Collette Calls: Get Lowe?

Collette Calls: Get Lowe?

This article is part of our Collette Calls series.

Nathaniel Lowe had a preseason ADP of 251 as the 20th first baseman off the board in drafts just behind Brandon Belt and Frank Schwindel.  Our Earned Auction Value calculator shows Lowe as the 6th most valuable player at first base behind Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, Pete Alonso, Vladimir Guerrero, and C.J. Cron. As play begins on September 12th, Lowe is one of only five players, a group which also includes Aaron Judge, Goldschmidt, Manny Machado and Trea Turner, who has hit at least 20 homers while batting over .300. In a season where many players have struggled to replicate previous power production, Lowe is targeting career highs across the board. We are overdue for looking into how Lowe has had this breakout season and what the future could hold for the 27-year old slugger.

Admittedly, our preseason fantasy outlook was not very high on Lowe, but it did paint a picture of possibilities for him:

In Lowe's first full MLB season, his output was acceptable. The 18 homers were disappointing from a first baseman, but he contributed eight steals after stealing five total in his five previous seasons. Hitting the ball hard is not the issue, with most of his Statcast hard-hit metrics in the league's top 25%. Instead, his power production will be limited if he continues to post a 55 GB%, a number that kept ballooning as the season went on (59.4 GB% in the second half, 62.8% in

Nathaniel Lowe had a preseason ADP of 251 as the 20th first baseman off the board in drafts just behind Brandon Belt and Frank Schwindel.  Our Earned Auction Value calculator shows Lowe as the 6th most valuable player at first base behind Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, Pete Alonso, Vladimir Guerrero, and C.J. Cron. As play begins on September 12th, Lowe is one of only five players, a group which also includes Aaron Judge, Goldschmidt, Manny Machado and Trea Turner, who has hit at least 20 homers while batting over .300. In a season where many players have struggled to replicate previous power production, Lowe is targeting career highs across the board. We are overdue for looking into how Lowe has had this breakout season and what the future could hold for the 27-year old slugger.

Admittedly, our preseason fantasy outlook was not very high on Lowe, but it did paint a picture of possibilities for him:

In Lowe's first full MLB season, his output was acceptable. The 18 homers were disappointing from a first baseman, but he contributed eight steals after stealing five total in his five previous seasons. Hitting the ball hard is not the issue, with most of his Statcast hard-hit metrics in the league's top 25%. Instead, his power production will be limited if he continues to post a 55 GB%, a number that kept ballooning as the season went on (59.4 GB% in the second half, 62.8% in September). On the other hand, he did show a nice improvement in his plate discipline with his walk rate up and his strikeouts down from 36.8% to 25.2%. He's sort of morphing into an Eric Hosmer clone. His profile has been bouncing around, so it's tough to get a read on his future value. There is some hope for upside if he raises his launch angle and becomes more of a 30-homer hitter. Roster him late if you want but be ready to move on quickly if changes don't come.

Let's break down some of the comments throughout that capsule to see what has happened in 2022.

"Hard-hit metrics in the league's top 25%"

  • Avg Exit Velocity: 69th percentile (77th in 2021)
  • Max Exit Velocity: 89th percentile (91st in 2021)
  • Hard Hit Rate: 73rd percentile (74th in 2021)
  • Barrel Rate: 63rd percentile (61st in 2021)

Only one of those four hit the mark so far in 2022 with a second one falling just short. The overall breakout certainly isn't coming from any newfound destruction of baseballs, as he's hitting the ball no better or worse than he did in 2021.

"His power production will be limited if he continues to post a 55% groundball rate"

Lowe has improved his groundball rate this season by 7.5 points this season from 54.5 percent to 47.0 percent, but that 2022 figure is in line with what he did in his final season with Tampa Bay before he was dealt and is still higher than his rookie season of 2019. Again, nothing measurably different from other stages of his career but an absolute year-to-year improvement compared to last season. 

"A nice improvement in his plate discipline"

The capsule mentions the second-half improvements Lowe made in reducing his strikeout rate, which is a trend we're seeing again this season as he surges to the finish line. Note the reduction in his strikeout rate as 2021 played on and how he's once again driving that rate down this summer:

That is a quick recap of his player capsule, but I would like to point out some things I see in revisiting the player as a Texas Ranger knowing what I know of him from his time in the Tampa Bay system.

