You know, 2020 has been a crappy year. #analysis
And from a baseball standpoint, 2020 was an especially crappy year for minor leaguers, who saw their seasons completely wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those at the beginning of their professional journeys were denied the chance to improve and gain experience with competitive reps, while those near the top of the organizational ladder saw their hopes of making their major league debut abruptly halted.
Orioles left-hander Zac Lowther falls somewhere in the middle of those two groups. He still had more to learn and more to prove in the upper minors, but a strong showing at Triple-A could have earned him a promotion to the bigs before the end of the season. Instead, the minor league shutdown put him into a kind of stasis. He’ll enter the 2021 season still ticketed for Norfolk — if minor league baseball resumes next year, which is a big if — but the 6-foot-2 southpaw, who will be 25 in April, has seen his career essentially stalled for a year through no fault of his own.
When Lowther last pitched competitively, he was outstanding. At Double-A, he was the best starter in a loaded 2019 Bowie Baysox rotation that included five pitchers with sub-3.00 ERAs (min. 10 starts). Lowther led that stellar group with 26 starts, 13 wins, 154 strikeouts, 9.4 strikeouts per nine, and 2.44 strikeouts per walk. His 2.55 ERA was topped only by Michael Baumann’s 2.31 in a half-season stint. Lowther was named to both the midseason and end-of-season Eastern League All-Star teams.
It was a spectacular follow-up to his sensational 2018 season, in which the Orioles named him their Minor League Co-Pitcher of the Year along with Keegan Akin. That season, in 23 games split between Low-A Delmarva and High-A Frederick, Lowther posted a 2.18 ERA and led all O’s minor leaguers with 151 strikeouts. He held left-handed hitters to a .174 average and .501 OPS; righties fared little better at .193 and .537.
The story has been the same throughout Lowther’s minor league career: pure and utter domination. The Orioles drafted him from Xavier in the second round in 2017 with the 74th overall pick, making him the highest ever selection from that school. He reported to short-season Aberdeen later that year and rolled through 12 games with a 1.66 ERA and 75 strikeouts, and off to the races he went. In his three-year minor league career, Lowther is 23-13 with a 2.26 ERA and 10.5 strikeouts per nine.
With numbers like that, then, why isn’t Lowther considered the same tier of prospect as Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall? It’s because he’s not going to dazzle you with a triple-digit fastball or a wipeout slider. And when a prospect lacks that arsenal of filthy stuff, the questions are bound to arise: can he continue having success each time he moves up the ladder, as the quality of competition gets better and better?
So far, Lowther has quieted any doubters. What he lacks in a high-octane fastball he makes up for in command and pitching savvy, says MLB Pipeline, which ranks him as the Orioles’ 11th-best prospect:
Lowther doesn’t have dominant pure stuff, instead relying on a combination of deception, pitchability and the magic of his ultra high-spin fastball. The pitch only regularly registered between 87-91 mph, though it can click slightly higher at times. But it plays up due to Lowther’s low release point and big extension, which give the heater an “invisible” element he uses to get swings and misses both in and above the strike zone. He plays it off an above-average spike curve, serviceable changeup and has worked to incorporate a slider into his arsenal.
The late 2018 arrival of general manager Mike Elias, and the club’s addition of analytics-oriented technology, have brought new opportunities for Lowther to hone his craft. “We have the [Edgertronic] camera sending up video with overlays of my curveball, and from that I make sure that my hand is in the right placement,” Lowther told FanGraphs in an April interview. “I can do drills every day to feel the spin, and not waste reps when I’m throwing the ball. The has kind of jumpstarted those quality reps.”
This year, Lowther would have gotten his first look at Triple-A hitters, many of whom have had big league experience. It would have been his toughest test yet...but, of course, the same was true at every one of his previous stops, and he definitively proved himself at each level.
Instead, he saw relatively little on-field action this year. He wasn’t included in the Orioles’ initial 60-man player pool in July, and it wasn’t until Sept. 4 that he joined the club’s alternate camp at Bowie. That late arrival, coupled with his lack of Triple-A experience, eliminated any possibility that he’d be promoted to the majors like Akin, Dean Kremer, and Bruce Zimmermann this year. To make up for his comparatively short stint at camp, the O’s invited Lowther to their fall instructional camp that wrapped up last week.
This winter, the Orioles need to add Lowther to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, and it’s a slam dunk that they will. As a close-to-big-league-ready, high-pitchability lefty whose had success since day one in his professional career, he’d be primed to get snatched up by another team if the O’s made him available, especially with teams slashing costs and looking for cheap, young talent.
The Birds won’t, and shouldn’t, take that chance. Expect Lowther to be added to their roster by the Nov. 20 deadline, and barring any pandemic-related chaos in 2021, the Ohio native is on track to arrive in the major leagues sometime next season.