After a season when he led all Orioles minor league pitchers in ERA and strikeouts, left-hander Zac Lowther has a strong resume to contend for the Jim Palmer Award, which goes to the Orioles’ minor league Pitcher of the Year.
Lowther had success at two levels, and did so without a blazing fastball. But his velocity didn’t keep him from pounding the zone with a high percentage of fastballs this year. It didn’t keep him from soaking up knowledge and adding to his education in learning to read bats and develop his pitchability. It didn’t keep him from posting eye-catching stats.
In 23 games between Single-A Delmarva and Single-A Frederick, the 22-year-old Lowther went 8-4 with a 2.18 ERA and .195 batting average against. In 123 2/3 innings he gave up 86 hits and just eight homers with 35 walks. He had 151 strikeouts.
Lowther was the Orioles’ minor league Pitcher of the Month for both April and June. He started the year going 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA in six starts for the Shorebirds before a quick promotion to Frederick. In 17 games with the Keys, he is 5-3 with a 2.53 ERA with 26 walks and 100 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings.
But he really dialed it up in his final eight starts of the 2018 season. He went 2-2 with a 1.86 ERA for the Keys. And in those 48 1/3 innings he walked 10, fanned 51 and gave up just one home run.
Lowther throws between 88 and 93 mph, sitting often at 89-90, with a curveball and changeup that can both flash above average. He was taken with the No. 74 overall pick in Competitive Balance Round B in the draft in 2017 out of Xavier, where he led the Big East conference in strikeouts last year. He also led the Cape Cod college summer league in strikeouts in 2016. Getting swings and misses has not been a problem for the southpaw.
“He has this deception on his fastball,” said Frederick manager Ryan Minor. “He hides the ball and has some late life and run to his fastball. His ability to throw strikes is big. He works in to righties a lot, and that is huge for any lefty. Then he throws his breaking ball and changeup to get them off his fastball. He’s been pitching primarily off his fastball. Some guys have that late hop on the ball, and he has that.”
Lowther said it was his time in the Cape Cod summer league two years when he made a big improvement and began to really catch the scouts’ attention. He can’t pinpoint exactly what helped him improve, but he did.
“I had kind of an average sophomore year, and when I went to the Cape after my sophomore year it was kind of like a coming-out party there. Personally, I don’t think I changed much, but the numbers said differently. I was able to take the mentality from pitching well on the Cape into my junior year and on to now.
“I just try to fill up the zone as much as I can. Giving the hitter too much credit takes you away from your game plan. Even a good hitter gets just three hits out of ten. I try to set myself up for the best success possible. If it’s 0-2 right away, maybe I go for one (a strikeout). But I’m trying to get balls in play and let my defense stay active. I am not going for strikeouts. I am trying to get through seven, eight innings and really just give my team the best chance.”
He may not try for strikeouts, but that deception - combined with the late hop Minor talked about - allows him to get plenty. He averaged 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings last year after the draft at short-season Single-A Aberdeen. He averaged 14.8 early this season at Delmarva and 9.7 for Frederick.
Frederick pitching coach Blaine Beatty said Lowther can have games when he throws as much as 80 percent fastballs.
“This guy loves to pitch with his fastball,” Beatty said. “His ability to pitch in allows him to pitch away later in the game with some softer stuff. Here’s a guy that just trusts his ability to locate. He will predominantly throw fastballs, and we are preaching here the ability to command the fastball. When you see hitters start making the adjustment to that fastball, you break out the other stuff.”
Lowther loves to talk pitching and soak up knowledge. He is eager to learn. He’s already had three pitching coaches in the pro game and said he has taken a lot from all three. They include Mark Hendrickson last year with Aberdeen, Justin Lord this season with Delmarva, and Beatty in Frederick.
“Mark is a big mental-side-of-the-game guy,” Lowther said. “We rarely talked any mechanical adjustments, but being able to develop the mental side is what carries guys through the organization and up to the big leagues. That is something our coaches at college preached, and I got more from a guy in Mark that has been to the big leagues. Lordy kind of helped me with my curveball and helped me develop pitches and gave me some cues on how to finish the ball and finish batters. Blaine is more of the mental side again. He says all the time he wasn’t up there because of his velocity. He was in the majors because of his pitchability. Being able to learn that side is big. You look at guys like Kyle Hendricks up in the big leagues now, they are not lighting up radar guns but they are productive. That is something I want to be able to do.”
Lowther has sure done that. Because he doesn’t light up the radar guns, he’ll probably be a pitching prospect some scouts have skepticism about, and he’ll be one of those pitchers who has to prove he can have success at every level. But that’s fine, because his performance and production will truly determine his future more than any scouting reports.
Lowther’s combination of smarts, eagerness to get better and very solid 2018 season must have the Orioles’ brass excited to see what his future has in store.