My first observation is that I see a more aggressive hitter profile. Lowe came up through the system with a reputation as a very patient hitter who would work the strike zone and wait for his pitch to rake. The formula worked very well for him against inexperienced minor-league pitchers who were still finding their command, as he had double-digit walk rates at every level of the minor leagues before he finally ascended to the big leagues in 2019. This would get him into trouble as he would often fall behind in counts quickly and would need to get into protect mode at two strikes, and the league would then exploit a hole in his swing (more on that later). His sample sizes from 2019 and 2020 are too small to show, but look at the difference in Lowe's numbers this season when the count isn't in his favor compared to what was happening last season:

SEASON

PA

K%

BA

SLG

2021

185

46%

.173

.265

2022

188

37%

.282

.463

Lowe is no longer up there looking to draw walks as much as he is to hunt anything in the zone as he has taken his in-zone aggressiveness to a new level in 2022:

Previously, when Lowe fell behind in the count, opposing pitchers would attack him with back-foot breaking stuff or elevated heat. The latter part of that recipe was particularly problematic for the long swing of Lowe, as he came into the 2022 season with a .116 career batting average against elevated fastballs thrown at least 95 mph. As I dove into StatCast, I expected this might be an area where Lowe has shown improvement this season, and he has. He has hit .190 against such pitches, and while that isn't much to write home about, it's much closer to the league average than his previously futile efforts against velocity up in the zone. 

I was also impressed to see how Lowe has handled himself against any type of non-standard defensive positioning. Lowe sees his fair share of overshifted infields, with a third of his pitches seen coming when the defense is in a non-standard alignment. He hit .258 against such alignments coming into this year but has hit a surprising .326 against such alignments this season and has shown more willingness to let the ball come deeper into the zone and hit it where they ain't:

The largest area of improvement I see in Lowe is what he is now doing with breaking balls. His long swing, with its focus down in the zone, has always done well with offspeed stuff, but 2019-2021 saw him frequently swing and miss at breaking balls. The graph below shows his improvement this season:

The 2021 Lowe was very susceptible to putaway breaking balls as pitchers used the pitch in two-strike counts 27 percent of the time when punching Lowe out. This season, that rate has dropped 10 percentage points to 17 percent, and his outcomes against breaking balls overall have dramatically improved:

SEASON

P

HR

BA

xBA

SLG

xSLG

wOBA

xwOBA

2021

141

7

.227

.214

.432

.437

.298

.296

2022

595

12

.287

.284

.580

.584

.383

.382

All in all, we are seeing the hitting coach magician Donnie Ecker do with Lowe what he did for so many San Francisco Giants in his time with that club. Ecker talked about how he wanted to work with Lowe this past winter in a piece with SI:

"I think the No. 1 thing is just celebrating and doubling down on the type of system player that he already is in terms of what he does at the plate and knowing what he wants to swing at," Ecker said. "Secondly, we're just making sure we give him a few extra clubs in the bag to have some solutions to the problems that might be a little bit of a challenge to him."

Lowe acknowledged the "individualized" work with Ecker in a mid-May piece at The Athletic as well:

"They're doing what they can try and help us get the best out of us," first baseman Nathaniel Lowe said later that afternoon. "It's just something we gotta roll with. The game's going to evolve, and we're going to have to make changes. We're seeing now what we have to change. There's some 'over-training' stuff that they have introduced — hitting foam baseballs that are moving way faster, way more shape than a regular baseball. I feel like that's something that's going to translate eventually. And some guys, like myself, are still getting used to it. It's just part of the process of what it's going to take to be a good offensive player this year."

Simply put, the conditions in Texas have changed and Lowe has taken advantage of them to certainly make me change my outlook on the player. The rule changes next year for the shift could actually be more detrimental to Lowe's batting average improvements since the changes will adversely affect hitters with an all-fields approach while rewarding those with a pull-centric approach. I took Lowe in just one league this year, and it is in a DC50 where I still have a chance to win the league outright. I will look to roster him in more places in 2023. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Collette
Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Sleeper and the Bust podcast on iTunes. A ten-time FSWA finalist, Jason won the FSWA's Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2013 and the Baseball Series of the Year award in 2018 for Collette Calls.
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