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Athletics 2014 season review: Jed Lowrie rides bad luck to subpar season

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Once Lowrie actually gets to the ball, he can usually make the throw.
Once Lowrie actually gets to the ball, he can usually make the throw.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

We left off with No. 7 Alberto Callaspo. Next, we'll take a look at our final player of the single-digits, No. 8 Jed Lowrie.

Player profile

Name: Jed Lowrie, aka Meowrie
Position: SS
Stats: .249/.321/.355, 136 games, 6 HR, minus-10 DRS
WAR: 0.8 bWAR, 1.8 fWAR
How he got here: Acquired from Houston Astros prior to 2013
2014 Salary: $5.25 million
2015 Status: Free agent
2015 Salary: TBD

Season summary

Jed Lowrie had a weird season. On a fundamental level, he was the same player who was worth 2-3 wins in 2013, but with better defense. Looking at the actual results, though, his offense declined sharply and he was not a terribly productive player. I know it sounds like a cop-out when writers blame poor performance on bad luck, but in this case I believe it to be true. The difference between Lowrie's hitting from last year to this year can be summed up in two areas: his liners didn't go for hits, and his flies didn't go for homers. And I don't know that either of those were completely within his control.

Lowrie just never really got going this season. He started with a solid April in which his usually solid plate discipline went off the charts -- 20 walks to only 13 strikeouts in the first month. Then he completely disappeared for most of the rest of the first half. He bounced back at the end of June, and during a 23-game stretch from June 27 to July 25 he batted .326/.344/.446. But then he cooled back off, missed half of August with a fractured finger, and finished the season with an empty .295 average in September that featured only three extra-base hits. The power he showed in the past (31 homers in 2012-13 combined) was gone, and that improved plate discipline in April turned out to be a small-sample fluke. Even when he did go through hot streaks, they were mostly comprised of bunches of singles.

I wrote about Lowrie's slump in June, and at that time I mostly chalked up his struggles to poor luck on batted balls. Since then, his BABIP mostly recovered, all the way up to .281 (his career mark is .292). However, it's worth breaking that number down even further.

A batted ball can come in one of three ways -- a fly, a line drive, or a grounder. Flies have the lowest success rate but the highest potential reward, since you can't homer on a ground ball. Grounders have a slightly better success rate because they can more easily sneak through holes in the defense, but you're probably only going to get a single or maybe a double out of them. Line drives are by far the best because they are hit at a trajectory that is more difficult to field -- over the heads of the infielders, but more difficult for the outfielders to track down before they hit the ground. You want to hit liners, unless your plan is to aim for the fences and hit 40 homers, or unless your plan is to slap a bunch of ground balls and beat out infield singles like Ichiro. Lowrie doesn't fit either of those molds, as most players don't.

(Warning: The next three paragraphs are heavy on numbers. You can skip them if you just want to take my word for it.)

Lowrie's batted ball profile was right in line with 2013 and with his career; if anything, he hit more liners than usual, and his rate of line drives ranked 18th in MLB. His batting averages on flies (.179) and grounders (.231) were about normal, which is to say they were poor but right around what you would expect; those numbers are remarkably close to the league averages. On line drives, however, he hit "only" .592 -- that might sound high, but the league average is more like .700 and Lowrie's career mark is .688.

What does that difference look like in raw terms? He went 61-for-103 on his liners, and in order for him to hit .688 he'd have needed 10 more to fall for hits. Add those 10 hits to his season total, and now he's batting .269/.339/.375. But wait! Some of those would have been doubles, right? He hit 120 liners in 2013 and 24 went for doubles (10 percent), but this year that number dropped to 11 (~10 percent). Since around 20 percent of his liners usually go for doubles, and only 10 percent did so this year, I think it's fair to suggest that several of the balls he had robbed could have gone for extra-bases. Let's say four of the 10 hits are doubles; now he's slugging .382, for a .721 OPS.

What about homers? Last year, 6.8 percent of his flies cleared the fence, and that's right on his career norm. This year, that number dropped to less than half, or 3.2 percent. He hit a similar number of flies to last year, and if his HR/FB rate had been the same then he'd have ended up with 12 dingers instead of six. This one is tricky, because it's hard to know how much is luck and how much is the batter not making as hard of contact, but ballparks all have different dimensions and the same hit that found a glove in Oakland might have gone out in Houston or New York. Since we're so deep in hypotheticals, let's turn three of his flyouts into homers. Now he's batting .275/.344/.406, with a .750 OPS.

(OK, the heavy numbers are done.)

