Brandon Lowe was a tough player to evaluate coming into the season. He had an outstanding 2019 season with a .270/.336/.514 triple slash and a 125 wRC+ through about a half-season’s worth of plate appearances. He was the early American League Rookie of the Year frontrunner prior to getting injured and Yordan Alvarez arriving on the scene and mashing the cover off the ball late in the season. Award or no award, it was still a successful rookie campaign for Lowe, and it looked like he was going to be a fixture in the Tampa Bay lineup for a while.
It was tough to evaluate though because, on the surface, his performance did not look quite sustainable. His 34.6% strikeout rate was definitely concerning, but he also had an eyebrow-raising .377 BABIP and, according to Statcast, a .240 expected batting average, which obviously doesn’t look as strong as his .270 actual one. That combination of a high strikeout rate, a high BABIP, and a significant difference in expected and actual batting average doesn’t exactly scream a sustainable and repeatable performance, and thus, lead to many questioning what he could do in his follow up season.
The thing that did stand out positively for Lowe last season was how well he hit the ball when he actually did make contact. There was absolutely no denying the outcomes here, with Lowe towards the top of several key batted-ball metrics last season:
|Hard-Hit %||Barrel %||Sweet Spot %|
|Rank (out of 342)||35||9||26|
Those are definitely strong results, and this season, Lowe is continuing to do those same things well. His hard-hit rate has dropped a little bit but is still strong, but more importantly, his barrel rate has gotten even better, currently sitting at 21%, and ranking third-best among all qualified hitters this season. It’s probably not all that surprising to see Lowe still towards the top of these leaderboards, especially considering how well he did last season. This season, Lowe has done other things well that has helped him not only become a more complete hitter, but also one of the top hitters in all of baseball this year.
First and foremost, Lowe is continuing to do a good job this season in keeping balls off the ground. He is nearly matching his 2019 ground-ball rate of 32.6% with a 33.3% rate this season, but this season is featuring a better rate of line drives. He has seen an uptick in pop-ups, but it’s not anything too major right now, and we’ll live with a few more automatic outs considering the improvements made in the strikeout department (more on that later).
The most important thing to take away from Lowe’s batted balls is that he is continuing to maximize the damage that they do. Not only were they already pretty lethal a season ago, but this season, Lowe has either maintained or improved upon those excellent numbers. Let’s start with his fly balls, which have gotten some of the best results of any hitter so far this season. The profile here looks pretty similar to last season:
From this, we see that Lowe’s fly balls this year are performing extremely similar to last year. He’s added a few ticks to the average distance, and the slugging may have dropped a little bit, but it is still at a rate that is among the top-20 in baseball this season. The real difference in his batted balls this season has been in his line drives. Let’s do a similar exercise as in the above table with fly balls, but this time, let’s throw in hard-hit and barrel rate:
|Season||Hard-Hit %||Barrel %||SLG||wOBA|
Well, it looks like we now know where all those extra barrels are going. This looks like a considerable improvement all around, but the real highlight is the massive jump in barreled line drives. For some additional context, Lowe ranks sixth among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances in terms of barreled line drives and 19th in hard-hit line drives. Now, a small sample size caveat definitely applies here, as last season there was not a single hitter with as high a rate of barreled line drives as Lowe has had in just a little over 100 plate appearances, so some regression should be expected here. But this does ultimately help show just exactly how Lowe is getting his better batted-ball results. Also, keep in mind that Lowe is hitting more line drives this season at 32.1%, a rate that is now well above the 25.6% league average. By hitting more of them, he is now taking better advantage of his strong line drives. Hitting more of those outstanding line drives has surely helped Lowe take his performance to the next level this season. However, the thing that has helped Lowe out even more so this season has been the aforementioned improved strikeout rate.
There is always some skepticism when trying to evaluate plate discipline changes in such a small sample of plate appearances. The good news is that, generally, hitter strikeout rates are one of the first metrics to stabilize in a season. Even then, there is still some skepticism when a hitter that struck out over 30% of the time the previous season, as Lowe did, is now all of a sudden striking out much less. Indeed, Lowe’s strikeout rate is now down about ten percentage points to a much more manageable 24.4% rate, but how much of it is real?
Taking a look at his plate discipline profile shows that Lowe is whiffing less, but just about two percent less at 35.2%, a rate that is still pretty high relative to the rest of the league. This small gain in whiff rate is surely not enough to justify the large decrease in strikeout rate, and indeed it is not. Fortunately, there is more here that suggests improvement for Lowe in this department.
