Not a Rookie: Mark Lowe
Per reader request, a Not a Rookie for Mariners reliever Mark Lowe.
Mark Lowe was a setup man at the University of Texas-Arlington in 2004, posting a 3.74 ERA with a 48/19 K/BB in 53 innings, with 54 hits allowed. He picked up three saves but was mostly used as a middle reliever. He was considered raw for a college pitcher, but nevertheless pro scouts were interested because of his arm strength and 6-3, 180 pound frame The Mariners drafted him in the fifth round in '04 and sent him to short-season Everett, where he posted a 4.93 ERA with a 38/14 K/BB in 38 innings, allowing 42 hits. I gave him a Grade C in the 2005 book, noting his 90-93 MPH sinking fastball, but also the need for him to improve his secondary pitches, which were weak at the time.
Used as a starter for Class A Wisconsin in 2005, Lowe posted a 5.47 ERA with a 72/49 K/BB in 104 innings, allowing 107 hits. He still had the 90-93 MPH heater, but his slider and changeup were below average, and all of his component ratios were below average. I did not put him in the 2006 book; there seemed no sabermetric or scouting reason to do so. There are lots of guys in A-ball who can throw 90-93 MPH but with no idea what they are doing, and Lowe didn't stand out among them.
In 2006, Lowe moved back to the bullpen, this time for Inland Empire in the California League. His velocity kicked up a notch, to 93-96 MPH. His slider and changeup suddenly improved as well, enabling him to post a 1.84 ERA with a 46/11 K/BB in just 29 innings, with 14 hits allowed. Promoted to Double-A San Antonio, he posted a 2.16 ERA with a 14/3 K/BB in 17 innings and picked up four saves. He finished the year with a 1.93 ERA and a 20/9 K/BB in 19 innings in the Mariners bullpen.
From mediocre A-ball pitcher to a strong major league debut: '06 was quite a year. It ended on a sour note, however, as Lowe was shut down early with a sore elbow. Examination revealed that Lowe had no cartilage in his elbow joint, and doctors performed surgery to correct the problem. He saw just a handful of innings in '07.
Lowe came back healthy in '08 and posted a 5.37 ERA with a 55/34 K/BB in 64 innings for the Mariners, allowing 78 hits. Considering that he was rebounding from surgery and had almost no high-level minor league experience, he didn't do too badly. His FIP was much better than his ERA at 4.42. Last year he was much more effective: 3.26 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 69/29 K/BB in 80 innings, 71 hits. His K/IP ratio remained rock-steady from '08, but he cut his walks substantially and didn't give up as many hits.
Why is Lowe so much better now than he was in college and the low minors? He throws 94-97 now rather than 90-93 for one thing, likely a result of simple physical maturity: he's 30 pounds bigger and stronger than he was when drafted. His slider is much better, and he has a decent changeup for a reliever. Many times, raw college pitchers fail to develop in the expected way, but in Lowe's case the Mariners saw something they liked, and were able to develop it. He's shown fortitude by overcoming some adversity with the elbow injury. Overall, he serves as a good example of how a Grade C prospect can, under the right circumstances, come out of nowhere and surprise us.