Major League Baseball interrupts this Thanksgiving holiday week to announce that Jed Lowrie has been traded from the Astros to the A’s in exchange for minor-league reliever Brendan McCurry. Perhaps it’s a move you find a little strange — Lowrie is in his 30s, and he’s due real money for at least another couple years. He’s going from one team with a very low payroll to another, and last year, the team adding Lowrie won 18 fewer games than the team shedding Lowrie. Typically you see trades like this in the other direction, but for the Astros, Lowrie was no longer a necessary piece. And the A’s are forever on the bubble, trying to avoid any kind of major tear-down. The A’s want to try to contend again. Having Liam Hendriks and a hopefully healthy Sean Doolittle addresses what last year was a catastrophic problem.
That’s the whole idea, in short. The Astros didn’t need Lowrie, and they’ll take the financial flexibility and the interesting young reliever. McCurry could have a real future, and he could have it soon. The A’s, meanwhile, are happy to have Lowrie back at a modest cost, and they like his flexibility. From one perspective, he gives them depth; from another perspective, he gives them trade options. A healthier A’s team could be a .500 ballclub, and a .500 ballclub is always close to the hunt. Okay, everything checks out.
The thing I find most interesting isn’t the Astros’ position, nor is it the A’s position. It isn’t McCurry, either. It’s Lowrie himself. Just how good is Jed Lowrie, really? There’s room for very reasonable disagreement.
Lowrie hit well early on last year. Then he hurt his thumb, and he was out a while. Hit worse after returning. So that’s an obvious factor, and there could be upside here. As a regular, Lowrie’s topped out at a 120 wRC+. But then, his career mark is 102, and he’ll be 32 in April, and Steamer projects him at 95. Perhaps you’re inclined to bump him up to 100. David Forst seems to be a fan, and though you shouldn’t look to a team executive for an unbiased opinion, the A’s did go out to get Lowrie in the first place. Let’s say he’s something like an average hitter. He’s shown some power, despite not really having much power, if you know what I mean. He does just enough of everything.
At the plate, Lowrie isn’t a plus or a minus. On the bases, he isn’t a plus or a minus. I don’t know about his clubhouse presence. He can play all over the infield. But that’s the key right there. How do you rate Lowrie’s defense? As you know, the two usual go-to defensive statistics are UZR and DRS. And they differ on this one.
Lowrie has played first, and second, and third, but he’s spent the bulk of his time as a shortstop. So, a table. I looked at shortstops with at least 2,000 innings at the position going back to 2003. This gave me a sample of 72 players. Then I calculated UZR per 1000 innings, and DRS per 1000 innings, and I found the difference (UZR – DRS). Here are the 10 shortstops UZR has most liked more than DRS:
Lowrie in first place, with a difference of more than eight runs per mostly-full season. According to UZR, Lowrie has been a roughly average defensive shortstop. According to DRS, he’s been among the worst defensive shortstops, and when you have disagreements on defense, of course, then you have disagreements on overall value. FanGraphs calculates its WAR using UZR. Baseball-Reference calculates its own WAR using DRS. So now, another table. I examined the last four years, taking players with at least 1,500 plate appearances, giving me a sample of 188 names. I calculated fWAR per 600 plate appearances, and rWAR per 600 plate appearances, and I again subtracted the latter from the former. Here are the 10 players fWAR has most liked more than rWAR:
|Alejandro De Aza||2153||2.3||1.2||1.1|
There’s Lowrie, in sixth. By fWAR, the last four years, Lowrie has been an above-average player. By rWAR, however, he’s been about an exactly average player. The difference is just shy of one full win, which of course is a pretty big deal. How good is Jed Lowrie? By one estimate, he’s worth X. By another estimate, he’s worth X and another, say, $8 million a year. Based on the transaction alone, it might be reasonable to conclude the Astros side more with the DRS perspective, and the A’s side more with the UZR perspective. That’s an over-simplification, or an assumption, or both, but Lowrie is more desirable if you think his defense is all right. If you think he’s a problem, then he’s just a roughly average bat you can move around and hope the ball doesn’t get hit to.
Steamer projects Lowrie to be worth 2 WAR per 600 in the season ahead. That’s not great, but it’s perfectly useful, and worth more than Lowrie’s salary. He projects as well as Brett Gardner and Adam Eaton. But if you knock down the defensive projection, you knock down the WAR projection, and Lowrie at, say, 1.2 WAR would project even with Ruben Tejada and Asdrubal Cabrera. There’s nothing here that’s going to alter the course of a franchise, since we’re talking about a win at most, but both the teams involved in this trade have payrolls low enough they need to mind every million. It might be fair to say the A’s like Lowrie’s defense more than the Astros do. I don’t know who’s actually more right, especially with the increasing prevalence of shifts moving infielders all over the place.
And actually, maybe shifts help; maybe shifts help to artificially boost the range of range-deficient infielders. Maybe the A’s think they can just position Lowrie well. They’ve had experience with him before and they clearly wanted him back. It’s one of those interesting gambles that’s difficult to evaluate both before and after the fact, given the nature of defensive evaluation.
Anyhow, the A’s say they still see Marcus Semien as their shortstop. Semien’s a guy, interestingly, DRS liked more than UZR. But things can change, and Lowrie is going to play. Which means Semien could be moved, or Brett Lawrie could be moved, or Danny Valencia could be moved, or something. There are options, and Lowrie will get his plate appearances and innings. How good, overall, will he be? The A’s think the answer is “pretty good.” The Astros are less enthusiastic.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.