There’s little pizzazz in Jed Lowrie’s swing.
The Athletics second baseman lifts his front foot just before the pitch is released. He drops it just before the ball arrives. He doesn’t waste energy as he uppercuts through the zone. It’s simple and efficient. See ball, hit ball into the gap.
The fundamental approach fit his first nine big-league seasons, when he was solid but rarely spectacular. While there were flashes of another gear — like when he launched a career-high 15 home runs with the A’s in 2013 — injuries too often robbed him of positive momentum. Overall, he accumulated 8.7 rWAR in 3,167 plate appearances during that span.
Recently, Lowrie appeared on the verge of a steep aging decline. He turned 32 in 2016 and limped through the worst statistical year of his career as he battled foot pain. Given what we know about aging curves — players are expected to lose about 0.5 WAR per season once they turn 30, according to Neil Weinberg of FanGraphs — it looked like it could be the end of the line.
Then, almost inexplicably, Lowrie became one of the most valuable players in baseball. His 6.2 rWAR since the start of last season ranks 18th among position players, ahead of the likes of Manny Machado and George Springer. During that time, he’s slashing .292/.368/.478 with 57 doubles, 22 home runs, and an 85:128 BB:K ratio.
Few players in baseball history boast a similar career trajectory, as it’s rare to go from slightly better than replacement level for nine years to this kind of late flourish. Six other players in the post-war era have delivered at least six rWAR in their age-33 and -34 seasons after totaling less than nine rWAR before that, according to Baseball-Reference Play Index data:
|Name||Pre-Age 33 WAR||Age 33 and 34 WAR|
|Name||Pre-Age 33 WAR||Age 33 and 34 WAR|
Position players tend to regress after peaking in their mid- to late 20s; this obviously isn’t the case for Lowrie. His 6.2 rWAR at this age is already one of the best figures ever for someone with his track record, and he’s only a fifth of the way through this season. Barring an injury, he figures to eclipse at least seven rWAR by the end of his ongoing two-year run.
So how has Lowrie elevated his production as so many others suffered diminished outputs? Improved health likely has a hand in it — he’s played in 186 of the past 197 possible games. That 94.4 percent clip marks the second-best stretch of his career, a smidge below his only other extended run of injury avoidance, which came between the 2013 and 2014 campaigns. For his career, he’s played in just 59.5 percent of possible games.
He’s also squaring the ball up more than ever. After posting a personal-best 27.1 line drive rate last season, he’s hit line drives 24 percent of time this year while maintaining a career-high hard-hit rate, according to FanGraphs. While line drive rate can be somewhat volatile year-to-year, sustaining this over such a large sample suggests it’s not a fluke.
A change in regimen has likely contributed as well. In April, Lowrie told the San Francisco Chronicle that a weight training adjustment helped him strengthen his lower body:
“There’s one lower-body lift that changed, a rear-foot elevated squat,” he said. “It’s very common but it’s a different way to move through the exercise, to build functional strength by changing the angle. It’s a really good one if you do it right. It was just a little tweak in the approach.”
Lowrie has swung at hittable pitches more often over the past two seasons, allowing him to capitalize on his stronger swing. This shift is apparent in the below plot of his Z-Swing rate, which measures how often hitters swing at pitches in the zone.
Lowrie is offering at strikes and laying off balls, which is obviously not an easy task. Since the beginning of 2017, Lowrie’s Z-Swing rate (72.2 percent) is the 15th-highest among qualified hitters, and his O-Swing rate (25.2 percent) is the 27th-lowest. In other words, he has a good eye.
Lowrie’s .400 BABIP this year indicates his outlandish 175 wRC+ — and level of play as a whole — will slow at some point, even though he should be a productive hitter for the A’s for the rest of the season. Whichever team signs him as a free agent after that will hope he goes on to follow the Marco Scutaro aging curve (6.6 rWAR after the age of 34) rather than the Alex Gonzalez aging curve (-1.3 rWAR).
But Lowrie has never followed the expected script, a quality that’s made his career equally intriguing and frustrating.
All data current as of Monday, May 7.