Presently, Lowe is swinging less overall this season. This has translated to fewer swings in the strike zone, but only about a four-percentage-point drop. Instead, the fewer swings are showing up in a much-improved chase rate. In fact, Lowe has the largest improvement in chase rate this season among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances:
|Name||2020 Chase%||2019 Chase %||Difference|
This newly added element to Lowe’s game is definitely making a difference. With Lowe not chasing as much, pitchers are either going to have to throw him more pitches in the zone, which are pitches that he will generally mash, or risk walking him. At the moment, both scenarios are happening for Lowe. We know how well he is hitting the ball, but he is also walking at a much higher rate, as his walk rate has skyrocketed to a much better 11.5%.
Now, it does not quite add up that with fewer swings and more whiffs equal up to more production, and the argument could still be made that Lowe is being too passive on pitches in the strike zone, considering how well he hits the ball. It does appear though that Lowe is slightly focusing his swings more on a certain portion of the strike zone. Specifically, the middle portion of the plate. Consider the following the swing heat maps. On the left is 2019 and 2020 is on the right:
It’s a bit subtle, but it does look like Lowe is focusing less on pitches up and on the edges of the strike zone, and instead is focusing more on pitches that are sitting in the dead-center portion of the zone. Lowe generally did like to swing in roughly the same area more often in 2019, which is a good idea considering that is where he gets his best results. Here are two more heat maps, with the same deal as the previous two; 2019 on the left and 2020 on the right:
Knowing this, it looks like a pretty good idea for Lowe to focus more of his swings in this area of the strike zone. Lowe is not only honing in on this particular part of the strike zone, but he is also hitting balls in that area even better than previously. It does remain to be seen if pitchers start to adjust where they’re throwing pitches to Lowe, as it’s usually not a good idea to leave so many pitches in the zone in the first place, let alone to a hitter that can crush the ball as well as Lowe can. For the moment, this approach definitely seems like it’s paying off in a big way for him. The more important thing to takeaway is that Lowe is doing a much better job laying off pitches out of the zone and on the edges that he’s had less success on.
However, perhaps the biggest factor contributing to Lowe’s lower strikeout rate this season has been the dramatic improvements against left-handed pitchers. While Lowe did break out last season, nearly all of that success came against right-handed pitchers. Lowe was an extremely different hitter when facing lefties, especially in terms of strikeouts:
While Lowe was still far from perfect with a nearly 30% strikeout rate against righties, what immediately jumps out about this table is that Lowe had a strikeout rate that was 23 points higher. It was by far the highest rate against lefties last season and, with such a drastic split, maybe gets Lowe into a platoon-player-only role territory–far from ideal. The bright side is that it was still a small sample size of plate appearances, as he recorded just 68 of them against lefties. The Rays, a team that loves to platoon, also didn’t seem to care too much. He’s had nearly as many plate appearances against lefties this season than last season, and he has been much better so far this season:
This season, in what is a drastic turn of events, Lowe has actually been performing better against lefties than righties. Now, this maybe should not be expected to last, as it is just 41 plate appearances against lefties, but this has been a pleasant sight to see so far this year after the struggles against same-handed pitchers a season ago. Overall, Lowe has definitely made meaningful improvements in the plate discipline department that has helped him drag down his previously high strikeout rate to a much more desirable level. He is focusing more on the pitches that he knows he can get his best production with. These improvements have helped Lowe become a more complete hitter at the plate this season.
Realistically, when evaluating Lowe and looking at his platoon splits so far this season, his line against right-handed pitchers should perhaps be considered a more realistic expectation for Lowe over the course of a full season. Maybe that .615 slugging percentage is still too optimistic, but that triple-slash against righties combined with a strikeout rate in the mid-20% range with a solid 11% walk rate looks like a nice middle ground to his current .273/.371/.612 line. We know that Lowe is going to mash and absolutely crush the ball, and he’s been doing that better than ever this season. He’s made improvements in the plate discipline area, but it does ultimately remain to be seen if they’ll stick, but the early returns so far have been encouraging. This has easily been the best version of Lowe we’ve seen. He still only has just shy of a full season’s worth of games in the majors, but he has made quite the impact already at the plate and looks to still be getting better. If these improvements stick, Lowe should remain a hitter that strikes fear in opposing pitchers every single time he comes up to the plate.
Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire