Through Monday night, major league baseball teams have played 415 games, the same number of games they had played on April 28 of last year. Back then, Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich and Mike Trout were the top three players by WAR. Also in the top 10 were Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien, Pete Alonso, Anthony Rendon, Javier Báez, and Paul DeJong, who all went on to have good-to-great seasons. Elvis Andrus, on the other hand, put up 1.5 WAR through most of April and was replacement-level the rest of the way. Moving one month forward, a stretch equivalent to half of this season, Pete Alonso was replacement-level in May. Marcus Semien put up an 80 wRC+. All of which serves as a good reminder that in this shortened season, it’s best not to make too much of one month’s worth of performance when looking forward. That said, though, let’s take a look at the current WAR Leaderboard for position players:
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||Padres||134||.396||.678||183||2.1|
Over the last month, Ben Clemens has written about Mike Yastrzemski, Mookie Betts, and Ian Happ; Jay Jaffe has added his own piece on Betts. Fernando Tatis Jr. has been featured in posts from Jaffe and Dan Szymborski, and ranked very highly in our Trade Value Series. Jake Mailhot has written up Kyle Lewis and Trent Grisham. While Anthony Rendon, Nelson Cruz, and Bryce Harper have all been great and perhaps deserve articles of their own, their greatness isn’t too far removed from our general expectations for them. That just leaves Brandon Lowe, whose start definitely merits attention.
In 2018, Lowe was called-up, and hit well for the Rays over 148 plate appearances with a 114 wRC+. Ahead of the 2019 season, the second baseman signed a six-year contract extension for $24 million that included two club options worth $21 million. At the time, Eric Longenhagen noted that Lowe ranked in the middle of the overall top 100, and that he was much less likely to bust due to experience in the majors. Longenhagen also noted that many college players like Lowe have a difficult time earning as much as they might otherwise because they reach the majors when they’re 24 years old (as Lowe did) and then don’t become free agents until they hit their 30s; Longenhagen used DJ LeMahieu as an example of a player with a free agent contract equivalent to Lowe’s option years. He hypothesized that Lowe’s age and the free agent market at the time conspired to make a contract extension appealing even as he was giving away free agent seasons at a low cost, adding that an ACL injury and separate tibia fracture in college might have further contributed to Lowe’s desire for security.
For half a season, Lowe looked like he might win Rookie of the Year, putting up a 128 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR in just over 300 plate appearances through early July. Unfortunately, he fouled a ball off his leg and sustained a deep bone bruise. Then, as he was rehabbing in August, he sustained a quad injury that kept him out until the final week of the season. Even with the missed time, he finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, with his 2.6 WAR also third behind Yordan Alvarez’s and John Means‘ marks.
Lowe struck out 35% of the time, including 36 strikeouts in 66 plate appearances against lefties, and his .377 BABIP meant that projections weren’t going to love him. He counters that somewhat with very good exit velocities, the ability to put the ball in the air, and an xwOBA of .347, fairly close to his .354 wOBA. The early returns this season have been incredibly positive. Lowe’s strikeouts are down to 23%, while his walk rate has gone up to 12%. He’s struck out just five times in 35 plate appearances against lefties. His BABIP is a more reasonable .333, and his xwOBA and wOBA still line up. His average exit velocity is down compared to last season, but that’s mostly a function of cutting down on strikeouts. It is a little counter-intuitive to see a 40-point drop in BABIP and a 40-point increase in batting average, but that’s what comes with a massive drop in strikeouts. Lowe’s hard hit percentage is down from 46% of batted balls last year to 41% this year, but as a percentage of plate appearances, it is actually held steady at 26%.
Making weaker contact isn’t good, but making hard contact at the same level and then making weaker contact instead of striking out is proving to be beneficial. Take the 12 percentage point drop in strikeouts and put those balls in play. The contact might not be great, but maybe three of those balls in play turn into hits. That’s more than a 33-point rise in batting average. Here’s how Lowe’s plate discipline numbers have changed since last season:
It’s possible Lowe is being a little too passive in the strike zone, but the league will need to adjust to him first. He’s already made big strides on pitches out of the zone, both in terms of swings and contact. If he keeps laying off pitches out of the zone, he should see more pitches in the strike zone to attack.
Contact on pitches out of the zone doesn’t always turn into hits, but to provide an example of how this change has taken place on a single pitch, let’s consider the curve. Last season, Lowe saw 70 curveballs outside of the strike zone; he swung at 15 and whiffed on 11 of those pitches. This year, he’s seen 26 curves and swung at five, but whiffed on just one. Those numbers are too small to be meaningful with particular regard to the curve, but the change has happened over all pitches. Lowe is taking more pitches out of the zone and when he does swing at them, he’s making more contact. Here he is taking a curve off the plate to the opposite field for a double:
Lowe isn’t making that type of pitch his bread and butter, but it is the difference between last season and this one. After I put Lowe in the Honorable Mention category in last week’s Trade Value Series, many commenters were surprised he didn’t crack the top 50. Given his appearance as an honorable mention, he was obviously close, and he did have some support from some of the front office people I talked to. Ultimately, his value is tougher determine in a shortened season. If Lowe had three excellent months instead of three excellent weeks, he probably would have made the top 50. His injury history, projections, age, short track record, and position cut against him. Those option years are Lowe’s age-30 and age-31 seasons and aren’t likely to be as valuable as the seasons in his 20s. Second base is a position teams haven’t been investing in, opting for cheap production and finding it easier to put homegrown talent or inexpensive free agents there. But Lowe’s performance could mitigate a lot of those concerns, and his start this season has been fantastic.