And that's how you get from Lowrie's 2013 to his 2014. Just watch 10 more of his liners go straight at defenders or be subject to fantastic diving catches, and watch three of his homers die at the warning track in the wrong stadiums or on cold days, and instead of once again challenging for the Silver Slugger (and probably getting snubbed again) we're all asking what in the heck happened to his bat.

So that's the bad news. There are two pieces of good news, though. First, his defense went from league-leading horrible to just really bad, presumably because he regained some of his mobility thanks to being one year further removed from the major ankle injury he suffered in 2012. He was worth minus-18 runs at shortstop in 2013 according to Defensive Runs Saved, and that number improved to minus-10 this year. He made nearly 100 more plays than he did last year in a similar number of innings, and I think that's because he just got to more balls. UZR thought he was neutral, and Fangraphs actually gave him a positive defensive value. In other words, his biggest weakness got less weak. (Note: The one-win discrepancy in his two WAR totals is based entirely on different defensive measures.)

Also, he played a full season for the second straight year. He did have that one DL stint, but it only cost him 16 games, and 136 total contests is a reasonable enough number. I think we can close the book on Lowrie being a specifically injury-prone player, and conclude that his previous problems truly were a collection of fluke occurrences.

So, Lowrie didn't hit well, or he might have hit just fine. He didn't field well, but he improved from his previous season. And although he did hit the DL briefly, he stayed mostly healthy. His season didn't look great, but I think it was truly just an off-year and that he's still better than his 2014 numbers suggest. He's a free agent, and I still don't think the A's should re-sign him because I don't think he's the right fit unless he agrees to a one-year show-me deal to rebuild his value (and then he'd be a great fit). But I can't shake the feeling that this time next year we'll be talking about how some team made a genius move to buy low on Lowrie and benefit from a bounce-back year in 2015.

Of course, then there was the Wild Card game. Lowrie went 0-for-5 with a sac bunt, and his sluggish fielding was exploited at least twice by speedy Kansas City runners beating out infield hits. That performance didn't leave the best memories in the minds of A's fans.

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: C+ ... I expected a shortstop who could hit for an above-average OPS with poor defense for at least 130 games. I got two of those three things, and the hitting wasn't far off. He could have earned a B without all the bad luck I discussed above (.720-.750 OPS), and he could have earned an A by hitting and avoiding the DL (say, 150+ games). He earned the plus on his C because his defense marginally improved.

2014 season grade, overall: B ... He was a starting shortstop who was worth around one win of value. Fangraphs still rated him as the 14th-best shortstop in MLB (by fWAR), and that's nothing to sneeze at. Remember what the A's currently have in their present state of shortstop limbo (Parrino? Ladendorf? Punto?) and you will better understand why Lowrie was still valuable in his off-year.

Video highlights

The highlights I'd like to show you are all of the line drives he ripped that somehow found gloves instead of turf. However, those aren't the kinds of highlights that MLB keeps on its site. Here is what his offensive game is supposed to look like -- a liner in the gap or into the corner that goes to the wall for extra bases. Here's a gapper ...

... and here's one in the corner.

This homer barely goes over the wall in the right-field corner. However, a 330-footer is worth the same as a 400-footer if they both clear the fence. This is how Lowrie gets some of his homers, so you can see how in a given year his total might fluctuate. This ball might not go out on a different day or in a different park, and vice versa for some other ball that didn't go out and died on the track.

Don't worry, though. He's also capable of hitting legit homers. Here he is taking Felix darn near 400 feet.

And he can do it from the right side, as well.

He also notched a walk-off hit this year. Chalk this one up to "put the ball in play and good things can happen." (And note that Lowrie is quite good at simply making contact.)

And now, some defense. Lowrie is a poor defender because he has limited range, but he's actually got a pretty good arm. I am confident that Stephen Drew could not make this throw, to cherry-pick a relevant name. This play to his right is the one thing Lowrie is kind of good at on defense. There are several of these in his highlight reel, but I chose this one because he threw out the speedy Ian Kinsler.

Brett Gardner had no manner of luck against Oakland this year. Gentry's diving catch against him is one of the defensive highlights of the season, but I didn't even remember this ninth-inning grab by Lowrie. It came in a tie game, so it must have been important, too.

Unfortunately, this might be the enduring image of Lowrie. He got thoroughly dominated in the Wild Card game, and his lack of range really came back to bite the A's. This wasn't a routine play, but he clearly got to the ball in time and just failed to convert. If he had better range and had gotten to his spot earlier, he'd have had a better chance at fielding it cleanly.

***

It wasn't a great year for Lowrie, but he was a productive player for the A's over the last two seasons. If he's back, I hope it's only for one year, and if he's gone then I hope his horrible luck on batted balls melts away and he goes back to his normal self. For a National League team.