Nathaniel Lowe Has Breakout Potential

© Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Before the lockout froze the offseason, the Rangers were in the middle of an incredibly active winter. They signed Corey Seager and Marcus Semien to massive contracts, and added Jon Gray and Kole Calhoun as well. That was a good start to addressing the needs of a team that lost 102 games in 2021, but per Dan Szymborski’s mid-lockout ZiPS projections, those moves only got Texas to around 73 wins. If the Rangers have designs on competing for a playoff spot in 2022, they’ll need to continue adding to their roster once the owner’s lockout is lifted.

One of those potential additions could come via trade. Back in September, the Rangers were one of the many teams that checked in with the Oakland A’s about a potential deal involving Matt Olson. The Athletics seem likely to tear down their current roster at some point in the near future, possibly as soon as teams are able to trade with each other again. Just last week, Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News wrote that the Rangers were “absolutely” planning on revisiting their earlier talks with Oakland.

Olson would be a massive addition to Texas’s roster, as he’s coming off a year in which he set career bests in strikeout rate, home runs, wRC+, WAR, and a number of other offensive categories. Of course, the Rangers already have an incumbent first baseman whom they traded for just a year ago. If it came down to it, though, Nathaniel Lowe shouldn’t be much of a barrier to adding Olson to their lineup; Olson is one of the premiere first basemen in the game and only has a year and change on Lowe age-wise. But the Rangers shouldn’t write off Lowe just yet either. He had his ups and downs during his first full season in the majors, but he showed some promise as a potential middle-of-the-order bat in 2021.

Lowe made his major league debut back in 2019 with the Tampa Bay Rays, the team that drafted him in the 13th round of the ’16 draft. A phenomenal 2018 season put him on fans’ radar, but his brief cups of coffee in the big leagues didn’t pan out very well. His impeccable batting eye and good power showed up at the highest level, but he also struck out 31.8% of the time in his first two tastes of major league pitching. Overall, the profile was a touch above average, but his struggles to make consistent contact were a significant sticking point. That was enough to convince the Rays to trade him in December 2020 for a trio of prospects.

In his first season in Texas, Lowe performed admirably as the Rangers’ everyday first baseman. The trademark patience was there (he posted the 16th highest walk rate among all qualified batters), fueling an offensive line that sat 15% above league average. His strikeout rate was still high at 25.2%, but it was better than it had been in Tampa. His power output was a little concerning, however. Lowe only hit 18 home runs and his isolated power was the lowest it had been since a stop in High-A back in 2017, before his big breakout season in ‘18.

While he made improvements to address his biggest flaw, his strikeout rate was still a bit concerning. Striking out 25% of the time isn’t necessarily a death knell for a batter, but it puts a serious cap on their potential production if they’re not regularly crushing balls like Aaron Judge or Joey Gallo. Lowe’s strikeout rate and isolated power both dipping in 2021 feels connected. Perhaps he was attempting to mitigate his biggest weakness by making contact more often at the expense of his power. But looking a little deeper reveals some interesting changes to his approach towards the end of the season:

Over the last month of the season, Lowe’s strikeout rate fell to around 20% and stuck there. Based on his plate discipline metrics, it appears that he made a concerted effort to increase his contact rate, specifically on pitches in the zone. There wasn’t a corresponding dip in his chase rate or swinging strike rate either. He wound up posting the best monthly wOBA of the season during September, finishing 2021 on a really high note:

Nathaniel Lowe, Plate Discipline
Date PA BB% K% O-Swing Z-Swing Z-Contact
Pre-8/16 471 12.7% 27.0% 22.8% 62.6% 83.5%
Post-8/16 171 11.7% 20.5% 24.0% 64.9% 90.4%

Based on the rolling graph above, I used August 16 as an arbitrary cutoff date for his pre- and post-adjustment stats. With that line in the sand drawn, you can see that Lowe increased his zone contact rate to over 90% through the final month and half of the season. That’s a huge increase over what he was posting earlier in the season and likely the source of his red hot finish. That improvement to his bat-to-ball skills was something he acknowledged in a late-September interview with former reporter Savannah McCann:

“I feel like my eye and my strike-zone discipline has been pretty good for as long as I can remember playing. So getting out of that comfort zone and being more aggressive responsibly is definitely something that I need to work on.”

The key word in that quote is “responsibly.” With such a good batting eye, Lowe has always been a bit passive at the plate, content to make the pitcher work while waiting for a pitch to hit. His 9.3% swinging strike rate was remarkably low considering his high strikeout totals. Adding some responsible aggression against pitches he could handle in the zone helped him address one of his biggest weaknesses. A knock-on effect of increasing his contact rate was a significant jump in power output, though it came with some caveats:

Nathaniel Lowe, Power Peripherals
Date Hard Hit% Barrel% ISO GB%
Pre-8/16 46.1% 9.2% 0.135 52.8%
Post-8/16 44.0% 10.3% 0.193 58.6%

From a results perspective, Lowe’s .193 ISO from August 16 onward was a return to the mashing that had been missing from his early-season performance. That added power came with an elevated groundball rate and a hard hit rate that dropped a tiny bit. From a per batted ball perspective, it looks a bit like Lowe’s late-season power surge wasn’t exactly earned. When we look at his hard hit rate per plate appearance, however, it’s clear he saw a jump in hard contact; 27.6% of his plate appearances ended with a hard hit batted ball prior to August 16, while that number jumped to 29.8% afterwards. Making contact more often allowed him to put more hard hit balls in play, even if a larger portion of his total balls in play were more weakly hit than before.

Lowe’s groundball rate is another worrying trend. He simply puts the ball on the ground too often to really leverage his raw power. All those grounders have helped buoy his BABIP, particularly since many of them are slapped the other way, but he needs to elevate more often to truly unlock his in-game power. He was lucky his results ended up being so good on the batted balls he did hit in the air after August 16.

One of the other concerns Lowe addressed in his interview with McCann was his performance against high heat:

“I would like to be better with higher velocity. It goes back to preparation. I need to get on the fastball and maybe make a little more of a jump to get there, instead of just hoping that a fastball shows up. And then when I see it, I’m behind it. This offseason is going to be good for assessing where I was short this year, and where I need to get better going forward.”

Lowe really struggled with high-velocity fastballs in 2021 and his adjusted approach in the second half didn’t help him catch up to those pitches:

Nathaniel Lowe vs High Velocity
% 95+ wOBA xwOBAcon
Total 23.7% .287 .289
Pre-8/16 25.4% .288 .316
Post-8/16 18.8% .283 .219
League Avg 26.3% .309 .378

Overall, he was well below average against fastballs thrown 95 mph or harder and his expected wOBA on contact against high heat really plummeted after August 16. That’s an issue he’s going to need to figure out to be truly successful.

The adjustments Lowe made to make contact in the zone regularly are a good step towards realizing his full potential at the plate, but his struggles with velocity could end up being a big problem. Luckily, he knows he needs to work on that aspect of his approach, which is a not-small part of the battle. Lowe has already proven he can make adjustments to unlock greater offensive potency, but his work isn’t complete. If the Rangers can’t swing a miracle trade and bring in Olson, they’ll be counting on Lowe to take a big step forward in 2022. Based on his fantastic finish to last season, it looks like he’s primed to do just that.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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2 years ago

Great post. More of these, please. Plenty of players to dig into for whenever baseball returns!