Jed Lowrie has had a solid start to July, hitting .296 over seven games and showing a few signs of rounding back into form. It’s been but a week, though, and there are still some troubling signs in Lowrie’s profile. Namely, Lowrie’s power seems to be missing, and that would mark the continuation of a multi-season trend of declining slugging ability.
To be clear, Lowrie has still been 20th in shortstop value, speaking to the importance of his run production and the general terribleness of the position. His positional flexibility helps some, too, but as a player who has never looked a threat to hit .275 consistently, Lowrie’s value hinges a good deal on his ability to clear the fence.
And again, that’s not happening, with just four home runs to date and a career-low isolated slugging of .109.
Last season, Lowrie was a stud at the position in his first year with Oakland. While the .290 average looked tenuous, he hit 15 home runs, added 80 runs and 75 RBI and, just as importantly, stayed on the field. In the three seasons before that, he had short-term value as a power option at the position, totalling 31 home runs over 925 plate appearances.
But again, that power seems to be leaving him, and the trend in his isolated slugging is troublesome.
Of course, single-month ISO numbers are just a small snapshot, but they’re better than basing power off of slugging percentage, which can be inflated or deflated based on BABIP. There will be variance given the 100-plate appearance sample sizes, but a somewhat steady decline is still apparent.
On the bright side, Lowrie has dipped this low before, most notably in July of 2012 before hitting the DL and in May 2013. In both cases, he rebounded in short order. What may be of concern, however, is that this is the first time since a down partial-2011 that Lowrie’s posted back-to-back ISOs of .105 or lower. Part of this has to do with an extended slump in having liners go for hits, especially extra-base hits. Liners go for extra bases 16.9 percent of the time while Lowrie’s have done so just 12.5 percent of the time so far this season. His HR/FB rate has also cratered, down all the way to 3.2 percent from 6.8 percent last season and a 6.7 percent career mark.
Since the amount of line drives and fly balls he hits has actually increased – he hits ground balls just 28.9 percent of the time now – regression on flies and liners could shift Lowrie right back where we expected him, which was a solid starting option. However, Lowrie’s batted ball distances are down, per Baseball Heat Maps, even when controlling for the time of year:
|Season||Fly+Line Ft.||To July 7|
That’s a concern, especially at O.co Coliseum, but the dip isn’t far enough from last season to explain all of the dip in his pop. One such explanation, oddly enough, is that Lowrie is missing easy pitches – the image below compares Lowrie’s run values by zone this year to those from 2012-2013, and you see he’s performed far worse on pitches middle and down in the zone:
It’s even more pronounced for fastball variants:
This trend also holds up from either side of the plate, though it’s slightly more pronounced when he hits from the left side (his overall ISO is basically the same from either side).
Failing to make use of pitches in good spots led me to look to whether Lowrie’s been more passive, considering his walk rate is back up after a down 2013, but that’s not the case – his Z-Swing rate and Z-Contact are both up from 2013 and from his career numbers, he’s just making worse contact, it seems.
This is all a lot pointing to better things coming for Lowrie – performing below expectations on line drives, a drop in HR/FB rate, a dip in batted ball distance but not one that’s killer, and failing to capitalize on good pitches to hit despite having the right approach – not to mention he has one of the lowest batting averages on hard-hit balls in all of baseball. Let’s quickly check to see if the projection systems agree that better things are coming:
Each projection system has gotten slightly less enthusiastic about Lowrie but still see him approaching his 2013 power the rest of the way (they also see him homering about twice as often as he has so far, on a per-PA basis).
With his average all the way down at .228 and his overall ranking so low, Lowrie looks like a solid buy-low candidate as we enter the second half of the season.
Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.