Healthy Lowrie quietly consistent for A's
Career plagued by injury, illness and bad luck takes fragile turn for better
OAKLAND -- Judging his level of superstitions on a sliding scale of 1-10, Bob Melvin places himself firmly at an 8.5. Sometimes the A's manager will take the same route during his commute to the Coliseum, or maybe he will use a certain pen when filling out his lineup card for the day's game.
"I think probably everybody in baseball has their superstitions based on the way the game's played," Melvin said. "It's played every day. You just try to find some ways to insulate. It occupies time."
So perhaps it is best to avoid focusing on Jed Lowrie, who has -- in lieu of any jinxes or bad karma -- so far managed to avoid the injuries that have dogged him for most of his career. More so, he has quietly produced as one of the A's most reliable players while other players on the team, such as Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick -- players who were expected to lead the way if the A's were going to compete for a second straight division title -- continue to perform under past levels of production.
Yet here the A's (64-47) stand in the early August as leaders of the American League West, backed largely on offense by Lowrie and third baseman Josh Donaldson, who may very well have been selected for the All-Star Game if not for a stacked field at the position.
Lowrie is Oakland's Swiss Army knife, a player who provides the utmost flexibility for Melvin as someone who can play anywhere in the lineup (he has batted at Nos. 1-6) and at both middle-infield positions. That and Lowrie's ability to hit from either side of the plate makes him an especially malleable piece for Melvin, who employs a platoon at multiple positions based on the opposing team's starting pitcher.
"It's rare that you get that versatile a player who has played both shortstop and second -- both of the middle-infield positions are very taxing -- and then on top of it, he's a smart player," Melvin said. "Some guys have a difficult time moving around in the lineup, and I'm sure he would like to hit in one particular spot, too, but he never complains about it. He knows the intricacies of not only the positions but where he's hitting in the lineup and what's expected of him."
But maybe most encouraging -- and this is where superstitions come into play -- is that Lowrie is the healthiest he has been in his professional career; more important than his .289 batting average and team-leading 27 doubles are the career-high 408 at-bats he has seen in 105 games this season.
Lowrie had not played in more than 100 games in any of his five past Major League seasons, the closest being 97 games last year with the Astros. He has missed time because of injury -- mostly of the freak variety -- and illness, when he missed half of the 2010 season after contracting mononucleosis during Spring Training.
Lowrie's abilities have never been in question. In the first half of last season, Lowrie had 14 home runs and was on pace to exceed the nearly 30-year-old Astros home run record for shortstops before he sustained ankle and knee injuries after Gregor Blanco slid hard into his extended leg on a double-play attempt.
It was not the average wear-and-tear injury. Nor was the damage to Lowrie's left wrist that occurred when a player slid into it in May 2008, which he played through until the end of Spring Training 2009, when he had surgery to repair what turned out to be a torn ligament. Or his collision with a left fielder that left him with a subluxed shoulder in 2011.
While those injuries all had very specific and perhaps unavoidable causes, Lowrie was nevertheless wary that he would be viewed around the league as a fragile player waiting to get hurt at a moment's notice, which was a main factor in why he played so long with the injured wrist.
"A lot of guys get labeled really quickly as being injury prone, and I was conscious of that," Lowrie said. "I think I played with injuries to not get that label, and because of that ended up getting that label.
"As a young player, too, you're kind of finding out what the difference is between injury and kind of banged up, nicked up. And those lines aren't always clear. And I think they become more clear with the more experience you have and the more you play."
Players are often unable to gauge the magnitude of how hurt they truly are. Such a conflict plagued Reddick when the A's right fielder injured his right wrist but continued to play before hitting the disabled list on May 8, hitting .152 at the time.
"Looking back at it now, I should've realized that this isn't the Josh I know who can play baseball," Reddick said. "I've always been a guy who felt like I could play through anything, and this was the first time that I tried to play through something serious as a wrist injury, as opposed to some other stuff being painful at times where I can treat it before a game, treat it after a game and be fine the next day."
Reddick's production has increased since his return, but he is still yet to mirror the player who clubbed 32 home runs as the team's No. 3 hitter last season. Part of that can be attributed to the type of funk any player can go through, but it also contrasts how Lowrie has been able to bounce back almost immediately upon the completion of his stints on the DL.
Lowrie had accrued a career .250/.326/.417 line with 35 home runs and 159 RBIs in 353 career games prior to this season -- numbers that, while no more than serviceable at first glance are particularly impressive considering that baseball requires timing and in-game experience for improvement.
Now, healthy and thriving, Lowrie is one of the driving forces of one of the best teams in baseball.
"He's been our middle-of-the-lineup guy whenever myself or Cespedes haven't been swinging the bat the way we want to," Reddick said. "I know the guys who we had in the [No.] 3-4-5 holes aren't doing what they did last year, and he's come in here and stepped up. He might not be the perfect three-hole hitter that everybody defines, but he's doing one heck of a job for us in that role right now."