After bursting onto the scene in 2006 throwing some serious gas with the Seattle Mariners, Mark Lowe has shown a penchant for getting injured. A lot. From a microfracture cartilage defect which required surgery to elbow inflammations to foot contusions to more surgery on his lower back to thigh strains and intercostal pulls, Lowe has spent a lot of time not pitching. Totaled up, he has spent a cumulative 447 days on the disabled list, costing him some 372 games in his career.
Lowe's health status has always been a major issue, and is a big reason why his career statistics are rather mundane. Lowe has a career 3.80 ERA and 3.98 FIP in 336 1/3 innings. His 1.40 WHIP and 2.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio aren't all that impressive for a reliever expected to fill a major hole in the Tigers' bullpen.
Yet, teams always felt that if Lowe could somehow stay healthy for a sustained period of time, he had the chance to become a very high level bullpen arm. The outlook on him was almost always high, because he could do this.
An easy, smooth, 97 miles per hour. Nasty, very high upside stuff, if he could control it.
In the early part of Lowe's career (injuries aside), the strikeouts were always there. He struck out over eight batters per nine innings from 2006 to 2011, though his two healthiest seasons (2008 and 2009) resulted in his lowest strikeout rates. His command was the main problem, though.
Excluding the years that he threw less than 10 innings due to injury, it becomes quite obvious Lowe has always had a tendency to issue too many free passes.
Now when we look at his numbers from 2015 we see a marked difference, striking out nearly ten batters per nine innings and only walking around two, resulting in a very healthy strikeout-to-walk ratio above five. What happened to turn a previously erratic pitcher with strikeout numbers trending downwards into an elite arm so suddenly?
The first thing was velocity. It returned, and returned in a big way.
The uptick in his fastball (and slider to a lesser extent) is clear. Lowe was back to throwing at 2009 and 2011 levels which, not coincidentally, were the years in which he had his second and third lowest walk rates. It appears that being fully healthy and able to let his pitches rip also gave him more confidence over his control, thus allowing less free base runners and earning him his highest strikeout rate in the four years since.
The next thing to focus on is his slider. He explains himself how the changes he made with the pitch have allowed him to increase the spin and depth to it. The problem was the way Lowe was gripping the ball. His grip was roughly the same, but he says he wasn’t applying enough pressure with his fingertips to get the purchase on the ball he was after. Let him tell you in his own words.
The new grip led to some very nice results.
He was now throwing his slider harder than at any time since 2007 and with more vertical drop than an any time since then as well. This allowed him to put up a swinging strike percentage of 14.1 percent, the best of his career to date, along with its highest whiffs per swing rate since 2009 and the highest raw strikeout numbers with it since his step up to the show.
Interesting to note is that Lowe's excellent 2015 results (1.96 ERA, 2.57 FIP) had him pegged in the first page of relievers in almost all the important categories on FanGraphs and would have led all Tigers bullpen arms in any category you wish to name.
Essentially, the 6'3 righty from Texas has found his armoury once again, got fully healthy, and refined the stuff that got him to the big leagues in the first place. It's an informative tale of perseverance and mechanical tweaking that shows that not all is lost even in the twilight of a players career when production seems to be heading south.
We all know the trials and tribulations of the Tigers relief corps over the last, well, forever it feels like. With the addition of Francisco Rodriguez and now Lowe, general manager Al Avila looks to have gone quite some way in his efforts to shorten games to help a rotation that still carries a little uncertainty in the back end.
Is the Tigers bullpen set with this signing? I think we'd all say 'no' to that question, but this signing certainly helps. If Lowe can go most of the way towards replicating his 2015 performance in 2016 and 2017, then he'll be worth every bit of his $5.5 million salary and then some.