Modern analytics paired with traditional scouting helped Orioles land lefty Zac Lowther in 2017 draft

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

When getting a look at left-hander Zac Lowther in the Cape Cod Baseball League two summers ago, the Orioles and every other club scouting the college showcase there knew he'd be worth a longer look ahead of the 2017 MLB draft.

His league-leading strikeout total and the ugly swings that got him there made that clear. But with a fastball rarely bumping into the low-90s, how was he doing it?

"If you just looked at his velocity, that didn't necessarily correlate with being the top strikeout pitcher in the league," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "When you look at some of the other data a little bit more closely, you get a more complete picture as to why his fastball is deceptive and why he gets a lot of swings and misses.

"We're starting to rely on the data to help us make more intelligent choices and to help inform our choices."

The Orioles’ use of TrackMan data, which drove and supplemented their interest in Lowther from that summer on the Cape until the moment they drafted him in the second round last June, was only a piece in what was a multifaceted effort to enhance the team's farm system through any means necessary. The widespread availability of the data doesn't make what they do with it unique.

What it did do, however, was help the team arrive on a player the amateur scouting staff, the baseball operations staff and the player development staff all seem to agree could be a gem.

And that Lowther measured out at an elite level with his extension toward home plate in the team's TrackMan data helped land him with the Orioles.

"It's another tool to help you evaluate the players, and compare it on a relative basis to the skills of major league players, the required skills for the job," Duquette said. "It allows you to factor in some more precise measurements and information in evaluating pitchers, and also in evaluating hitters with the technology and the tools that allow you to be more precise in terms of their current skill level, particularly comparing it to the required skill level at the elite level."

“In today’s draft, that’s very important,” amateur scouting director Gary Rajsich said. “It’s just as important as the eyes-on.”

As is the case with many college players the Orioles have grown fond of, Lowther landed on the team's radar in the Cape Cod Baseball League in the summer of 2016. Previous top picks Cody Sedlock and Keegan Akin before him earned strong recommendations from their time in the league.

Pitching for Brewster that summer, Lowther led the circuit with 54 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings. But he didn’t blow hitters away with velocity.

Then, as he is now, Lowther was a three-pitch lefty who complements his 88-92 mph fastball with a sweeping breaking ball and a changeup. He's filled out his 6-foot-2 frame, leaving little to project physically.

Two factors, though, made him stand out. The types of ugly swings that produced those strikeouts, and what the TrackMan data from that summer on the Cape showed.

One of the 10 pitching data points tracked by the elaborate radar system is extension, which TrackMan defines as the distance from the tip of home plate to where the pitcher releases the ball. For generations, pitchers with good extension were just sneaky. Such a trait means the ball gets to the hitter faster, giving them less time to react, and in Lowther's case making middling velocity look a lot faster in the batter's box.

Lowther had always had that deception, but never quantified it. It was explained in simpler terms.

"Hitters say I throw an invisi-ball," Lowther said. "They say when they're standing out on the field, the ball looks like it's rising. ... It's definitely weird how they see it compared to how I see it."

The Orioles saw it in person, then saw it in the TrackMan data. Area scout Adrian Dorsey followed Lowther through his junior year at Xavier, where he set a school record with 123 strikeouts and fanned 13.4 batters per nine innings — the fourth-best rate in the country. Those types of statistics will get a player drafted, and Lowther entered the June draft ranked the No. 112 prospect by Baseball America and No. 127 by MLB Pipeline.

When the Orioles' pick came around at No. 74, though, a strong push from some on the analytics side put Lowther's case over the top. They had data experts in the room to push that cause. Only when he was drafted and got access to the TrackMan data from the Orioles' minor league ballparks did Lowther realize the data behind some of his success — and his selection.

"I didn't know it," Lowther said. "In college, we didn't have a lot of the data and all that, but I knew I had higher spin on my baseball. The extension thing was from sitting in the stands here and seeing the data here that they provide us. There's nothing that I really do to affect that. That's just kind of how I throw, and I'm at 88-90. The extension is what helps me."

From a pure baseball standpoint, would Lowther be with High-A Frederick and rolling into the one-year anniversary of his selection with a 1.51 ERA and 128 strikeouts in 89 1/3 professional innings with a 0.81 WHIP if there wasn't a sophisticated radar pinpointing exactly where he released the ball in his delivery? Probably.

Scouts and coaches have watched players succeed doing what Lowther has for years, and describe it succinctly. He's quick to the plate, takes the ball behind him and brings it around quickly from a low three-quarters arm slot.

"Hitters will say that they don't see the ball when he pitches," Orioles director of player development Brian Graham said.

Even Duquette concedes that the correlation doesn’t imply causation.

"I think you need a little bit more time and experience to know what metrics to rely on," Duquette said. "Each team has their own metrics that they utilize to help them rank talent, and I have to tell you, the structure of amateur baseball does a good job at identifying who the best players are — the showcases, the top college teams."

Whatever led to it has given the Orioles a crowning piece of a draft class they hope could transform their farm system and produce major league pitchers from a group that includes DL Hall, Lowther, Michael Baumann and Cameron Bishop.

Each is off to a strong start, no matter the measurement, in their first full season.

“I think just the results speak for itself,” Lowther said.

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