Jed Lowrie Is Completely Different and Exactly the Same

If you’ve been following baseball over the last several seasons, you likely know at least two things about Jed Lowrie. The first is that he’s had some trouble staying on the field for a full season during his career; the second, that he wears a two-flap helmet in a league of men who insist they only need one. A slightly more dedicated fan could probably tell you that Lowrie has played for the Red Sox, Astros, and A’s during his tenure and would probably describe his performance as “fine.”

In his earlier days, Lowrie showed promise as a hitter. More recently, though, he’s settled in as something slightly below league average at the plate. His defense is something of a controversy, with Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) considering him to be a rather poor middle infielder and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) viewing his defense as something much closer to average. The collective eye test probably places him closer to his DRS than his UZR numbers, but there’s plenty of human disagreement as well.

This introduction, perhaps on purpose, paints Lowrie as exactly the kind of player who doesn’t get a lot of attention. Relative to his peers, Lowrie almost seems boring. Yet there’s a case to be made that he’s having one of the most interesting seasons of anyone in baseball.

At a very basic level, this graph supports the Boring Hypothesis and shows a player settling in somewhere between 85-95 wRC+. Note that he only had 76 plate appearances in 2009.

Screenshot 2016-07-21 at 12.54.47 PM

In terms of results, Lowrie has produced a very similar season in 2016 to those which he’s recorded over last two — and he sits just five percentage points below his 91 wRC+ from 2015. The delightful part of this is that he is registering a very similar adjusted batting line while experiencing one of the largest ISO declines among hitters with 200-plus PA in both 2015 and 2016 — and one of the largest BABIP increases among the same group. Jed Lowrie is providing the same offensive value as he did a year ago in a dramatically different way.

Jed Lowrie
2015 263 10.6% 16.3% .178 .233 91
2016 320 7.2% 17.5% .065 .336 86
Difference -3.4% +1.2% -.113 +.133 -5

It’s not that unusual for a player to have a big BABIP fluctuation given some of the randomness related to outcomes on balls in play. Nor is it that rare for a player’s ISO to jump around a bit, especially over a sample of fewer than 400 PA. But if you put the two factors together, it becomes more likely that the player is doing something new to achieve those results. If you’re curious, Paulo Orlando is doing something similar, although he doesn’t even have 500 MLB PA to his name, so his case is probably less interesting.

As you might expect from a guy who dropped his ISO and increased his BABIP, Lowrie is hitting more ground balls than ever before:

Screenshot 2016-07-21 at 1.21.24 PM

Even leaving out the small-sample outlier from 2009, Lowrie has been trending towards convergence his entire career but he’s delivered a big shift this season. It’s hard to imagine something this marked is unintentional, especially considering that he’s a switch-hitter and that all of these trends have occurred on both sides of the plate.

As Eno Sarris noted in May, Lowrie made this change in order to counter defensive shifts. Teams more than doubled how often they deployed the shift against Lowrie from 2014 to 2015 and then more than doubled that number again this year.

Percentage of Balls in Play Shifted – Jed Lowrie
Year %
2014 7.3%
2015 18.9%
2016 43.3%

If we look at the kinds of pitchers Lowrie is attacking, we find that, as a righty and as a lefty, he’s going after inside pitches more frequently this year.

output_Rctxha output_EURoTN

Below, you can also see that he’s hitting a lot more ground balls up the middle this year (exhibiting a similar trend from both sides of the plate, as well):

Screenshot 2016-07-21 at 1.38.40 PM

Lowrie’s process is clearly different this year. He’s admitted as much and we’ve seen it in action. He’s focusing on the inside pitch and generating more ground balls, all with the hopes of countering the shift.

What’s sort of amazing about this entire effort is that it’s basically had no impact on his performance. Quite often we look at players who have gotten better or worse and attempt to divine what it is they’re doing differently. In this case, we’ve found clear evidence of a new process and have confirmation from the player himself that we’re right about the new approach — but even so, there is virtually no change in the actual results. For all this work both sides are doing to counter each other, the result is an 86 wRC+ instead of a 91 wRC+.

Lowrie is a single example, but this is an instructive case. Fans and commentators have railed against players for their reluctance to cut down on their swing and take what defenses are offering in an era of defensive shifts. Lowrie is a case study in why that’s not such an obvious answer. There are tradeoffs, likely ones that vary from batter to batter. Lowrie is doing everything you’d want someone to do against the shift, but all he has to show for it is a differently shaped line.

This isn’t to say that hitters shouldn’t adjust their approach based on the defense, but rather a reminder that even if you’re successful in becoming someone who finds holes in the infield defense, it could very easily cost you value elsewhere. Jed Lowrie isn’t producing more or less than normal, but he’s producing in a very different way. That’s plenty interesting, but it will likely be even more interesting to see how Lowrie and the league take what they observed in the first half and apply it going forward.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Joe Joemember
6 years ago

Considering his age, basically being the same should be viewed positively as it is likely helping him at the plate. That said, his loss of defensive value (i.e. not playing SS) has killed his overall value.