I present to you the batting lines of four Oakland Athletics middle infielders.
Player A: .233/.327/.314 (.641 OPS), 3 HR, 31 BB, 28 K
Player B: .227/.327/.289 (.616 OPS), 1 HR, 19 BB, 40 K
Player C: .218/.317/.331 (.648 OPS), 4 HR, 37 BB, 43 K
Player D: .194/.269/.229 (.498 OPS), 0 HR, 14 BB, 18 K
These are four bad hitters. Sure, you could separate them based on marginal differences in certain areas. Players A and B are a bit better at getting on base, Player C has a bit more power and a slightly higher OPS overall, Players A and C have an edge in plate discipline, and Player D is ... well, hopefully a really nice guy who makes coffee for everyone in the clubhouse each morning, for his sake. But in the end, you'll just be wasting your time if you try to pick the "best" hitter of this group, because there is no right answer. They're all terrible.
It's not like it's difficult to guess who these players are, given the premise in the first sentence. Player A is Alberto Callaspo, and B is Nick Punto. They have been about what you would expect from part-time players whose values are based on defense and/or versatility. Player D is Eric Sogard, and I don't think I fully realized how bad it had gotten for him. His OPS+ is 43, and that's so low that I feel bad making a joke about it. Perhaps ground outs are tax deductible? (Dangit, I said no jokes.)
The problem with that list up there is that Player C is Jed Lowrie. You know, the guy who posted a .791 OPS last year (120 OPS+) with 15 homers. The guy who overwhelmingly should have won the AL Silver Slugger at shortstop if it was actually based on who the best hitter was rather than who hit the most homers. The guy whose label is as an offense-first shortstop because his defense is slightly below-average at best. That guy has an OPS+ of 85 and has been worth only 0.4 bWAR. Let's look at these four players again using the two versions of WAR:
Callaspo: 0.2 bWAR, -0.1 fWAR
Punto: 0.3 bWAR, 0.0 fWAR
Lowrie: 0.4 bWAR, 0.7 fWAR
Sogard: 0.0 bWAR, -0.2 fWAR
Lowrie is clearly the best of the group, but it's close and it's kind of discouraging that we would even need to make that comparison (he was worth 2.3 bWAR and 3.6 fWAR last year). The middle infield is supposed to be Lowrie The Star and then the other guys filling in the gaps. Instead, it's just four mediocre players trying to break even production-wise.
So, what's wrong with Lowrie? Let's start with the obvious. His BABIP is .241, which is quite a bit lower than his .288 career mark and a far cry from last year's .319. There's a good chance that 2013 was a career year for him, but even so you would expect his average to rise once some more batted balls fall for hits; he should at least be a .250-.260 hitter, which is what most of us expected of him upon his acquisition (career average: .258).
Is there a systemic reason why is BABIP is down? Not really. He's still hitting line drives around 23 percent of the time, same as last year, and far above league-average. Between liners, grounders and fly balls, liners overwhelmingly have the best chances of landing for hits, so drilling a lot of them is a good indicator of future success. His rates of grounders and flies are right around his career norms.
Lowrie's batted ball profile is fine, but the results of those batted balls have been so horrible that they have to be flukes. This table shows the league average on each type of ball, as well as Lowrie's current success rate (league stats via Viva El Birdos, who got them via Fangraphs):
Lowrie is underperforming on every type of batted ball, especially those precious liners. Actually, it's not even fair to say that he's underperforming; he's doing his part by giving balls favorable trajectories, and he just isn't "hitting it where they ain't." That type of thing tends to correct itself over time. Unless anyone's eyeball test has told them that Lowrie's hits have looked uncharacteristically weak this year (and mine hasn't), then this is probably just some bad luck.
Just to be sure, let's check Lowrie's plate discipline. Perhaps he is chasing more pitchers' pitches and making poor contact as a result? Nope. His plate discipline stats are right where they usually are, with plenty of contact (actually, a career-high 88.4 percent of all swings), few swinging strikes (a career-low 5.3 percent, far below league-average), and the ability to lay off pitches out of the zone. These peripherals have manifested in an increase in walks over last year while he has maintained the reduced strikeout rate he posted in 2013. In other words, his walk-to-strikeout rate is getting better. Such an improvement often leads to better offensive numbers overall, except for the rare case where a hitter sacrifices too much aggressiveness for walks (like Josh Reddick last year).
There isn't really a good reason why Lowrie is hitting poorly. It just appears to be one of those things. The good bet is that he'll snap out of it and his numbers will rise, but of course that is not a guarantee. Statistics don't always work out perfectly like that. A fluky slump can last a week, or it can stretch out for a full season. All we can say is that Lowrie should get better, and that just continuing to run him out there is indeed a smart strategy (even if it doesn't end up working).
To conclude, let's think about what this means for the future of the Oakland-Lowrie relationship. What the A's currently have is a shortstop who hits and fields at a below-average level and doesn't run particularly well, though it should be noted that his glovework has improved from "atrocious" last year to "slightly below-average" this season with a high likelihood that last year's defensive trainwreck was a fluke based on his return from an injury which limited his mobility. I think that "slightly below-average" is a good estimate of his defensive skills, though we should expect them to decline as he progresses into his 30s. If Billy Beane is out looking for a trade target and he comes up with a shortstop instead of a second baseman, should he pull the trigger? And if he did, who would move to second?
What about after the season, when Lowrie becomes a free agent? If he doesn't turn around his hitting and finishes with an OPS below .700, he will enter the market looking at his age-31 season, with an extensive injury history, shaky defense, and essentially one good year as a hitter (which wasn't the most recent season). Can he still demand a big three-year deal for eight figures per season? Or would it be wiser for him to play out 2015 on a one-year show-me deal in an attempt to prove his abilities and lock in one big multi-year contract before he hits his mid-30s? If he does indeed go that latter route, then perhaps the A's would be wise to buy low on him and keep him around for one more season; after all, I would imagine that Addison Russell's injury issues have set back his development enough that he is unlikely to legitimately fight for the MLB job in spring training. On the downside, if that happens then it means that Lowrie never got better in a 2014 season in which the A's are supposed to be gunning for a World Series title. With all love and respect, I'd rather that he hit so well that he prices himself out of Oakland, as long as he's taking a ring with him on his way out the door.
Lowrie isn't hitting, but he should be. He's only a valuable player if he hits, because his other skills are lacking. Hopefully things will get better in the second half, but there are never any guarantees in baseball, just as there aren't in life. The best bet is to stay the course with Lowrie at short, but his season-long slump should at least open us to the possibility of thinking about changes if any potential improvements emerge.