No. 7 pick Lowder prepped for pros in Wake Forest's Pitching Lab

July 10th, 2023

Rhett Lowder arrived at Wake Forest in 2021 knowing nothing about the wide world of pitch tracking and biomechanics.

Then, he stepped into the Lab.

The Wake Forest Pitching Lab is a Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory of pitching tech. Opened in 2019, it's a state-of-the-art facility housing a treasure trove of equipment for evaluating pitchers' stuff and mechanics.

The Pitching Lab has Trackman radars for pitch tracking data. Edgertronic cameras for slow-motion video of pitch release and trajectory. Qualisys motion capture markers and KinaTrax markerless cameras for biomechanical analysis. Force plates in the pitcher's mound. All of it is at the Wake Forest baseball team's disposal, overseen by Pitching Lab coordinator Mike McFerran and the Lab's director and biomechanist, Dr. Kristen Nicholson.

The Pitching Lab has every technological resource a young pitcher could dream of, if he wants to dream about such things. And Lowder -- the back-to-back ACC Pitcher of the Year and No. 7 overall pick in the 2023 Draft -- does.

"It's helped me a lot, because coming in, I didn't really know anything about any analytics or biomechanics, anything like that," the 21-year-old right-hander said. "I just took my time and learned what was going on -- the ball flight data, the movement tracking. But the Lab is really awesome. … There are a lot of cool things, and it's still growing."

The Pitching Lab catapulted the Wake Forest baseball program into the spotlight. The Demon Deacons were the No. 1 team in the country this season, and their pitching staff led NCAA Division I in ERA. Lowder, who went 15-0 with a 1.87 ERA, 143 strikeouts and just 24 walks in 120 1/3 innings, was their ace.

"Pitching biomechanics has really exploded in the last four years in general, and so I feel like we were really on the forefront of that," Nicholson said on one of Wake Forest's 2023 College World Series broadcasts. "When we first started this, we were really just trying to figure out how to utilize all that information we were getting from our biomechanics lab. Over the years, we've gotten a lot more buy-in from the players and from the coaches."

Major League teams eager to build their own setup have visited the Wake Forest Pitching Lab to study its model (nearly every team, according to Nicholson). Ditto for other collegiate programs. Big league pitchers also come through the Lab sometimes, giving Lowder a chance to pick their brains.

Wake Forest is at the vanguard. And now, the Pitching Lab has produced one of the top pitchers in the 2023 Draft class.

In the Lab, Lowder molded himself into the pitcher he is, embracing the data that was foreign to him only a few years ago and using the resources Wake Forest put at his fingertips.

"It was a little bit overwhelming at first," Lowder said. "But I just tried to learn. I didn't try to fix too much right at the beginning, because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about first. And I definitely don't know everything. But we have a lot of good resources that we learn from, and now, I feel like I'm a lot more educated on everything."

Lowder's typical work in the Pitching Lab might include throwing in front of the indoor Trackman system to track his pitches' speed, spin and movement, or using the Edgertronic cameras to make sure his release points, trajectory and axis are in the right place. If he wants to study his mechanics, the KinaTrax setup makes it easy to capture a throwing session on the Lab's mound.

"I think the information we have is almost unmatched," Lowder said in a recent interview with PitchingNinja. "We have so much data and so many smart people working either through the Lab or on the staff. It's unmatched.

"I would say 100% with full conviction, like if I was talking to a high school kid, if you want to reach your maximum potential, I would go to Wake."

The Lab didn't create an elite pitcher from scratch, though. It fine-tuned what Lowder brought to Wake Forest, then added to it and synergized his arsenal.

That arsenal includes a running mid-90s four-seam fastball and sinker, a low-80s gyro slider and Lowder's signature pitch: a mid-80s changeup that he throws with a funky Vulcan-style grip -- "All fingers," he described it -- and that is one of the best changeups in college baseball.

Rhett Lowder demonstrates his "all-fingers" changeup grip.

Lowder's always thrown his changeup that way; that didn't come from the Lab. But the Wake Forest Pitching Lab let him preserve his most unique pitch and construct the rest of his repertoire around the changeup -- which he calls the anchor for his pitch development.

The Pitching Lab gave Lowder a playground for pitch experimentation. Here are two examples.

  • Before this season, he wanted to add more carry to his four-seamer. He got the carry -- but all those four-seamers he was suddenly throwing started causing unintended interference with his changeups, so Lowder dialed back on the rising four-seamers and started mixing more of his sinkers back in. "The changeup is kind of my bread and butter," Lowder said. "I don't want one adjustment to affect something else."
  • Lowder throws a traditional gyro slider. But this season, he started toying with the "sweeper" style of slider that's now in vogue in the Major Leagues. However, he found that when he chased sweep, those slower, horizontal-breaking sliders always got worse outcomes than his harder, sharp sliders. So he stuck with his traditional, vertical-breaking slider in the end. "No matter what the shape was, it was [about] pure velocity," he told PitchingNinja. "The velocity showed better results."

Lowder has also frequently used the Lab for pitch diagnosis. Maybe one of his pitches didn't feel right during a game, and he wanted to dive into the data to find out why.

"I let results speak," Lowder said. "So I break down my outings and see where I'm getting hurt, what's working the best. … I don't dive too deep into ball flight data during the season, but if I feel something's off, I'll go and check out the data from that outing and see if I can backtrack from there."

With all the measurables he can track in the Wake Forest Pitching Lab, Lowder can ensure all his pitches stay efficient and that he's hitting his velocity, spin, movement and release point goals with each pitch.

"I have some target metrics that we have kind of put in place there that I know perform the best," Lowder said. "So, [for example,] I keep the changeup tilt closer to 3 o'clock, and that gets the vertical movement kind of where I want to. … I think spin direction, it tells you where your pitches lie pretty truthfully."

And, of course, there's pitch design. Lowder's slider was built in the Lab.

"That was something I had to create at the Lab, and then just trial and error," Lowder told PitchingNinja. "You can go in the Lab with the Edgertronic cameras and markered up and everything, and then just search for one ideal pitch shape and work backward. How did I move on that? What are the target numbers I'm looking for? That was something that I worked pretty hard at, and I can pretty much only credit the Lab for that."

Lowder's three years of evolution as a pitcher at Wake Forest -- his three years of work in the Pitching Lab -- culminated in the biggest, and last, start of his collegiate career: one of the great pitchers' duels in College World Series history against No. 1 overall pick Paul Skenes.

In a winner-take-all game with a spot in the College World Series finals on the line, Lowder and Skenes were both dazzling -- Skenes' raw firepower vs. Lowder's data-driven pitch mix. Skenes went eight scoreless innings, with just two hits allowed and nine strikeouts. Lowder nearly matched him, going seven scoreless with three hits allowed and six K's.

Lowder calls it one of the most fun games he's ever pitched. And it showcased who he is as a pitcher, and what makes him unique.

"I just try to run my own way, and then take in a lot of information that I learned through our Lab, and through all our research that we found," Lowder told PitchingNinja. "And just kind of do my own thing."