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A healthy Jed Lowrie makes us wonder: What could have been?

A’s second baseman is off to another hot start in 2018, as usual.

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Jed Lowrie celebrates his second home run of this series on Saturday.
Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Oakland A’s second baseman Jed Lowrie is off to a torrid start this season. Having played in all 11 of the A’s regular season games so far, Lowrie is currently hitting .341 with a .408 on-base percentage. Five of his 15 hits in 2018 have been for extra bases. It may surprise you to learn that this really isn’t anything new for Lowrie. He’s often gotten off to great starts just about every season of his 11-year career, only to be derailed by fluke injuries and illness.

He’s managed to avoid the disabled list in just two of his big league seasons. Both were with Oakland (2013 and 2017) and both were career years for Lowrie. It has to make you wonder: What could have happened had he not been injured in the years that should have been the prime of his career? And, assuming he doesn’t have any freak accidents or random illnesses, you absolutely must wonder what possibilities of greatness could still be on the horizon as the switch-hitter looks toward his 34th birthday next week.

What if?

Now, let’s look back at Lowrie’s career and play the “what if” card. He was drafted 45th overall in 2005 by the Boston Red Sox and had an impressive first season in 2008 after being called up in April to replace the injured Julio Lugo at shortstop. Yet as the season was coming to a close he was in a collision at second base that left him with a broken wrist.

  • 2008: 81 games, .258/.339/.400, 25 doubles, 3 triples, 2 HR, 22.2% Ks

After a monster spring Lowrie was set to start the 2009 season as the Red Sox starting shortstop. Still his wrist was bothering him and the conclusion was made that it required surgery — rendering his season pretty much lost, with only 76 plate appearances in the end. Still let’s look at what he accomplished that spring and think of what could have been if he hadn’t been injured.

  • Spring Training 2009: 25 games, .343/.400/.657, 8 doubles, 2 triples, 3 HR, 13.3% Ks

Due to his lost 2009 season, Lowrie entered 2010 as the team’s utility infielder. Not fully confident that his health would improve, the Red Sox had signed (an old and dear friend of ours!) Marco Scutaro to serve as their starting shortstop. As it turned out the Red Sox made the right decision, as Lowrie didn’t make an appearance with the team until after the All-Star break because he was sick with mononucleosis (a pretty random reason to be out, right?).

Though his playing time was once again skewed due to injury (or rather, illness this time), he ended up being extremely productive for the Red Sox in the second half of 2010. In his limited time he did some clutch hitting and put up strong numbers overall, once again raising the question: “What if he had played all year?”

  • 2010: 55 games, .287/.381/.526, 144 wRC+, 14 doubles, 9 HR, 12.7% Ks

Once again, Lowrie started the season on a tear in 2011, hitting .368/.389/.574 in April. He carried that success into May and held an .803 OPS on the season until a collision with teammate Carl Crawford left him with a badly bruised nerve that sapped almost all of the strength from his left shoulder. He missed 45 games, and upon returning he hit just .213 (20-for-94) with only three extra-base hits until he was shut down again by the same shoulder in mid-September. That poor return stint left his overall 2011 numbers with something to be desired, in what should have been his prime at age 27. Also, he was now being seen by many as officially injury-prone.

  • 2011: 88 games, .252/.303/.382, 14 doubles, 4 triples, 6 HR, 17.6% Ks
  • 2011 pre-injury (5/29): 45 games, .306/.351/.452, 113 wRC+

The following season, his first with the Houston Astros after an offseason trade, would also have been a success had it not been for yet another disruption in his season caused by yet another fluke injury. The year started off with Lowrie showcasing his power, impressing on defense, and stepping up as a leader in the Astros’ young clubhouse. But a collision at second base left Lowrie with a broken ankle, and in yet another season a freak injury left him the odd man out.

  • 2012: 97 games, .244/.331/.438, 110 wRC+, 18 doubles, 16 HR, 16.8% Ks

The Astros traded Lowrie to the A’s just prior to the 2013 season. This ended up becoming one of the two seasons that Lowrie was able to avoid the disabled list, at least so far. He went on to have a career year as the shortstop for the reigning AL West Champions and helped lead the team to a second straight division title, showing just how good he could be when healthy. The numbers pretty much speak for themselves.

  • 2013: 154 games, .290/.344/.446, 120 wRC+, 45 doubles, 2 triples, 15 HR, 13.7% Ks

Still, it left outsiders wondering if this was just a fluke for Lowrie, an anomaly in the midst of a myriad of other unlucky seasons. And the 2014 season helped prove the doubters right. The entire A’s team started off the campaign on such a tear that everyone in baseball thought there was no doubt that the 2014 A’s were favorites to not only reach the World Series but also win it. Lowrie had a decent, but not great, 2014 season.

