The Tampa Bay Rays do not have a Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Giancarlo Stanton or Xander Bogaerts on their roster. Yet, they look to win their second consecutive AL East crown, as they go into August 31st with a seven game lead on their divisional opponents.
The Rays are known for their usual excellent pitching and defense. Even without ace Tyler Glasnow since prior to the All-Star break, the Rays have a 3.67 ERA and a 1.17 cumulative WHIP from their pitching staff in 2021. The more fascinating thing to look at with the 2021 Rays is on the offensive side of things. Two of the Rays three All-Stars came from the lineup, as first timers Mike Zunino and Joey Wendle had excellent first halves. While Zunino has performed slightly better in the second half, Wendle has hit just two homeruns and an OPS south of .700 since the All-Star game. The Rays .240 team batting average ranks 17th in baseball, .422 SLG ranks ninth and their .319 OBP ranks 13th. They have struck out more than any team in baseball other than the Chicago Cubs. Yet, they have the highest runs scored per game in the league.
The Rays 702 runs scored on the season are first in baseball, leading the Houston Astros by three runs total. Their 481 total walks is the second most in the American League. They send more hitters to the plate per inning on average than any other team in baseball. The adage that striking out. taking walks and trying to hit homeruns is worse than putting the ball in play is dated and has been proven an inadequate argument. While the Rays lead the league in strikeouts, they lead all of baseball in putting runs across. In 2021, the three-true outcome has taken over the game and the Rays have excelled at it. The Rays are second in the American League in walks and only 15 homeruns shy from the most in baseball as a team. The most telling stat, however, is that the approach where they’d rather strikeout than jam themselves seems to have worked because the Rays have grounded into the least amount of double plays in baseball. Sure, their batting average is .240. Traditional purists may think that’s not sustainable to win, but the Rays have proved the old baseball way was blissful ignorance. If you don’t put the ball in play with runners on and the pitcher painting the corner, you may strike out, but you won’t end the rally by softly hitting it to the third baseman. A strikeout is a more desirable result than a double play every time.
At the forefront of this model is second baseman Brandon Lowe. Lowe, an All-Star in 2019, is having yet another under-the-radar campaign where he’s quietly been the most essential Rays hitter. Hitting his 31st homerun against Nick Pivetta during last night’s ballgame and helping extend the Rays lead over the Red Sox to nine games, Lowe continued his interesting season. Lowe, who’s posted a 3.4 WAR on the season, has the aforementioned 31 homeruns including nine in August. If he hits nine in September, Lowe will have his first forty homer season. With 143 Ks and only 61 BB, Lowe has a 28% K rate to only a 12% BB rate. He has a .235 batting average and .339 OBP. By traditional standards, that’s not the best offensive approach at the plate. Breaking it down further, however, he has grounded into only two double plays this year, despite finding himself in 213 opportunities with runners on base. His GIDP total is the least in baseball among qualified hitters, tied with Brewers’ Eduardo Escobar.
Brandon Lowe being hard to shift does have quite a bit to do with it. Over his career, Lowe has hit the ball to center 49% of the time, pulled it 35% of the time and hit it to the opposite field 16% of the time. With his 2021 averages falling almost exactly in line with those totals, he’s not surefire to hit it into any specific direction. This has provided results for Lowe, with a lifetime .307 BaBIP (.271 on the season). This gives credence to the idea that perhaps Lowe isn’t trying to get a basehit every time at the plate, because his batting average on balls he puts in play is rather high. Despite a league-average exit velocity, Lowe still slugs among the best in the league thanks to his 31 homeruns and 25 doubles. This is helped by his 43.8% hard hit percentage, four percent above league-average. Both his line drive and groundball percentages are below league-average, while his flyball percentage is above league-average. The EV total may be average due to him trying to elevate the ball every time at bat, leading to more pop ups. It makes sense, though, as the Rays approach seems to be trying to put homeruns in play a majority of the time, with Lowe leading the team in homeruns. You can’t hit a homerun if you don’t hit a flyball over the wall.
All things considered, Lowe has had a very solid season for the first-place Tampa Bay Rays. Lowe’s 31 homeruns are four ahead of catcher Mike Zunino for the team lead, while his 78 RBI are the second to Austin Meadows’ 92 for the team lead. His .844 OPS is only four shy of Mike Zunino for the team lead while his .339 OBP is third on the team, behind Yandy Diaz’s .362 and Randy Arozarena’s .354. Lowe’s .360 rOBA is higher than the MLB average .325 and his rBAT is 36% higher than league-average. Lowe has a 138 OPS+, 38% higher than league-average. Brandon Lowe is the biggest analytical darling on MLBs top analytically-driven ballclub. The Rays are surging their way to the postseason again thanks to a unique offensive approach and at the forefront is Brandon Lowe.
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