Keith Srakocic / Associated Press

Jed Lowrie, shown scoring in Pittsburgh this month, already has set a career high in hits (101) and is approaching other milestones.

Healthy Lowrie gives A's what they lacked at short: A healthy bat

Published: Sunday, Jul. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 16, 2013 - 7:02 pm

OAKLAND – When Jed Lowrie found out roughly a week before spring training that the A's had traded for him, he didn't know what position he'd be playing in Oakland or where he might hit in the lineup. But he did know a little about his new office space.

"Houston (where Lowrie played in 2012) is much more conducive to hitting home runs," Lowrie said. "And everyone knows the (more spacious) reputation of Oakland. So I was really conscious of hitting more line drives. I tried to adjust my game to the park."

Lowrie hit 16 home runs a year ago, including 14 before the All-Star break, but said the line-drive approach is "who I am as a hitter anyway." It might help explain why Lowrie goes into this year's break with lower power numbers – seven homers as of Saturday – in what otherwise is shaping up as the best offensive season of his career.

In his first 87 games, the 29-year-old already had set a career high in hits (101) and was closing in on previous bests in runs (40), doubles (23) and RBIs (37) for the American League West-leading A's. His .301 average and .802 OPS led A.L. shortstops.

A breakdown of balls Lowrie has put in play on the website FanGraphs seems to bear out his theory about the approach. Entering Saturday, he was hitting line drives this season at the highest rate of his career – 26.2 percent of batted balls compared to a 20.8 percent career rate – and fewer fly balls (39.9 percent) than in any previous season.

Last year, more than half the balls Lowrie put in play (51.3 percent) were fly balls, closer to his career rate of 47.8. The season in airy Houston followed Lowrie's first four with Boston, where it's a short porch to both corners of Fenway Park. Still, Lowrie said that adjusting to O.co Coliseum, "I didn't change my swing."

"I think it was a mind-set," he said. "It was just a matter of knowing that to be successful here, you have to hit more line drives."

Another reason Lowrie is nearing so many of his previous bests: A history of injuries has kept him from playing more than 97 games in any of his five major-league seasons. He has lost time in past years to ankle, shoulder and wrist problems, as well as a bout with mononucleosis.

"When he was with us he had some freak injuries happen to him," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "But when he was on the field he was very productive, plays the game hard, really intelligent, always in the right spot defensively. Now you can tell, he's healthy and playing all the time, and the numbers show."

In trading for Lowrie – sending Chris Carter and prospects Brad Peacock and Max Stassi to the Astros in March – manager Bob Melvin said the A's were "hoping for this (kind of production), and I think health was the first (question)."

"We felt if we kept him healthy, the talent level is there, and it has been," Melvin said. "I think he's everything we could've hoped for."

The A's also valued Lowrie's versatility, and already in the first half Lowrie has made at least one start batting everywhere from leadoff to seventh in the A's lineup, with most coming in either the No. 2 or 3 spots.

He has been asked to play some second base along with his natural shortstop.

But the majority of his starts have come on the left side, at a position where the A's received little in the way of offense in 2012. The A's signed Hiroyuki Nakajima to a two-year deal over the winter with designs on making him their everyday shortstop, and Lowrie's play is a big reason why Nakajima has spent the first half in Triple A.

A's shortstops in 2012 – primarily Cliff Pennington and second-half acquisition Stephen Drew – combined to hit .203 with 46 RBIs and a .565 OPS. Saturday began with their shortstops, mostly Lowrie and recently outrighted Adam Rosales, producing a .286 average, 43 RBIs and .793 OPS that was the second-highest on the A's by position.

"Last year the guy we had at short was an incredible defender in Penny. Stephen came in and did a good job," first baseman Brandon Moss said. "But if you asked either one, they would say neither one of them had the offensive year they wanted to have.

"A team like ours, we have pitching, that's what we do. We prevent runs. But we have to score runs and that's something (Lowrie has) helped us do. He gets on a lot, he drives in runs, he hits doubles."

Moss said Lowrie has "been in my mind an All-Star-caliber player" through the first half. Lowrie ranked fourth among A.L. shortstops in fan voting, more than 3 million votes behind the Orioles' J.J. Hardy, though it's tough to call him a hard-luck case when, a few lockers down, Josh Donaldson's breakout year isn't getting him to New York either.

"How do you say (Lowrie is) under the radar when arguably our best player didn't make the team?" Moss said. "But he's had a heck of a first half. And he's a really big reason why we're in the position we're in right now."

Call The Bee's Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015. Read his Bay Area Baseball blog at blogs.sacbee.com/bay-area-baseball/. Follow him on Twitter @matthewkawahara.

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