play (16 of 66), good enough for a .376 xwOBAcon - a much better 63rd percentile. The overall sample sizes I’m working with here are admittedly small and by no means am I saying he fixed his velocity issue, but the quality of contact is telling even in this smaller sample. He is growing and improving right in front of our eyes.

A small asterisk with Lowe is that he’s still a little late on catching-up to higher velocity. His average launch angle on batted balls with a velocity greater than or equal to 95mph was just -3.6 degrees. His launch angle on anything less than 95mph was 13.8. How does this suggest he might still be late on high velocity? The image in the tweet below shows how a batter’s attack angle can be influenced by where they make contact with the ball in relation to home plate. The earlier a batter makes contact in front of the plate, the more likely they are to hit the ball in the air. When the ball gets too deep, the batter is more likely to hit a ground ball. My theory is that while Lowe is starting to catch up to big league velocity, he still has room to improve if he wants to do damage on those pitches. However, being able to foul them off can be super valuable for him, because it will force pitchers to adjust and throw him something else. This small asterisk isn’t going to make or break him as a major leaguer, but it is something to keep an eye on.

Of course, pitchers won’t only throw him fastballs. And now that he has shown he can make some adjustments, pitchers will adjust how they attack him, maybe using more off-speed and breaking pitches. As we’ll see, there might not be as steep of a learning curve with this adjustment as there was when he was learning to handle velocity. Part of the reason why is because Lowe has always had above average pitch recognition. This is evident in how he handled RHP after his time in Durham.

Being able to catch up to velocity allowed Lowe to thrive in the long side of a platoon role as he slashed .276/.337/.414 with a 121 wRC+ in 95 against RHP during his second go around in 2022. His wOBA and xwOBA ranked in the 69th and 66th percentiles respectively, so while it was only 95 PA, the quality of contact suggests he wasn’t getting lucky. I’m not saying he’ll be a 121 wRC+ hitter against RHP for the duration of 2023, but he has the potential to be a force against righties - something the front office has been looking for during the off-season.

Lowe needs to continue to be exposed to good pitching. This isn’t a secret when you consider everything discussed in step. He *could* see some of that in AAA, but he’ll see much more of it in MLB. As an educator, I know first hand that growth happens when learners are challenged with an appropriate amount of rigor, not too easy nor too hard. This is sometimes called the “Goldilocks Zone” a fun but not entirely necessary detail. Lowe’s Goldilocks Zone appears to be at the major league level as he has nothing left to prove in Durham.

Step 3: Jump on the J Lo Bandwagon

I want to see Josh Lowe manning right field in the long side of the platoon for the big league club in 2023. I am encouraged by his growth, intrigued by the Rays ability as an organization to help him develop, and excited to see him mash right-handed pitching. This might be his last chance to make his case to be part of the Rays plans for the future because he has one option year remaining. I don’t think the season hinges on the success of Josh Lowe, but he could be part of the solution. Maybe the real left-handed power-bat was the prospect we developed along the way.