Going Deep: The “Lowe-down” on the Rays Next Great Slugger
(Photo by Andy Altenberger/Icon Sportswire)
Recently at Pitcher List, we have been releasing a bunch of dynasty and prospect content because we know that side of fantasy baseball never rests! I released a top 150 fantasy baseball prospects list in late October which can be found here, and my colleague Brennen Gorman has been releasing a position by position look at the top players to own in dynasty leagues. In both rankings, Tampa Bay Rays 1B prospect Nathaniel Lowe was regarded pretty highly as I ranked him 22nd overall among prospects from a fantasy perspective, and Brennen followed suit by ranking Lowe 23rd overall among all 1B dynasty options. We are both quite high on Lowe’s outlook based on his combination of above-average contact skills, massive raw power, and an approach that allows him to get to said power frequently.
Despite a big breakout year in 2018 that finished with Lowe ranking among the very best hitters in the entire minor leagues, Lowe remains somewhat underrated at the moment. MLB.com’s Prospect Watch does not have Lowe ranked as a top 100 prospect, and even ranks him as the 13th overall among the Tampa Bays organization. Fangraphs similarly does not consider him a top 100 overall prospect, and currently ranks him 15th among the Rays prospects. Now some of the difference in opinion can be traced to Lowe’s defensive and athletic limitations that give him little room for error as a 1st base only hitter. Prospect rankings for real-life baseball account for that lack of defensive value and sort of risk and downgrade accordingly, but still, I think he’s being severely underrated at the point. This is why I felt it was worthwhile to go further in-depth with an article to explain why I think Lowe deserves your attention, and why he can potentially help you in dynasty leagues as well as potentially in re-draft leagues for 2019. Let’s begin!
Nathaniel Lowe started his professional career back in 2016 after being drafted in the 13th round out of Mississipi State University by the Tampa Bay Rays. Of note, his younger brother OF Joshua Lowe was also drafted by the Rays organization in 2016, in his case a 1st round selection! 2B/OF prospect Brandon Lowe also of the Rays organization is not related. Going back to Nathaniel Lowe, at the time of the MLB Draft he was lauded for a plus approach and an ability to hit that led to a .348 batting average with more walks than strikeouts in his final college season. Scouting reports suggested the big 6 foot 4, 235-pound 1st baseman had power potential too, but with just 5 HRs in his last college season over 247 ABs plus a bat path that caused lower lying contact, it wasn’t certain how much power he would get to as a professional. Add in some potential platoon concerns and the defensive abilities that limited him to 1st base only, and you could see that he was very much a project in need of molding entering professional baseball.
His first two years in the minor leagues were a pretty good representation of that scouting profile:
As you can see, he walked at an above-average rate at all 3 levels while also posting well above-average swinging-strike rates (note that MLB average for swinging-strike rate last year was 10.7%) which suggested that Lowe’s approach and contact skills were very good! Those skills along with a notable decrease in ground-ball rate year over year show a talented hitter that was making changes to his swing, changes that likely allow him to tap into more of his raw power during games! This sets the scene for a potential breakout with continued growth, and a breakout is exactly what Lowe had this past season!
He started his 2018 season in the Florida State League (A+) where he dominated with a .356/.432/.588 batting line while hitting for power (.232 ISO), contact (15% K rate supported by a well-above-average 7.5% swinging-strike rate), and also showing patience (11.4% BB rate) which led to a crazy 191 wRC+ over 220 PAs. He then went to the AA Southern League and did even better across the board: he walked more, he struck out less while maintaining a terrific 8% swinging-strike rate, all while hitting for more power which all led to a fantastic 193 wRC+ over 225 PAs. His mastery of the strike zone and contact skills really stood out at this level as he walked more than he struck out with a 15.6% walk rate and just a 13.3% strikeout rate, both of which are high-end according to the Fangraphs Library scale. His late-season audition in AAA wasn’t as smooth, but he still showed the hallmarks for success which are above-average contact skills (8.9% swinging-strike rate) and power (.200 ISO).
