As It Was Foretold, Nathaniel Lowe Has Broken Out

Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Just under a year ago, Jake Mailhot identified Texas first baseman Nathaniel Lowe as a player with breakout potential. In fact, he wrote a whole article called, “Nathaniel Lowe Has Breakout Potential.” Then the 2022 season happened, and — you guessed it — Nathaniel Lowe officially broke out. He hit 27 home runs and raised his wRC+ from 114 to 143. Good for Nathaniel Lowe! He’s a slugger. Good for Jake Mailhot! He’s a clairvoyant.

The thing is, Lowe didn’t exactly follow the script laid out for him. Jake noted that for the last month and a half of the 2021 season, Lowe added some “responsible aggression,” lowering his strikeout rate despite swinging more often. He did that by making a ton of contact in the zone. Jake broke Lowe’s 2021 plate discipline stats down in a table, using August 16 as the dividing line. I’ve gone ahead and added 2022 to that table:

Nathaniel Lowe, Plate Discipline (Reprise)
Date PA BB% K% O-Swing Z-Swing Z-Contact
Pre-8/16/21 471 12.7% 27.0% 22.8% 62.6% 83.5%
Post-8/16/21 171 11.7% 20.5% 24.0% 64.9% 90.4%
2022 645 7.4% 22.8% 34.9% 75.0% 86.7%

Yeah, that’s just regular old aggression. Lowe’s 52.2% swing rate was 20th among qualified players. From 2021 to ’22, Lowe’s chase rate went from the 82nd percentile to the 51st. His walk rate went from the 90th to the 41st. His zone contact rate dropped almost all the way back to where it was in 2021, and his overall contact rate was actually lower. Against every single pitch type, and in nearly every segment of the strike zone, Lowe swung more often in 2022:

The big red blob on the right indicates that “responsible” has officially been thrown from the train. Here’s the thing, though: the change worked. Going by Baseball Savant’s swing/take metrics, Lowe lost some value by chasing more, but he made up for it and then some by swinging at hittable pitches:

Nathaniel Lowe, Swing/Take Runs
Season Heart Shadow Chase Waste Total
2021 -2 -15 23 12 18
2022 13 -9 12 10 26
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Lowe’s whiff rate rose by 1.8%, but it was offset by a called strike rate that fell more than twice that much. Dropping your walk rate by more than 5% isn’t exactly a tried and true method for success, but nobody minds much when it’s paired with a lower strikeout rate and a 50-point jump in wOBACON:

Nathaniel Lowe, Offensive Profile
2021 642 18 12.5% 25.2% .339 .264 .357 .415 114
2022 645 27 7.4% 22.8% .363 .302 .358 .492 143

Lowe managed to keep his on-base percentage the same while increasing his slugging by 77 points. The thing is, he didn’t hit the ball any harder. His hard-hit rate, his max exit velocity, and his average exit velocity all dropped slightly. Lowe’s newfound aggression came coupled with an increase in both launch angle and pull percentage, though he doesn’t exactly have the standard elevate and celebrate story.

From 2021 to ’22, Lowe’s launch angle increased from 5 degrees to 8.2. That’s a pretty dramatic jump — only 10 qualified players increased their launch angle more — but 8.2 was still the 15th-lowest launch angle in the league. The gain looks even smaller once you break the numbers down further. If you remove popups from the equation (on the grounds that they’re worthless), Lowe’s launch angle only increased by 1.4 degrees. Separating popups from regular fly balls reveals something more surprising:

Nathaniel Lowe, Batted Ball
Season GB% FB% LD% PU%
2021 54.5 23.4 20.9 1.3
2022 48.2 21.5 26.0 4.3

Lowe’s fly ball rate actually went down in 2022, as did the average launch angle of both his fly balls and line drives. His popup rate, though more than triple what it was in 2021, was still 20th-lowest among qualified players. Lowe’s groundball rate dropped by 6.3%, but he didn’t necessarily shift his launch angle upward as much as he gently narrowed its spectrum. The result was a huge increase in line drive rate:

As I mentioned earlier, this change came with an increase in pull rate. Lowe’s spray angle is every bit as extreme as his launch angle. The league average pull rate is 40.5%. From 2021 to ’22, Lowe raised his pull rate from 26.4% to 33%. Only six players had a higher jump, but it still left him with the 13th-lowest pull rate in the league. However, if you limit the numbers to line drives and fly balls, Lowe’s numbers look much more reasonable. The league average pull rate on liners and fly balls is 31.6%. On those balls, Lowe’s pull rate went from 16.5% in 2021 to 26.4% in ’22. That’s important, because pulling balls in the air is the path to real damage:

MLB wOBA by Batted Ball Direction – 2022
Pull Straightaway Oppo
.796 .439 .379

Lowe’s rate of line drives and fly balls jumped from 44.2% to 47.6%, and because they were pulled, those extra air balls also became more valuable. In 2022, Lowe’s fly balls and line drives had a wOBA of .678, up from .591 in 2021.

The last piece of the puzzle is that Lowe’s production increased dramatically against one particular pitch. In 2022, he started absolutely crushing sliders:

Nathaniel Lowe, wOBA vs. Pitch Types
Pitch 2021 2022 Difference
4-Seam Fastball .370 .353 -.017
Slider .283 .437 .154
Sinker .283 .336 .053
Curveball .317 .299 -.018
Changeup .415 .452 .037
Cutter .318 .344 .026
Split Finger .287 .301 .014

Among qualified players, his .437 wOBA against sliders trailed only Aaron Judge and Yordan Alvarez. Lowe’s wOBA against the pitch increased by 154 points. According to Baseball Savant, there were more than 50 players whose 2022 wOBA against sliders was lower than that! Eleven of Lowe’s 27 home runs came on sliders, and his line drive rate against the pitch more than doubled to 29.5%:

Nathaniel Lowe, wOBA vs. Sliders
Season vs. Lefties vs. Righties
2021 .322 .243
2022 .543 .371

Conveniently, pitchers obliged his fondness for sliders by throwing them way more often. Lowe saw sliders 19.2% of the time, up from 12.1% in 2021.

I spent a fair amount of time watching clips of Lowe from the last two years, and I didn’t pick up on any huge differences in his swing. In 2021, he occasionally featured a leg kick, but he didn’t use it often enough to make a noticeable difference. He’s a strong, 6-foot-4 lefty who starts with an open stance, does a quick toe tap, and seems supremely happy to serve the ball into left field all day long. It’s just that in 2022, he occasionally jumped on a pitch, turning on it and finishing with his hands high. It strikes me as a possibility that he could become even more comfortable doing so now that the overshift is off the table.

There’s still plenty in Lowe’s offensive profile that could potentially be unlocked. His launch angle and pull rate are still extremely low. He still struggles against velocity, and even for a first baseman, his defense is wanting. For now, though, this more aggressive version of him is more than good enough.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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1 year ago

This trade should be a good reminder whenever someone insists that no one should trade with the Rays anymore. The Rays would love to have someone like this in their lineup.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

As a Rays fan I agree. Also Jake Croenworth was another terrible deal. They have a blind spot for sluggers and a love affair with light-hitting infielders.

1 year ago
Reply to  nktokyo

Trying to decide whether to acquire him in a keeper league. Would cost me a first round pick, I think.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yep, this miss lowers their successful trade percentage down to at least the low 90s.