He played in 90 games in the first half while the team around him was unstoppable. Then they headed toward one of the most epic collapses of all time — but this post isn’t about the 2014 A’s, and we all know what happened to that squad (even if we may differ in opinions about the reasons why it happened) and we definitely don’t need to talk about it here. Lowrie’s season collapsed like the rest of the club when he broke his finger fielding a groundball in August. He attempted to play through the pain but ultimately landed in a familiar spot — on the DL.

  • 2014: 136 games, .249/.321/.355, 95 wRC+, 29 doubles, 3 triples, 6 HR, 14.0% Ks

Lowrie was granted free agency after the 2014 season and he returned to the Astros in 2015, signing a three-year deal that included a club option for the 2018 season. He hit .300 with four home runs and 10 RBI in 60 at-bats during the month of April, but sure enough he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his thumb while sliding into home plate on April 27. The injury of course required surgery and Lowrie was unable to play again until after the All-Star Break.

Upon returning he had little playing time, as young phenom (now-turned full on superstar) Carlos Correa had been promoted to the big league club and had cemented himself firmly into the role of starting shortstop. Lowrie split time at third with Luis Valbuena for the remainder of the season, hitting just .181 in August and .214 in September.

  • 2015: 69 games, .222/.312/.400, 95 wRC+, 14 doubles, 9 HR, 16.3% Ks
  • 2015 pre-injury (4/27): 18 games, .300/.432/.567, 170 wRC+

With no real need for Lowrie anymore, the Astros traded him back to the A’s for the 2016 season. Oakland had also acquired Marcus Semien to play shortstop, and Lowrie was moved over to second base. As had become normal for Lowrie, he started off the season strong, hitting .283 during the first half, this time focusing on beating shifts at the expense of his usual moderate power.

However, the second half of the season began with a bunion on Lowrie’s toe that started becoming problematic. The only remedy was, of course, surgery. Trying to play through the pain, which Lowrie was quoted as saying “hurt more” than when he “played with a broken wrist,” he eventually had to face the inevitable. The A’s placed him on the 60-day DL on August 14, officially ending his 2016 season. Hitting just .182 in the 16 games he played in during the second half, Lowrie’s solid start wasn’t enough to salvage his overall numbers.

  • 2016: 87 games, .263/.314/.322, 75 wRC+, 12 doubles, 1 triple, 2 HR, 17.6% Ks
  • 2016 pre-injury (Apr/May): 38 games, .309/.351/.360, 96 wRC+, 17.2% Ks

In 2017, a completely healthy Lowrie reported to spring camp, finally sleeping well for the first time in years. He remained that way throughout the entire season and set Oakland’s all-time single-season doubles record, hitting a career-high 49 of them. During his other fully healthy season, also with the A’s in 2013, he’d hit 45 doubles.

  • 2017: 153 games, .277/.360/.448, 119 wRC+, 49 doubles, 3 triples, 14 HR, 15.5% Ks

He’s off to another excellent start in 2018, as usual.

  • 2018: 11 games, .341/.408/.545, 177 wRC+, 3 doubles, 2 HR, 22.4% Ks

So what might Lowrie’s career have looked like if he’d stayed healthier? His overall batting line is .262/.333/.409, good for a decent 103 wRC+, but of course most of his worst performances came while either trying to play through major injuries or returning after long recovery layoffs. What if better health had allowed him to maintain, say, a career 110 wRC+ instead? That would put him around the career marks of All-Star infielders like Ian Kinsler (110) and Brian Dozier (111), or $144 million man Eric Hosmer (111).

Furthermore, Lowrie missed a total of 360 games between 2011-17, an average of 51 per year. What could he have done with that missed time? Another 84 doubles, according to his career rate? Another 6-12 career WAR, depending how productive he would have been in that extra time? Both times he was healthy he graded as a 3-4 WAR player, so could he have made a reputation as a guy who did that every year? If so, that’s likely a multi-time All-Star.

Granted, what’s done is done and there’s no going back to recover that lost time. Still, the fact remains that he is off to yet another hot start in 2018, the way he has started off almost every season prior to this one. Even entering age 34, Lowrie continues to prove that he can make excellent contact and play acceptable defense in the middle infield. If he remains healthy throughout the season, we all just may be in for a real treat once again. If only this health and success hadn’t been the exception to the rule in his career overall.