'I want to be in that top tier of players': Lowe aiming high in '22

April 3rd, 2022

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Early on in Spring Training last year, was talking about his goals for the season when he mentioned, unprompted, it would “really be nice to be better than 53.” What was the significance of 53? It was where he was ranked on MLB Network’s 2021 list of the Top 100 Players Right Now.

Lowe did what he could last season to move up the list. He hit 39 homers, drove in 99 runs, posted an .863 OPS, finished 10th in the American League MVP voting and, for the second straight year, led the AL’s best team in Wins Above Replacement.

But as Lowe stood in the Rays’ Spring Training clubhouse at Charlotte Sports Park on Saturday morning, looking back at last season and ahead to this one, the bottom line on MLB Network scrolled to his place on the 2022 list: No. 56, three spots lower than last year.

This time, one of baseball’s most underrated stars isn’t sweating his ranking. He knows what he’s done, and he knows what he wants to do even better.

“To say that I put the same amount of weight on it as I did last year, it's not there,” Lowe said.

In what might be a perfect representation of Lowe’s perfectionist tendencies, the 27-year-old second baseman began assessing his performance last season by noting he would’ve “had a lot more fun” if not for the season-opening slump that left him hitting .198 with a .689 OPS on June 22. From that point on, he hit .289 with a 1.013 OPS.

Lowe declined to elaborate on the specific adjustments he made to turn his season around, saying he’d “keep that in the back pocket,” but acknowledged he learned more about how to move past a tough stretch and, ideally, do so more quickly the next time he hits a rough patch at the plate.

“I'm not going to take anything away from how that season ended up going for me, but I'm hoping to not get off to quite as rocky of a start this year,” Lowe said. “I'm on my way there to really understanding what I'm doing and what I need to do in my swing, so hopefully, when that past Brandon's slump became a month, now it may be two weeks or shorter.”

Still, Lowe allowed himself to appreciate the year he put together, which was the first time he’s been able to see what he’s capable of over a full, healthy season. He tried to take a step back from the high standard he sets for himself -- “better than 53,” remember -- and see it through the lens of a seemingly undersized infielder who had one college offer after going undrafted out of high school.

“I came from middle-of-nowhere Virginia, always the small kid, always told that I was never going to be able to play baseball at the highest of levels,” Lowe said. “To not look at it as a big leaguer looking at my stats, but look at it as, 'This has been my dream since I was 5 years old’? It was really cool.

“Now, does 39 [homers] and 99 [RBIs] bug me a little bit as the perfectionist that I am? Absolutely. I would have loved 40 and 100.”

Just that quickly, the other side of Lowe showed up -- the side motivating him at all times, wanting to play so well that his numbers stack up with Mike Trout and he’s considered the best second baseman in the Majors.

“To say I'm going to go and be Mike Trout might be a little bit of a stretch, but it's the goal,” he said. “That's kind of one of the driving factors -- there's a top tier of players, and I want to be in that top tier of players.”

Statistically, he’s close -- if not already there. Over the last two years, including the shortened 2020 campaign, he’s totaled 7.2 WAR -- tied with Yankees star Aaron Judge and trailing only 15 other hitters in baseball. And yet, Lowe probably isn’t even the most well-known player on his own team.

That’s not to suggest what he's done has gone unnoticed. It certainly hasn’t in Tampa Bay’s clubhouse.

“Just incredible. He does what he does, and he is a key component to our lineup every year. He is very, very underrated still,” veteran center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “He's really good, and he's going to be good for a lot of years. ... He's going to be jogging around those bases for years to come, I promise you that.”

Lowe admitted it’d be nice to top 40 home runs this season, if only to “prove that 39 wasn’t some crazy coincidence.” He has more important goals, unrelated to his numbers -- or which spot he occupies on next year’s Top 100 list -- and they all involve getting the Rays back to the postseason for a fourth straight year.

First, he’s setting his sights on a three-peat in the AL East. And if they check that box, Lowe understands, the Rays will need more from him in October than he's provided in the past. He initially brushed aside his struggles in the 2020 playoffs, when he hit .118 with 28 strikeouts in 82 plate appearances, as the product of a strange season or even just a small-sample-size slump.

Then, in the Rays’ four-game loss to the Red Sox in last year’s AL Division Series, Lowe went 0-for-18 with nine strikeouts. He had some hard-hit balls, especially in Game 1, but had nothing to show for any of his work. He went home to Nashville, Tenn., where he worked out all offseason, with a sour taste in his mouth.

But first, right after the Rays’ season ended, Lowe pulled aside coordinator of Major League operations Bobby Kinne and asked him to do a deep dive on his postseason performance, then report back with as much unforgiving information as possible.

“Last year, after the postseason ended, I personally went in and was like, 'Give me every single type of number that you can give me. Why am I not Brandon Lowe in the postseason?'” he said. “So I went back and sat down with Bobby and sat down with some of our analytic guys, like, 'Let's figure this out. What's going differently?'

“We think we figured some stuff out, so hopefully we get to the postseason again this year, with an AL East title under our belt, and we have a little bit more fun in the postseason.”

What would be most fun of all for Lowe?

“Obviously, to hold up the trophy at the end of the year,” Lowe said.