If there was one offseason acquisition that took me by surprise the most this past winter, it was signing infielder Jed Lowrie. Mostly because the New York Mets’ infield seemed set at the time this move was announced, and the more pronounced roster need appeared to reside in the outfield.
And maybe partly because I was holding out hope for a Bryce Harper or A.J. Pollock signing. Nevertheless, New York opted to bolster the offense with Lowrie, who’s combined 8.5 fWAR with the Oakland Athletics from 2017-18 represents the best two-year stretch of his big-league career.
Expecting a position player to either continue improving — or merely sustaining — recent offensive performances is a tall order when said player is entering his age-35 season. However, there have been some legitimate changes in Lowrie’s plate approach that led to new single-season career highs in fWAR (4.9), wRC+ (122), home runs (23), ISO (.181), and RBI (99) this past season.
As the veteran infielder enters his first year with New York, here are some statistical trends to keep an eye on.
Shifts in Batted-Ball Profile
Entering his 2017 campaign with the A’s, Lowrie had only enjoyed two seasons of double-digit home runs (16 in 2012 and 15 in 2013). A power outage immediately followed — over the infielder’s next 1,198 plate appearances across parts of three seasons, he combined to hit just 17 home runs.
So naturally, his 2017 season included 14 dingers before shattering his previous single-season career high this past year. Baseball, am I right?
Lowrie has actually been more of a fly-ball hitter than one would’ve assumed upon taking a glance at his stat page. Check out how his ground-ball rate and fly-ball rate improved over the last two seasons after posting career-low numbers in 2016.
He was clearly able to reverse the bad parts of his batted-ball profile without sacrificing much in the line-drive department. And after posting a 7 wRC+ on fly balls in 2016, that number rose to 85 in ’17 before getting back over the century mark at 103 in ’18.
Of course, just increasing one’s fly-ball rate isn’t all that’s needed to experience a breakthrough in the power department — it’s a necessary piece of the puzzle, but something else is also needed…
Improvement in Quality of Contact
…Which leads us right into Lowrie’s quality of contact, and more specifically, his hard-hit rate. The soon-t0-be 35-year-old has enjoyed a number of seasons in which he generated hard contact above a 30.0% clip. However, it took him until 2017-18 to accomplish that particular feat in consecutive years.
Here’s a look at how his soft-hit rate and hard-hit rate compare on a yearly basis since 2011.
When we pair these quality-of-contact numbers with the rest of Lowrie’s batted-ball profile, it makes what he’s done over the past couple years feel more sustainable. His BABIP also hasn’t been out of control during this two-year run (.314 in ’17, .304 in ’18), so it’s not as if his production hinges on that.
With an increase in hard contact, one can assume there’s some sort of change going on in that particular player’s plate-discipline stats, and Lowrie is certainly no different.
Better Plate Discipline
One constant throughout Lowrie’s career has been an ability to make contact. His overall contact rate has never dipped below 80.0% in a single season, while his swinging-strike rate has never finished higher than 9.0%.
An increase in hard-hit rate can also mean increased aggressiveness within the strike zone, which is what happened here. Entering 2017, Lowrie’s single-season career-high mark for swing rate on strikes was 73.3% in 2014 with the Houston Astros. He surpassed that number in each of the last two years (75.9% in ’17, 73.6% in ’18).
His contact rate in this situation has only varied slightly during the last four seasons, but what has changed considerably is his contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone. After connecting at a 78.0% clip in 2015, that number has dropped each year since, culminating with a 67.5% mark in ’18.
Less connecting outside the strike zone has allowed Lowrie to focus on pitches in locations where he can do as much damage as possible.
Drastic Home/Road Splits
Immediately after enjoying his time as a hitter at O.Co Coliseum in 2017, Lowrie’s home/road splits went in the complete opposite direction. In 326 plate appearances at home last season, the infielder posted a .710 OPS, .116 ISO, and 103 wRC+, numbers that looked drastically different in 354 plate appearances on the road (.884 OPS, .240 ISO, 140 wRC+).
Of the 23 dingers Lowrie hit, only four came at home. This is intriguing because experiencing much lower levels of production at home is nothing new to the Mets — New York posted a team 86 wRC+ at Citi Field in 2018. And that is hardly the first year this organization has struggled at the plate in Flushing in recent memory.
The good news for Lowrie, though, is that he’s getting a slightly positive park shift with regard to dingers. ESPN’s Park Factors ranked O.co as the third-worst place for homers in 2018, while Citi Field checked in at 22nd.
This signing was a bit unexpected, but during an offseason in which the theme appeared to be gaining as much depth as possible, we can hope the majority of the above trends continue for Lowrie. If they do, he’ll end up being an asset to a Mets team with postseason aspirations for the upcoming year.