2 big changes led Lowe to strong '15 season
New Tigers reliever got career on track after struggling for a couple of years
DETROIT -- Mark Lowe's career wasn't at a crossroads, he insists.
"I was a long way away from [retirement]," he said Tuesday.
Lowe was healthy, still young (31) by reliever terms and enjoying the game when he signed a Minor League deal with the Mariners last offseason. He was happy about being close to home, having built a house for his family in Vancouver, Wash. But his days among the game's reliable relievers were falling into the more distant past, with no assurance he could get them back again.
If Lowe wasn't at a crossroads, he was at least in a multi-year funk. The mid-90s fastball that powered his game for years left him three years ago, out of a mechanical flaw as best as he can tell, and he wasn't sure how to pitch without it. The slider he was trying to hone became a long-term project while his career stagnated.
"I literally tried everything," he said. "Other than throwing submarine, I tried everything to figure it out."
After spending his first seven big league seasons with the Mariners and Rangers, he bounced around five different organizations in 2013 and '14, tossing just 18 2/3 Major League innings in that span. At that point, simply sticking in the Majors again seemed like a dream.
As Lowe recounted his journey with Detroit media on a conference call Tuesday, having just signed a two-year, $11 million contract to join the Tigers' bullpen reconstruction, he sounded like someone whose fortunes had reversed.
"Last offseason, I changed some workout routines and everything kind of came back," he said. "Every change I made ended up paying huge dividends for me all season long."
The first big change he made was his workouts. The next was his slider.
"I was in Spring Training with the Mariners last year and watching Dominic Leone throw a bullpen," Lowe said. "He was throwing this cutter that I thought was one of the best cutters I've ever seen. I asked him in the training room how he throws it. He showed me how he threw it, and the grip and everything, and I went out and threw it the next day.
"I felt like I could have the same arm speed as my fastball, but I had better command on it than the slider I had at that point in time."
The slider sharpened. Meanwhile, the fastball velocity picked up. Lowe hadn't averaged 93 mph on his fastball in three years, according to FanGraphs.com, but his 95.5-mph average was his highest since 2011. His slider, meanwhile, averaged 86.7 mph, harder than he ever averaged for a season with his old slider grip.
"I can manipulate the slider now," he said. "I can make it dive, I can make it back up, I can make it back down. It's one pitch, but I guess it's like three different pitches based on what I can do with it."
The end result of that pitch was about a 40 percent swing-and-miss rate for the season between the Mariners and Blue Jays, according to STATS. Hitters chased the slider out of the strike zone at nearly the same rate. Even when they swung at sliders in the zone, they missed them better than a quarter of the time.
"When I started the year in Triple-A, during that one month of the year I was in Triple-A, I feel like I perfected it," Lowe said. "And that was what I did all year. … I just ran with it.
"It was just one of those things. Every change I made, it worked, and it was a fun year."
Between his new role and the contract, it was also a very rewarding year.