Man on Fire - Oakland A's SS Jed Lowrie
Jed Lowrie is on fire. Through seven games (26 at-bats), he is hitting .500 with an OBP of .567, four doubles and three homers. You read that correctly. A career .256 hitter is tied for the major league lead in average and leads the American League with a 1.567 OPS. That is more than mildly surprising.
Now, I can already hear you objecting that it is a mere seven games into the young 2013 season, and you are certainly correct. It is early and anybody can be prone to a hot streak. But Lowrie’s season opening tear has been a phenomenal one, and he has been a vital piece to the A’s early hitting success that has vaulted the team to a 5-2 record.
So you will have to forgive the A’s and their fans for getting excited about Lowrie’s start and for asking what is one of the most pressing questions in Oakland right now: how long can Lowrie keep raking the ball? Is this a fluke or can he really continue to be one of the best hitters in the lineup on a nightly basis?
April Power Brings May Showers?
Let’s start off by taking a look at Lowrie’s past April production. As it turns out, the news is not terrific for the A’s since April has been Lowrie’s best month during his career, as the below table shows.
Indeed, Lowrie has been known to get off to terrific starts. In 2011, he hit .516 during his first 31 at-bats. In 2012 he had an OBP of .384 in April, a number which gradually but consistently declined in every subsequent month, ending with Lowrie getting on base at a clip of just .267 during September.
Those numbers are not particularly encouraging for an A’s fan. Lowrie has routinely been one of the best players in April and a subpar performer for the rest of the year. If history truly does repeat itself, his production will start to fall off within the next few weeks.
What the above numbers do not indicate, however, is that many of Lowrie’s struggles could easily be attributed to injuries. He has not played a full season once during his more than five year major league career. In 2009 his fast start was slowed by a wrist injury that required surgery. In 2010 he was dogged by mono. In 2011 it was his shoulder. Last season he had a sprained ankle and nerve damage.
What if the A’s benefit from a first time occurrence – a major league season with a completely healthy Jed Lowrie? That might be a bit of a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, but it cannot be ruled out as a possibility. Should Lowrie avoid his annual mid-season injury, perhaps his numbers will not fall off quite so dramatically.
It should also be noted that if early season prowess is a typical inflator of Lowrie’s stats that should be accounted for, there are other factors that he has overcome to earn his great start.
The Lefty Dilemma
Only one of the A’s opposing starting pitchers this year has been left-handed. That is significant. Although he is a switch hitter, Lowrie fares significantly better against southpaws (OBP .369) than right handed pitchers (OBP .311). 419 of his 1337 career plate appearances have come against lefties (31.3 percent).
Granted, it is very early in the season, but only 23 percent of his limited at bats this year have come against lefties. Why does this matter?
In 2011, Lowrie’s best start to any season ever, his numbers were perhaps a little inflated by the fact that Terry Francona platooned him to an extent with Marco Scutaro, giving Lowrie starts and pinch hitting appearances against a disproportionate number of left handed pitchers.
A week into Lowrie’s great 2013 start, nobody can label his numbers a product of situational hitting the way you could in 2011. He is currently hitting .450 against right handers.
The Other Takeaways
There are other signs that Lowrie is experiencing something better than his typical April outburst, as he has improved in several categories. Always a patient hitter adept at drawing walks, Lowrie has been ahead of the count in more than a third of his career at bats, and hits .307 in that situation. In an even count he hits .243 and .203 when behind in the count. This season, he’s hitting .533 when ahead in the count and .600 when behind. He has battled to stay in more than one at bat this year after falling behind, something he has struggled to do in the past.
Clearly, some improvements have manifested themselves in Lowrie’s game. At the same time, his track record indicates that his current production will be short lived. And with a paltry seven game sample (three of which came against Houston), what can A’s fans really take away from Lowrie’s early season success?
When Lowrie’s production declines from its current levels (and it assuredly will as he isn’t going to hit .500 for the season), there should still be hope that he doesn’t bottom out the way he has in the past. That will require him to stave off the injury bug and his own penchant for regressing as the season progresses. Until we get deep into the season, we will not know just how Lowrie can exorcise his past demons.
A little more than a week away from his 29th birthday, Jed Lowrie may hold a key to the A’s offense in 2013. They demonstrated last year that they have power bats. But a guy who can get on base at a terrific clip to put near the top of the order? That would be a welcome boon for an offense that all too often last year relied on the solo homer.
numberFire's "Man on Fire" series will look at players performing above their expected levels and try to determine why that's happening. Is there a player you would like to see examined? Let Content Editor Zach Warren know at Zach@numberFire.com.