Amid a long and grueling season filled with both disappointment and delight, one must focus on the joys of baseball to maintain their sanity. The randomness of this game is too often a sobering reminder of the lack of knowledge we truly possess. To avoid being beaten down by too much misery, we search for the little joys to help us maintain our love for the game.
One of the best stories that’s emerged this year has been the dominance of Mark Lowe. His career has been a roller coaster and it’s finally peaking again during his second stint with the Mariners. He’s overcome injuries and ineffectiveness to become one of the more reliable arms out of the bullpen this year. Of course, he’s a reliever with a long injury history and this could all come crashing down tomorrow. But for now, while we still can, let’s celebrate the ways in which Mark Lowe is beating the odds.
Lowe was drafted in 2004 in the fifth round and made his major league debut in 2006. He was known for a fastball that could reach triple digits and two killer offspeed pitches, a slider and a changeup. Two elbow surgeries wiped out most of 2006 and 2007 and his velocity was never the same. He would be included in the Cliff Lee deal with Texas and ended up pitching in both of their World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011. He’s bounced around the league since then, seeing time with the Angels and the Indians before signing a minor league contract with the Mariners this offseason.
He came into Spring Training without many expectations.
"I was in Tampa last year. When I signed, there were three or four spots wide open. It looked like the perfect opportunity. Then they ended up going out and getting three or four guys to fill spots. I had the best spring I’ve ever had, and I was still released. You can try to maneuver your way into what you think is a perfect situation, but how do you know it will stay a perfect situation?"
Soon enough, a bullpen that led the league in ERA and FIP last year saw a spot open up and Lowe was recalled from Triple-A on May 4th (be with you).
When you’re a 31-year-old journeyman reliever, you need to be able to stand out from the pack or risk being lost among the hordes of pitchers who are hoping for their lucky break. Fortunately for Mark Lowe, both of his pitches have characteristics that make them outliers.
At this point in his career, Lowe is a two pitch pitcher—he’s abandoned his changeup in favor of more sliders. And with good reason too. His slider is a nasty pitch that’s gotten even better with a simple tweak. I’ll let Mark explain:
We can definitely see the increase in velocity in this graph from Brooks Baseball:
That added velocity has made the pitch more effective. He’s been able to generate a whiff with the pitch 41% of the time a batter swings which has driven his strikeout rate above 30%.
His new grip has also affected the pitch’s movement. His slider has always had very little horizontal movement but he’s taken that to an extreme this year. Among all right-handed pitchers who have thrown a slider more than 100 times, Mark Lowe’s slider has the sixth lowest horizontal movement. Here’s a look at the horizontal movement of his pitches throughout his career:
His slider is now looking more like it did back in 2007 but it now has an additional three inches of vertical drop. Here’s an example of what it looks like from yesterday’s game against the Tigers:
There’s one other nugget in that horizontal movement graph and you probably already saw it. His fastball has a different shape to it as well. His fastball breaks in towards right-handed batters more than it ever has. In fact, his fastball has the third highest horizontal movement among all right-handed pitchers in baseball. That’s helped him generate a whiff with that pitch almost 20% of the time a batter swings. Here’s a look at his fastball, also from yesterday’s game:
Because the pitch breaks in on him, Castellanos is only just able to make contact near his hands. The pitch is actually more effective against lefties and he’s been able to use it to keep opposite handed batters at bay.
Some of Lowe’s results have been driven by a high strand rate (87.5%) but his BABIP is also a very high .350. Both of those marks could regress towards league average but his high strikeout rate should keep his strand rate pretty high. He’s given up just four runs all year and the Mariners are starting to trust him with more high leverage innings. His two pitches are above average with a few characteristics that help him stand out from the pack. For someone who was a free flier this offseason, that has all the makings of a great story.