Perhaps most notable over the 3 levels is that Lowe continued to lower his ground-ball rate this year, going from the 47.7% of last year to 42.5% for the season this year including a 39.1% mark at AA. This is likely a big reason for the power explosion this year, he was hitting more line-drives and fly-balls which is where HRs and extra-base hits come from! When you add in an all fields approach (36.4 Pull%, 31.6 Cent%, and 32.1 Oppo% this year across all 3 levels) that should help him avoid hitting into the shift and post an above-average BAPIP (.361 this year across all 3 levels), you can see why he was able to achieve the success that he did. The result was a career-best .330/.416/.568 batting line across the 3 levels with 27 HRs over 555 PAs, good for a 178 wRC+. That sort of production along with the peripherals mentioned above should capture your attention!
I think his production looks even better when you give it some context! I mentioned in the 2nd paragraph that Lowe finished the 2018 season ranking among the very best hitters in the entire minor leagues, well here are the top 5 hitters of 2018 in terms of wRC+ among those with at least 400+ PAs.
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr (TOR)||A+/AA/AAA||19||408||.381||.437||.636||9.1||9.3||9.9||194|
|Nathaniel Lowe (TB)||A+/AA/AAA||22||555||.330||.416||.568||12.3||16.2||8.0||178|
|Michael Reed (MIL)||AA/AAA||25||404||.342||.453||.520||15.3||24.3||11.3||178|
|Alex Kirilloff (MIN)||A/A+||20||561||.348||.392||.578||6.8||15.3||11||172|
|Eloy Jimenez (CHW)||AA/AAA||21||456||.337||.384||.577||7.0||15.1||12.5||168|
As you can see, aside from the consensus #1 prospect in baseball 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr., no one was better than Lowe in 2018. And if you take out 25-year-old OF Michael Reed who achieved his success on the back of a very likely unsustainable .456 BAPIP and a career-high HR/FB rate, you’re left with three near consensus top 10 prospects of baseball in Guerrero Jr, OF Alex Kirilloff, and OF Eloy Jimenez that Lowe’s season most closely compared to last season at the top. And yet, Lowe hasn’t gotten his due credit!
Lowe interestingly posted the best swinging-strike rate of the group, and that’s notable considering Guerrero Jr. is perhaps the best hitting prospect ever and has received 80-grade hit tool evaluations from scouts which is unheard of, and Kirilloff is generally considered a plus hitter too with a recent Prospects Live scouting report giving him a future 70-grade on the hit tool. This suggests to me that perhaps Lowe’s hit-tool is being underrated currently. Now some may suggest that Lowe’s success came while being older comparatively to the likes Guerrero Jr., Alex Kirilloff, and Eloy Jimenez, and while that’s true, he was younger than league average at each level he played at this season. Additionally, Lowe’s season looks even better when you compare it to other top seasons by players 23 years of age and younger since Fangraphs has data (2006):
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr (2018)||A+/AA/AAA||19||408||.381||.437||.636||9.1||9.3||9.9||194|
|Kris Bryant (2014)||AA/AAA||22||594||.325||.438||.661||14.5||27.3||15.5||192|
|Matt Wieters (2008)||A+/AA||22||530||.355||.454||.600||15.5||14.3||19.7||182|
|AJ Reed (2015)||A+/AA||22||622||.340||.432||.612||13.8||19.6||14.5||182|
|Bo Bichette (2017)||A/A+||19||499||.362||.423||.565||8.4||16.2||10.1||181|
|Brandon Belt (2010)||A+/AA/AAA||22||595||.352||.455||.620||15.6||16.6||18.4||180|
|Paul Goldschmidt (2011)||AA||23||457||.306||.435||.626||17.9||20.1||11.0||178|
|Nathaniel Lowe (2018)||A+/AA/AAA||22||555||.330||.416||.568||12.3||16.2||8.0||178|
|Joey Gallo (2014)||A+/AA||20||537||.271||.394||.615||16.2||33.3||22.7||178|
|Joey Votto (2006)||AA||22||590||.319||.408||.547||13.2||18.5||N/A||177|
A pretty interesting list of players shows up here! All of the players listed in this chart aside from 1B/DH AJ Reed of the Houston Astros organization, and the two current Blue Jays prospects 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and SS Bo Bichette have gone on to achieve success in the major leagues which I think bodes well for suggesting that Lowe can too. When looking at how Lowe compares to many of the players on the list, he interestingly ranks 3rd lowest in terms of slugging% but ranks 1st in terms of swinging-strike rate. I think that makes a lot of sense given Lowe’s batted ball distribution currently, he’s clearly not a guy like Joey Gallo that’s selling out for power. Instead, Lowe combines a plus approach and contact skills while having the power to punish mistakes. I’m generally not one for comparisons, but it’s a profile that isn’t too dissimilar from Joey Votto at the same age. The ever-patient Joey Votto may be slightly more patient than Lowe though as Votto’s 4.02 pitches per plate appearance last year rated slightly higher than Lowe’s 3.90 pitches per plate appearance at AA.
