With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at first baseman Nathaniel Lowe.
One of the interesting storylines — meta-storylines, really — of the past twelve months and three days has been the turmoil and controversy online, among Rangers fans, about Nathaniel Lowe.
From a certain point of view, its hard to understand why Nathaniel Lowe would generate the degree of angst he has since the Rangers acquired him on December 10, 2020. He was a young major league ready player that the Rangers acquired in exchange for three guys who hadn’t played full season ball yet and who were part of the team’s prospect depth, he filled a position of need, and he had a decent enough campaign for the Rangers in 2021 while earning the league minimum.
On the other hand...he was acquired for prospects at a time when the Rangers were supposed to be rebuilding, including one prospect, Heriberto Hernandez, who had generated a fair amount of enthusiasm among prospect watchers. He was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays, and there’s a certain sense of concern when you are getting a player that the Rays decide they are willing to give up, even if, as was the case with Lowe, it is a player where the team has a surplus and needs to move someone. He was displacing Ronald Guzman, who had a significant number of supporters, particularly due to his glovework (and area that isn’t Lowe’s strength). He wasn’t anything special in 2021, either offensively or defensively. and he turned 26 in the middle of July, 2021, meaning he’s not particularly young — he’s entering his peak years, which means that there’s reason to think he’s not going to be much, if any, better than he is now. And he didn’t hit for much power, which...well, that’s what first basemen, particularly not particularly slick fielding first basemen, are supposed to do.
To pick a word to describe Nathaniel Lowe’s 2021 season...it was “fine.” Okay. Adequate. Lowe logged a 113 OPS+ and a 115 wRC+. First basemen as a whole put up a 117 OPS+ in 2021, and a 110 wRC+ in 2021, per B-R and Fangraphs, respectively. Lowe put up a 2.4 bWAR and a 1.6 fWAR in 2021. 2.0 is, by definition, league average, so Lowe was more or less an average first baseman.
That said, he doesn’t appear to be perceived that way by a good chunk of the Rangers fanbase...or, if he is perceived that way, that is still deemed to be insufficient by those folks.
Part of it, as noted above, is that he didn’t hit for much power in 2021 — after a hot April, when he had 6 home runs, he homered just 12 times the rest of the way, and logged a .415 slugging percentage on the year. That is 39 points below first basemen slugged as a whole in 2021. His 2021 ISO of .151 was well below the .197 ISO first basemen as a whole registered. He also struck out a lot — 162 times in 2021 — which, when combined with the lack of power and mediocre defense, is going to result in him not passing a lot of folks’ eye tests.
However, Lowe did hit for a slightly higher average than the average MLB first baseman — .264, compared to .257 — and he drew 80 walks, which meant his .357 OBP was almost 20 points higher than the average for first sackers (.338). That above-average OBP is what picks up his numbers and lands him in the meaty part of the first baseman curve, at least for 2021.
Hmmm...patient lefthanded hitter, middling average, has some power but not a lot, gets on base a lot...sound familiar? I’ve mentioned before that 2021 Nathaniel Lowe was essentially Shin-Soo Choo, the DH who retired from MLB after the 2020 season. A comparison:
Lowe in 2021: .264/.357/.415, 113 OPS+.
Choo as a Ranger: .260/.363/.429, 109 OPS+.
If we look at the Statcast data, one would think that Lowe would be putting up better numbers than he has. In 2021 he was in the 90th percentile in walk rate, 91st in maximum exit velocity, 74th in hard hit percentage, 77th in average exit velocity, 81st in chase rate. If you’re in the top quarter of all those things, you should be putting up some big offensive numbers, even if you strike out a lot (and Lowe, as we noted above, does strike out a lot — he was in the 25th percentile in K rate).
And it isn’t even something to be chalked up to bad luck — his xwOBA of .324 was actually worse than his .337 wOBA in 2021. If anything, he had good batted ball luck (as reflected by his .339 BABIP in 2021).
So what gives?
The commonly cited problem with Lowe is that he struggles with fastballs. And while that is kind of true, the reality is a little more nuanced than that.
If you go to Lowe’s Statcast page, you’ll see that he has an xwOBA of .362 on four seamers. Statcast gives him a bright red +14 in run value on four seamers in 2021 — bright red is good, that means well above average. Looking at players with at least 100 PAs ending in a four seamer on Statcast, Lowe’s .360* xwOBA on four seamers is 138th out of 268 hitters, between Alex Verdugo and Akil Baddoo.
* Yes, the .360 isolated on the Statcast search is different than the .362 on his 2021 Statcast page. I don’t know why.
Weird, huh? Why would Lowe be middle-of-the-pack in xwOBA against four seamers, but +14 and among the best in the league in run value against four seamers?
There’s two things at work here. First of all, Lowe put up a .382 wOBA against four seamer, better than his xwOBA against them, so there’s an overperformance element at work. That .382 wOBA put him 80th out of 268 hitters.
But also...Nathaniel Lowe saw a shitload of four seamers in 2021. 43.1% of the pitches he saw in 2021 were four seamers — 5th out of our 268 hitter group. He saw a total of 1161 four seamers in 2021 — second only to J.P. Crawford, who saw 1183 four seamers. The next highest was Robbie Grossman, at 1083, with five others after him who saw at least 1000 four seamers.
And because run value is cumulative, not rate-based, seeing a shitload of four seamers, plus putting up actual results that are above average against four seamers, is going to result in you having a great run value against four seamers.
In any case, the book on Lowe last year was clearly, challenge him with four seamers, he won’t do any damage against them. The team, and Lowe, acknowledged that was an issue for him, was something that he had to work on, and late in the season the coaching staff was saying they were seeing improvement from Lowe in that regard.
