Out of all the free agents currently available, there is one player sandwiched between Manny Machado and Bryce Harper in fWAR over the past two seasons.
His name is Jed Lowrie, the Athletics’ second baseman who has been worth 8.5 total wins since 2017.
I’m sure you just did a double take because when I found this out, I did too. Nonetheless, this statistic is one reason why Lowrie could be the free agent value play of the offseason.
Yes, Lowrie will be 35-years-old next year. But the benefit that he could provide to clubs in need of an infielder significantly outweighs his presumably low cost. That’s why any team who needs a middle infielder should be calling Lowrie’s agent, right now.
Over the past two seasons, Lowrie has been the fourth best offensive second baseman with a 122 wRC+ and the sixth-best defensive second baseman being worth 7.0 runs above league average at the position. The Athletics converted a longtime part time player into a lineup mainstay who was named to the first All-Star Team of his career.
In 2018, Lowrie slashed .267/.353/.448 (122 wRC+) with 23 home runs and 99 RBIs over 680 plate appearances. It was the best full offensive season (600+ plate appearances) of his career, topping the 120 wRC+ mark he posted in 2013. In total, Lowrie was worth 4.9 fWAR.
It’s hard to anticipate whether Lowrie will be able to put up the same offensive numbers in 2019, but even as a league average hitter — which he pretty much was from 2008-2016 — he could still produce significant value. Steamer projects Lowrie to post “just” a 102 wRC+ next year, a far cry from the numbers he put up this year. Still, his defensive abilities save him and elevate his floor. Even with offensive numbers 20 percentage points worse than this year, Lowrie still projects to be worth 2.2 fWAR.
But what are the odds that Lowrie produces a third consecutive season with a wRC+ of at least 115?
To know the exact probability for the question’s answer is nearly impossible. Lowrie’s approach has changed over the past two years, however. And, it would be irresponsible to think that Lowrie would deviate from an approach that has clearly worked.
Like many other hitters, Lowrie has bought into the launch angle revolution. But, unlike many other hitters, Lowrie has traditionally never been a ground ball hitter. And that’s quite fascinating.
Since 2013, Lowrie’s ground ball rate of 33.4 percent is the 12th-lowest mark across 377 qualified hitters. In other words, over the past six seasons, Lowrie ranks in the 97th percentile in avoiding ground balls. Lowrie has been buying into the launch angle revolution before there even was a launch angle revolution.
The bigger explanation for his recent boom in performance, then, is his increase in hard contact. Lowrie’s hard contact rate has been all over the map since he broke into the league, but after he bottomed out in 2013, it’s generally just been an upward trend in the years since:
Lowrie’s average exit velocity has backed up these claims; it jumped from 85.7 mph during his dismal 2016 (76 wRC+) up to 89.0 mph this past season. That’s still not particularly high, at about just 1 mph above the MLB-average, but it’s certainly a significant increase.
It’s hard to know, then, whether Lowrie’s offensive performance will be able to have another encore in 2019. I’d be on the optimistic side and say that the odds are good. The age is obviously a concern, but none of the underlying numbers showed that this may have been a problem from 2017 to 2018 (his sprint speed stayed exactly flat). Until Lowrie begins to show signs of breakdown, it’s reasonable to expect that he won’t.
This ties back into the greater message of the article: Lowrie is clearly the bargain of the offseason waiting to happen. MLB Trade Rumors projected a three-year, $30 million deal for Lowrie at the beginning of the offseason, a deal he would have paid off entirely with his 2018 performance alone ($39.4 million / fWAR).
Assuming Lowrie does make $30 million this offseason, he would only need to be worth about 3.75 fWAR (as a rough estimate without including inflation) over the next three years in order to be “worth it” for his next team. Based on defense and positional adjustments alone, Lowrie was worth 3.0 wins this season. Lowrie could be a league average hitter next year and still nearly pay off his next deal all at once.
In short, this is why teams have to overlook Lowrie’s age. He won’t cost a lot ($10 million per season should be loose change for most of these teams), and he could have an incredibly high ceiling assuming his offensive performance continues to repeat itself. And if it doesn’t? Lowrie’s defensive contributions are more than good enough to make it all up.
Why sign Bryce Harper this offseason when you can sign Jed Lowrie?
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.