Healthy Lowrie proving to be among elite shortstops
If you're filling out your American League All-Star ballot, you should take a good, long look at Jed Lowrie for starting shortstop.
This tells us a bit about Lowrie and the A's, and a lot about the state of shortstop production, on the whole.
Lowrie, with a .299 average and an .831 OPS, has been one of the more productive shortstops in baseball this season, despite seeing that OPS number dip 100 points in the month of May. In fact, among AL shortstops, only Jhonny Peralta -- the guy the Tigers were rumored all winter to be looking to replace with a more defensive-minded counterpart -- has a higher OPS, at .858.
"The trend is kind of going back to [relying on] defensive guys, and whatever you can get out of them offensively is a bonus," Lowrie said. "I'm sure people have different theories why that trend is going back to what it was, but it's a position that I love to play, and I try to focus on it as much as I do on hitting, because I know I can be a productive hitter."
Generally speaking, sabermetricians consider an OPS above .800 to be above average, and anything over .900 to be excellent. Last season, the only qualifying shortstop to cross even the .800 threshold was the Nationals' Ian Desmond, with an .845 mark.
Just to provide a little more perspective on the matter: In 2012, the average OPS among all MLB position players was .724. But the average shortstop OPS was significantly lower, at .688. This season, shortstops have a .695 OPS, lower than any other position on the field, including catcher (.710). Heck, Mariners shortstops (mainly Brendan Ryan), have an OPS (.338) only slightly better than that of National League pitchers (.325).
Indeed, the game -- and the All-Star menu -- is in a much different place now than it was in the 1990s, when Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra redefined our expectations for what shortstops could accomplish at the plate and were all worthy of a ballot punch. A new wave of shortstop talent -- led by Jean Segura (an early favorite for the NL starting nod) and including the likes of Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons and Jurickson Profar -- could change that sentiment in time. But for now, you take a guy like Lowrie when you can get him.
The A's got Lowrie in a trade with the Astros shortly before Spring Training that was surprising in both its timing and its outlook, given that Oakland already appeared set in its middle infield.
"I didn't really know what to expect," Lowrie said. "But I've always prepared myself in the offseason to be an everyday shortstop, and that translates into other positions."
A's manager Bob Melvin -- the "King of Platoons" -- is quick to point out that Lowrie has been playing another position: second base. And it's true that Lowrie has made seven of his 39 starts there, on the days when Adam Rosales starts at short.
But with Hiroyuki Nakajima starting the season on the disabled list and Scott Sizemore's torn ACL muddying the middle-infield picture all the more, the switch-hitting Lowrie has assumed the bulk of the shortstop duties, and his OPS actually ranks fifth among all Major League qualifiers at that spot.
"You can hit him anywhere in the lineup, and you always get your matchup, because he's not significantly [better] on one side or the other," Melvin said. "He's productive right-handed, he's productive left-handed. He's taken his walks, he's driven in runs, he's been very productive. And for a middle-infield guy, you don't see that often -- a guy that can have that kind of offensive impact."
Add the "when healthy" qualifier, because the injury bug has been known to bite Lowrie. Last season, he set a new career best in the games played count: 97. He's battled wrist and shoulder issues in the past and has never been healthy enough to crack the 400-plate appearances threshold in a single season. Those injuries, though, have been caused by on-field impact incidents, as opposed to body breakdowns.
"I think I've had a couple years now where I didn't have to rehab anything in the offseason and could just focus on getting strong for the next year," Lowrie said. "I feel like I've always come back from the injuries strong, but it's hard to build when you're constantly rehabbing."
For the most part, a healthy Lowrie has been a productive Lowrie. Before Gregor Blanco slid hard into his leg in mid-July last year, he was second only to Desmond among shortstops in both home runs (14) and OPS (.799). He had a .907 OPS in 55 games with the Red Sox in 2010, but he battled mononucleosis for much of the year.
Maybe that's just the way it is and will always be with the 29-year-old Lowrie -- the injuries and ailments offsetting the impact. Or maybe this is the season we finally see what a full season of Lowrie is worth, with the A's potentially benefiting from it. Hard to say.
Right now, though, it appears the Lowrie trade was one worth making. He has, after all, been a key contributor on what has been an uneven A's offense -- he's hitting .372 with a 1.046 OPS in their wins and .224 with a .611 OPS in their losses -- and his production, on the whole, has been better than the norm at a premium position.
"I've always known what I'm capable of, personally, and that's all that really matters to me," Lowrie said. "I've always been self-motivated, self-driven. I believe with my approach to the game and my skill set, my numbers will be what I want them to be at the end of the year."