The last time Athletics infielder Jed Lowrie was playing this well, I had a good talk with him about his injury history. He said part of his good play was due to the fact that he was finally healthy for a good stretch after a string of freak injuries due to collisions. After a three forgettable seasons since, Lowrie is back to where he was back then. And though the story this time is similar — he had two offseason surgeries that are contributing to his good run right now — the differences tell us a lot about what it’s like to be a major leaguer.
Part of the story is a near repeat of our 2013 conversation. He played through what he thought was a bruised finger in 2014, and it turned out to be fractured. He lost much of 2015 because he tore his ligament at a play at the plate… after a major rule change put in place to protect the runner at the plate.
In 2016, he got a bunion. No, no, not a bunion, that’s what he thought it was when he showed me that red, enlarged nastiness late last year. After surgery, it turned out it was something worse, and it had been responsible for change at the plate. “I had a torn capsule in my foot,” Lowrie said before a game last week. “The swing I’m taking right now from the left side, I physically couldn’t take that last year.”
Here’s that late-season lefty swing in 2016:
And again this year:
Looks more powerful this year. His hips clear better, his front step is more demonstrative, and he’s just using his lower half more. “I’m more rooted in my feet, so I can clear the hips more aggressively, and that helps me activate my core to bring the hands through,” Lowrie explained. Hard to turn and burn a pitch when your turning digit is burning.
But there was something behind the scenes that was stealing production from the player, as well. Lowrie had been sleeping poorly. “I would sleep eight nine hours a night and wake up feeling like I got hit by a car,” he said.
Asking around, the importance of sleep was obvious. His strength and conditioning coach showed him an article from Men’s Fitness that referenced a Stanford University study that found that players had better sprint times the more they slept at night. “He told me that every day I wake up tired, I wake up weaker,” Lowrie said.
Another recent study found that sleep deprivation leads to near-drunk levels of impairment, and Lowrie echoed that subjective feel, too. “I was in a complete state of sleep deprivation for three or four years,” he admitted.
“I was using a sleep tracker, and it said that I was sleeping eight or nine hours, but not enough in that REM sleep that’s where you get the restorative properties,” Lowrie said. Then he went in to have a sleep efficacy study done on him. “My sleep efficiency was 50%, and normal is at least 80%.”
After a couple more trips to the doctor, the culprit was discovered. A septum, deviated by an errant throw at a camp Lowrie was running four years ago, wasn’t allowing him to get into deep sleep at night. Surgery corrected it and Lowrie is feeling much better. Well, most of the time. “I’m still tired, we just came back from Tampa when we played four games in 45 hours and then had a night game and a day game in Miami and took a six o’clock flight home,” he laughed. “I mean, I am tired. Physically, though, now I’m able to separate the mental cloudiness of jet lag, and the physical tiredness that comes with baseball.”
But Lowrie hopes to get better sleep this year and work against what has been a recurring problem since his septum was deviated: late-season swoons. “Look at my stats, look at my first halves, I’ve always been a performer in April,” the infielder pointed out. “Then the season comes up on me. For the longest time, I wasn’t able to recover. I have always gotten off to quick starts, and then the season catches up on you, and you’re flying all over the place, not able to get enough rest to overcome the physical toll of playing every day.”
The surge-and-swoon has been the norm for Lowrie since his septum was deviated. And maybe it’s also possible to see in those graphs that his 2016 was torpedoed by the bunion. And on and on with the injuries.
Still, those ligaments and fractures were all one-time events that had an impact on a certain part of his season. When you’re not sleeping, it’s a silent siphon, taking away efficacy from all the rest and recovery that’s necessary to get through the grind of a season. Figuring this one out is more important than capsule surgery.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.