Tampa Bay Rays' Brandon Lowe may be MLB's most underrated superstar heading into 2022
Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe has posted an extraordinarily harrowing .423 OPS across 29 career playoff games and aside from his multi-home run Game 2 of the 2020 World Series, which came following a season where he led the team in hits, home runs and RBI, Lowe has yet to make noise when the lights are at their brightest. In the sixty game sprint, Brandon Lowe hit 14 home runs and a 154 OPS+, posting offensive numbers 54% better than the league average player.
Tropicana Field is an indoor venue where the air travels up, so naturally, it would often "get Lowe'd" when Brandon Lowe would announce his presence with the utmost authority. In 149 games in 2021, the 26-year-old sweet-swinging lefty mashed as he led the team to the top seed in the American League. Lowe hit 39 homeruns as he paced the Rays and finished fourth in the American League in homeruns. Lowe's 39 homeruns trailed only Royals' backstop Salvador Perez in his record-setting campaign, Blue Jays' sluggers Marcus Semien and Vladimir Guerrero, as well eventual-MVP Shohei Ohtani.
2021 was the emergence of the potential that led to the Rays signing Lowe to an eight-year extension, buying out all of his pre-arbitration and arbitration seasons as well as his first two seasons of free agency prior to Lowe even establishing himself as a premiere MLB player. Lowe rewarded the Rays faith with an All-Star selection in the 2019 season, but was limited to only 82 games due to a bruised right leg and a left quad strain. Despite playing only half of the team's games, Lowe still put up a strong enough effort to warrant a top three finish in the race for American League Rookie of the Year, bolstered by his .270/.336/.514 slash.
Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe's 2021 WAR was second among true 2B
Lowe has become arguably the best second baseman in baseball, with his 2021 WAR of 4.8 being only second among true second basemen, behind the aforementioned Semien who had spent the prior eight seasons as a shortstop. 2021 was Semien's first All-Star selection at the age of 30. Semien will likely play second base going forward as the new Texas Ranger is now teammates with superstar shortstop Corey Seager.
Semien's scintillating one-year bargain for the Toronto Blue Jays landed him a contract that will put him in Arlington through the age of 37 worth $175M. If the market is dictating an excess of $25M per year for an aging second baseman with one All-Star caliber season under his belt, Brandon Lowe would command significantly more in what has become a buyers market for talented middle infield.
Brandon Lowe is set to make an estimated $35M over the next four years, under the assumption that the Rays pick-up both of his options. With Lowe set to make just under $9MM per year on average in his prime seasons, the Rays bet on him early paid off in spades as they have a superstar at a premium position at a discounted rate long-term.
This ultimately makes Lowe one of the most valuable assets in the league, with such a dynamic middle-of-the-order bat at such an inexpensive rate. Finally accruing enough time for it to be considered a full season across the normal 162 schedule, Lowe hit the ball hard all season.
A quick check of Baseball Savant would show that Lowe is in the 87th percentile in barrel percentage and 67th percentile in hard hit percentage. Not only is he hitting the ball hard, but he's finding the sweet spot of his stroke in a routinely fashion.
The adage is that dynamite comes in small packages and despite Lowe's 5'10, undaunting frame, Lowe finds a power stroke like few other second baseman have before him. Baseball Reference's similarity scores rate him nearly-identical to Jeff Kent through age 26. Kent, of course, went onto win an MVP award and hit 377 lifetime homeruns, the most all-time for a second baseman.
One aspect of Brandon Lowe's game that is under-the-radar is the lack of double plays. While Lowe's strikeout rates are high to the more traditional fan, he's the prototype for what the game has evolved into and what ballclubs are looking to slot into their lineup. Teams would rather a player strikeout than protect and ground into a routine double play in a high leverage situation. The game has fixated on maximizing the quality of your contact rather than the quantity of it.
Lowe not only exemplifies stellar results with his contact (.308 lifetime BABiP and .263 lifetime ISO), but his poor contact in big-time situations is arguably the league's best. Lowe hit into only two double plays last season despite 260 opportunities with at least one base occupied. There was less than a one percent chance of Brandon Lowe hitting into a twin killing in 2021. Brandon Lowe is every manager's dream in high-leverage situations.
In fact, Lowe is a manager's dream in other scenarios as well. In a game where the shift is such a commonplace, Brandon Lowe is one of the more difficult players to shift against. While Lowe pulled the ball 35% of the time in 2021 as opposed to hitting it to the opposite field only 19% of the time, that means he hit it up the middle nearly 47% of the time, forcing defenses to play him straight up often. Lowe's linedrive percentage sat around 25% and a fly ball percentage 33% of the time, the quality of his contact elevate the ball more than half the time he made solid contact.
Lowe, a fan-favorite for good reason, is arguably Tampa's top hitter on a team that features Wander Franco and reigning Rookie of the Year Randy Arozarena. Brandon Lowe offers insane value to the Rays and is a constant staple in an ever-shuffling lineup. At the price tag, there may not be a better bargain for a superstar in MLB.