And interestingly, prior to September 1, Lowe had a .357 xwOBA against four seamers, with a .370 wOBA. After September 1? .383 xwOBA, .451 wOBA. So, yeah, that would be improvement.
In any case...remember how we were talking about Lowe’s lack of power? That was a particular bugaboo for him in 2021 against four seamers. He had an xSLG of .402 and an actually slugging percentage of .400 against four seamers in 2021. And that dropped to a xSLG of .353 after September 1, when we saw the improvement noted in the previous paragraph. Though he drew a lot of walks, so maybe he was just laying off four seamers more.
Ultimately, though, four seamers are the fastballs that are thrown hardest. So if Lowe was struggling with velocity, we’d expect to see it show up there. And that’s not what the Statcast data shows.
The Statcast data does show him with positive run values on offspeed pitches, and his +7 on changeups is comfortably above average.
So where’s the problem?
Nathaniel Lowe couldn’t hit sinkers in 2021. He had a -9 run value against them, well below average, along with a .262 xwOBA against sinkers.
Using a 50 PA cutoff for plate appearances ending in a sinker, we have 248 hitters in our sample group for 2021. Nathaniel Lowe’s .261 xwOBA against sinkers was 243rd out of those 248 hitters.
Here are the five hitters who were worse than Lowe against sinkers:
Lowe had a .194 xBA against two seamers, 245th out of 248 hitters. His xSLG was .265, which was 242nd (and right behind Elvis Andrus, who was a .270). His ISO was .069, which...well, its not good, but at least it is 214th, so, you know, not it the bottom 10%. 18.3% of his plate appearances that ended on a two seamer were Ks.
Unlike with four seamers, Lowe wasn’t among the tops in the league in seeing sinkers — he saw them 17% of the time, which put him 77th out of this group. If we combine four seamers and sinkers, however, and raise the plate appearance cutoff to 150, we see that 60.2% of the pitches that Nathaniel Lowe saw were fastballs — second out of 257 batters, behind only Tony Kemp.
But I think we are seeing the problem here.
You know how many home runs Nathaniel Lowe hit off of sinkers in 2021?
One. One home run off a sinker, total.
You know how many home runs Nathaniel Lowe hit off of four seamers in 2021?
Three. He saw the second most four seamers in MLB in 2021, and hit three homers off of them. The same number as Leury Garcia had. The same number as Dylan Moore had. The same number as Jason Martin had.
Lowe hit for power against non-fastballs. If we look at everything other than a four seamer or a sinker (I’m including cut fastballs in the offspeed/breaking ball category), Lowe had 14 home runs. His xSLG against those pitches was .461, which is 43rd out of 260 batters with at least 150 PAs ending in a non-fastball. His xwOBA against them was .314, which is 71st out of 260.
So Nathaniel Lowe hits well, and for power, against non-fastballs, is middling against four seamers, and is getting killed by sinkers. What else might we be able to glean from our available data?
Well, we know Nathaniel Lowe’s ground ball percentage in 2021 was 54.5%, per Fangraphs. Out of 132 qualified hitters, only six had a ground ball rate higher than that. That’s a problem for a guy you are wanting to see power from (and is what has led folks to compare Lowe to Nomar Mazara, although Lowe’s walk rate means he’s got a higher OBP, and thus more value, than Mazara ever had).
Lowe had 115 plate appearances in 2021 end on a two seamer. 21 were strikeouts and 14 were walks, which means there were 80 plate appearances where he put a ball in play. 63 of those 80 plate appearances resulted in a ground ball.
Well, that seems like a lot. 78.75% of balls in play* off of sinkers from Lowe in 2021 ended in ground balls. As a point of comparison, 55.8% of plate appearances for the league as a whole in 2021 that ended in balls in play off of sinkers resulted in ground balls.
* This includes home runs, as a point of clarification.
If we look at four seamers, there were 64 ground balls out of 140 balls in play for Lowe, compared to 76 pop up/line drive/fly ball results — 45.7% ground balls. For the league as a whole, there were 13,857 ground balls off of four seamers, compared to 26,086 results of the other variety — 34.7%.
So we’re seeing more grounders than the league as a whole off of four seamers, but the spread is less than half of the spread on sinkers.
And on all other pitches? The league as a whole had 31,362 non-ground balls and 26,534 ground balls, so a 45.8% ground ball rate. Lowe had 90 ground balls and 88 balls in the air, a 50.6% ground ball rate.
So the takeaway from all this?
2021 Nathaniel Lowe:
— Hits the ball hard
— Hits the ball on the ground too much
— Is especially vulnerable to hitting sinkers on the ground too much
— Performs fairly well against everything other than sinkers
— Can’t hit sinkers
So the solution, of course, is to get Lowe to hit the ball in the air more, and hit sinkers better. And I’m sure that is what Donnie Ecker and Tim Hyers, two coaches seen as among the best offensive coaches in the game, and who have been brought in this offseason by the Rangers to do their thing in Arlington, are looking at.
All that being said, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that 2021 Nathaniel Lowe was still...fine. Adequate. If you can get league average production for the league minimum, you’ll generally take it, and with five more years of team control remaining (at least, under the current CBA — we will see if that remains with the new CBA), Lowe would seem to be at least an inexpensive, functional member of the lineup for the next few years.
The hope is, of course, that there is more there, that with a full season in the majors under his belt and the new coaches working with him, Lowe will be able to better tap into his power, better elevate balls, and be more productive — make a jump to a 3-4 win first baseman. Its also possible, of course, that he doesn’t improve, and teams do even more to expose his weaknesses, and he regresses, ultimately providing little value.
But for now, Lowe is...okay. Acceptable. And hopefully, we’ll know more about him after the coming season.