I’ve talked about the swing changes and growth in Lowe’s game from a numbers perspective, but let’s take a look at the tape to find the video evidence!
Here is a HR from 2017:
The first thing that stands out is that Lowe is a big dude! His stance is ever so slightly open and his hands start pretty tight to the body right by his back shoulder. Lowe utilizes a full leg-kick here and it’s clear that it serves as both a timing mechanism and weight transfer. His hands catch my eye right away as if you look closely, they actually loop to begin his load which means extra movement and puts him at risk of being exposed by premium velocity inside, particularly up and in. He does a good job of both stacking his weight on his back leg while also coiling his upper body to the point that we see a good chunk of his jersey number on his back despite the camera being on the right side of the rubber. That ability to stay back and is what gives him the power to hit HRs to all fields, he can simply uncoil on the ball wherever it is pitched. He then pushes forward, plants his front foot and then uncoils his built up momentum and catches this mistake pitch up in the zone (the catcher clearly called something down and away) for a ride over the left-center wall!
And here is a HR from late in 2018:
Now looking at this 2018 HR swing in AAA, it’s clear that he’s made some changes that have shortened his swing. His stance is pretty similar but is maybe a touch more neutral as his front foot seems to be more in line with his back foot. He now uses a toe-tap instead of a full leg-kick, and again it’s clear that he uses it as both a timing mechanism and weight transfer. Also of note is his hands which have quieted some during his load giving him that extra bit of time to handle premium velocity better, especially up and in. Both contribute to less moving parts and shortening his swing. Another big difference I see is his footwork. Take a look at where his front foot is pointing after each swing. In this 2018 swing, it’s much more open which creates more separation between the hips and the shoulders while reducing the amount of stress placed on the front leg. The result is that Lowe is better equipped to clear his hips and turn on inside pitches, and yet because Lowe stays back so well and keeps his shoulders closed for so long, he’s also able to hit pitches on the outer half with authority. The final thing I notice when watching both swings is how long his bat head stays in the hitting zone, it stays there seemingly forever and that is a huge part of his success!
Overall, I see a player that has everything necessary to be an upper-tier hitting 1st baseman when he reaches the majors, both for real life and for fantasy baseball! As I’ve mentioned a few times now, Lowe combines high-end contact skills with a terrific approach and batting eye and has the all fields power to punish mistakes. He’s pretty close to being ready for the majors too as he has some AAA experience and the Rays have seemingly cleared the way for someone like Lowe at 1B and DH with the recent DFA of CJ Cron. RosterResource suggests that some combination of Ji-Man Choi and Jake Bauers will handle the Rays DH and 1B positions in 2019, but Lowe should be knocking on the door around mid-season. Notably, Fangraphs Steamer projections have Lowe projected to produce the best wRC+ of the group in the 2019 season with a 113 mark compared to a 108 for Choi and 100 for Bauers.
If he gets an opportunity, I feel good about a transition to the majors given his contact skills. Remember this is a guy who posted an 8% swinging-strike rate last year in the minors and the MLB average for swinging-strike rate last year was 10.7%. So even with regression in his transition to the majors, he projects as a quality hitter. Long-term, I think Lowe can be a .280/.350 with 25+ HR sort of hitter with the upside for more and that’s a top 100 player in fantasy leagues (for reference, Matt Chapman ranked 60th overall in standard 5×5 scoring formats with a .278 batting average with 24 HRs and 1 SB this past season). My advice is to remember his name in re-draft leagues and consider him at the very end of your drafts as a stash. For those in dynasty/keeper leagues, I think he’s a good target over the offseason before his name value increases.