Is Brandon Lowe Broken?on October 16, 2020 at 5:00 pm

Is Brandon Lowe Broken?

Articles about whether a player is suddenly terrible aren’t exactly standard FanGraphs fare. That’s hardly surprising — players almost never suddenly become terrible. Far more often, they get unlucky a bunch of times in a row, or they were already terrible and everyone suddenly noticed, or they were secretly hurt the whole time.

It pains me, given that, to ask this question that you probably already know the answer to: is Brandon Lowe suddenly terrible? Probably not! I’m telling you the answer now so that you won’t be in suspense, even though let’s be honest here, you wouldn’t be in suspense anyway. Still, he’s been bad this postseason, phenomenally awful. We at least owe it to ourselves to consider whether something happened.

During the regular season, Lowe was awesome. He was an MVP candidate, particularly if, like Craig Edwards, you enjoy rhyming his name with “Mister Plow.” He kept the same ferocity he’d displayed on contact in 2019 and cut down on his strikeouts, which had been the only real thing holding him back before. The result? A 150 wRC+ and 14 homers in only 227 plate appearances, the best hitting line on the Rays and one of the best in baseball overall.

The postseason has been, well, whatever the opposite of that is. Through 12 games, his wRC+ is -10. That’s not a stat you want to be negative. Plus is right there in the name! His home run on Thursday was his first extra-base hit of the playoffs, but even that was a mixed success; it was his only hit of the night, and he struck out twice, which raised his strikeout rate for the postseason to 32.7%.

How often has Lowe had a stretch like this? Exactly never:

Lowe has gone through rough patches, but nothing so extended as this. The short dip on the left comes from before he had 12 games to average, so that doesn’t count. It’s not just the strikeouts, though those clearly aren’t helping. Heck, Lowe struck out at a higher rate for last year as a whole, and still put up a 125 wRC+. Let’s dig deeper.

A key driver behind Lowe’s banner season was a newly patient approach. He swung less often, particularly at pitches out of the zone, which kept his strikeouts down while also giving him more chances per plate appearance to wait for and crush a mistake pitch. Per Statcast, however, that newfound plate discipline has evaporated so far in the playoffs:

It’s not a contact problem; Lowe is making as much contact as he did during the year. The Swinging Strike% column is instructive, however; chase enough pitches outside the strike zone, and you’ll miss a good chunk of them. Lowe is swinging fruitlessly at nearly 20% of the pitches he sees, which simply makes it tough to see enough pitches to get one to hit before you end the at-bat with weak contact or a strikeout.

Hearing it described that way, you might assume that Lowe is starting his whiffing ways from square one, but that’s not true. He’s seen 22 pitches outside the strike zone to start an at-bat and swung at only two (both yesterday, oddly enough). As he starts to get deeper in counts, however, the chasing intensifies. Every batter swings at more junk with two strikes, but playoff Lowe is an egregious offender:

Chase rates this high are a problem, because they give pitchers a plan of attack. Get ahead on Lowe, and you can start throwing him junk. Heck, even at 1-1, you stand a decent chance of getting a whiff if you bounce two straight sliders. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that pitchers are finding success with breaking and offspeed pitches, particularly outside the strike zone.

In the playoffs, Lowe has chased 35.8% of the non-fastballs that pitchers have thrown outside of the zone. That rate was a mere 22% in the regular season, an admirable number that kept his strikeouts in check despite a whiff-happy swing. Turning tough takes into bad swings is a great way to get behind in counts and see even more hard-to-hit pitches, a spiral that Lowe has thus far been unable to escape.

There’s good news here, however. This isn’t some unprecedented inability to lay off the bendy stuff. Lowe has been here before — many times, in fact. He’s seen 53 secondary pitches outside the strike zone this postseason. Here’s his rolling 53-pitch swing rate at such pitches over his career:

He’s crested that 35.8% mark many times, including a stretch earlier this year. It’s never indicated a complete failing of plate discipline, either. Consider this junk stat: 139 times, Lowe has had a 53-pitch trailing swing rate above 35.8%. Against the next 53 secondary pitches outside the zone, on average, he’s swung just under 30% of the time, almost exactly at his career 29.3% secondary chase rate. Take a snapshot of him at his worst, in other words, and it doesn’t affect what you’d expect him to do in the future.

Saying that Lowe’s present doesn’t forecast his future is the best imaginable takeaway from his rotten recent form. He’s been terrible! Really, truly, terrible! His .089/.163/.155 line doesn’t even make sense in my brain. But we all know, by now, that a hitter having a cold stretch doesn’t mean he’s bad now, and I’d argue that Lowe’s underlying statistics are making the same argument.

Sure, he’s never had a stretch where he’s hit this poorly before, in sum. He’s had stretches with worse plate discipline, though. When he does make contact, he isn’t hitting for any power, but if I hid the outcomes, you wouldn’t expect this level of futility. He has a 41.4% hard hit rate in the playoffs, hardly different from the 43.1% mark he posted in the regular season. He’s putting 41% of his contact in the air, higher than his regular season rate. His .303 xwOBA on contact is bad — that mark stood at .457 in the regular season — but it’s 29 balls in play, hardly a robust sample, and even that vastly outstrips the .157 wOBA he’s received on those batted balls.

Maybe this is a cop out, but I’m not worried about Lowe. The top line numbers are terrible, unplayable even. If he wants a day off to clear his head, I could hardly argue with that. On a piecewise basis, however, he’s not doing anything unfathomably poorly. He’s chasing a little too much, no doubt. Even with neutral batted ball luck, this would be a forgettable postseason; his plate discipline isn’t giving him a fair chance to succeed.

The reason it feels so hopeless, though, is because he’s combined particularly poor batted ball luck with the other things he’s doing wrong. Turn a few outs into doubles, commensurate with both his hard-hit rate and xwOBA, and we’d be having a different conversation. He’s having a nearly identical postseason, from an expected results standpoint, to Joey Wendle, and no one is writing articles about Wendle’s decline.

In the end, this article fell victim to Betteridge’s Law. I couldn’t resist the catchy headline. Brandon Lowe, broken?! Read on to learn more! My heart isn’t in it, though. Brandon Lowe isn’t broken, or at least I don’t think he is. He’s going through a down stretch, but someone with his game — tenuous contact skills, tremendous power — will always have stretches where they swing too much and build a little strikeout pit for themselves that they have to dig out of.

Lowe’s in a strikeout and poor contact pit of his own making at the moment. In the past, on average, he’s bounced back to normal. Knowing that Lowe has been at his worst tells us nothing about how he’ll be in the future. The cruel nature of the playoffs, however, is that we won’t actually get a chance to test that. There may not be another 49 plate appearances of postseason, another 53 junk pitches he can test his eye with. 2020 will always be the year where Lowe disappeared in the playoffs, even if I’m nearly as confident in his bat now as I was before this horrid stretch.

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