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Jed Lowrie connects on a two-run single against Toronto last month.
AP photo / Winslow Townson
Sometimes it was Ken Griffey Jr. Sometimes it was Alex Rodriguez. Sometimes it was switch-hitting infielder Carlos Guillen, the type of player with whom Jed Lowrie especially could identify.
Whenever Lowrie watched baseball games as a kid in central Oregon — usually it was the Seattle Mariners — he’d inevitably start imitating batting stances he was seeing. But instead of just standing in the living room pretending to be whatever player he’d seen that day, as countless 10-year-olds do, he’d take the stance into the batting cage and try to see if it worked.
“It would always be something — a little bit more open stance, a little bit wider stance from one week to the next,” said Randy Brock, the hitting instructor who worked with Lowrie at that age. “All of a sudden, it would be like, ‘This is different!’ His dad would say, ‘Yeah, he watched so-and-so,’ and we’d start laughing. Whoever he saw, maybe a guy that had a good day, he’d pick up a little bit. It’s not a bad thing at all, but you’ve just got to be careful that you don’t take it too far. He never did.”
Said Lowrie, “The biggest thing is learning who you are as a hitter. When you’re growing up, you’re watching the big-leaguers do it, and they’re the best in the game. You try to figure out what they do to make them successful, and, in turn, you learn what makes you successful.”
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Lowrie rounds second base on his way to a triple against Seattle earlier this month.
Journal photo / Bob Breidenbach
Seventeen years later, the swing Lowrie has honed through years of imitation, repetition and careful consideration has lifted him into the same class as some of the best-hitting shortstops in the game.
After a half-season in 2010 in which he hit .287 with a .381 on-base percentage and a .526 slugging percentage, Lowrie has hit .348 with a .372 on-base percentage and .539 slugging percentage so far this season. His .912 OPS — on-base plus slugging — is tied for ninth in the American League and leads all major-league shortstops. In 673 plate appearances in the major leagues — in other words, the equivalent of a full season — Lowrie has 16 home runs and 47 doubles.
Not only has he seized the starting job for the foreseeable future, but given the paucity of productive shortstops in baseball, Lowrie might already be one of the best there is — as strange as that idea might still seem.
The imitation of Griffey, who had one of the prettiest swings in baseball, seems to have stuck the most. Examined side-by-side, the way Lowrie swings — especially from the left side — is reminiscent of the way Griffey swung, particularly with the path their hands take to the ball. Lowrie hits the ball farther out in front than most hitters, just like Griffey did.
Griffey had far more grace in his swing. Lowrie has a swing that Dean Stotz, the associate head coach at Stanford, compared to that of golfer Jim Furyk.
“What’s unnatural to you and me is extremely natural to Jed Lowrie,” Stotz said.
Both tend to swing with more of an upward motion through the zone than most hitters, generating lift. Even from the right side, Lowrie swings with more lift than most hitters, coming through the swing as if he’s about to run to third base.
“He gets away with it because his hand-eye coordination is so good,” Stotz said.
Said Lowrie, “I certainly don’t try to lift the ball. It’s just a product of my swing. I actually think I get good lift when I’m swinging down to the ball. When I get myself in trouble is when I do try to lift the ball and I start popping it up. But when I stay down to the ball, direct to it, then the ball will carry for me.”
Griffey rode the lift in his swing to 630 home runs and an almost certain first-ballot Hall of Fame induction. For Lowrie, not as big or strong as Griffey, the lift in his swing might be the difference between being a bottom-of-the-order hitter and a middle-of-the-order hitter.
When Lowrie was a sophomore at North Salem High School, he hit a walk-off, three-run home run that traveled 400 feet in the air — from the left side. The opposing team only had a play on Lowrie at the plate because the ball hit the base of a tree and caromed back to the center fielder.
“I remember thinking, ‘To hit the ball that far on your nondominant side, this kid has got power for his size of body that most kids don’t have,’” said Chris Lee, the baseball coach at North Salem. “It wasn’t just that he was going to be a Punch-and-Judy, singles-hitter guy because of his size. He was able to get torque and power out of his frame.”
The question took Brock by surprise.
Brock had been working with Jed Lowrie for more than a year, trying to teach the 10-year-old some of the fundamentals of hitting through private lessons at his batting cage. Jed had above-average hand-eye coordination for his age, an ability to make contact with the ball more consistently than might have been expected, but to that point he’d done it all from the right side of the plate.
“His dad mentioned to me, at the end of one of his lessons, ‘Would you watch him swing left-handed?’” Brock said. “I was unaware he’d even fooled around with it. He jumped on the other side of the plate and took a few swings left-handed. I said, ‘You’ve got to make him a switch-hitter.’ Instantly, you could just tell. There was no difference from his left side to his right side, and he was just 10 years old.”
The ability to switch-hit set Lowrie apart at an early age.
But to switch-hit well, Lowrie had to put in twice as much time as everyone else — something he’d been doing all along, anyway, with the time he’d spent working with Brock. By the time he got to high school, he was taking twice as much batting practice as everyone else, taking a set of swings from the right side and another set from the left.
“Some kids aren’t willing to put that much time in,” Lee said. “They love baseball and everything, but they’re not willing to put in the time it takes to get better and be proficient at it. Jed was the one that put in the time. I’ve had other kids say they want to be a switch-hitter, but when I tell them, ‘That means you don’t take 100 or 200 swings a day; that means you take 200 or 400,’ it eliminates a lot of people from having the passion to want to do it.”
Lowrie was 14 or 15 years old when he started to grow into his body a little bit. His swing from the left side progressed far enough that, while he was hitting for a higher batting average from the right side, he was hitting for more power from the left.
“His junior year, he homered from both sides of the plate in (an American) Legion playoff game,” Lee said. “The Oregon State coach came to me and said, ‘What am I going to have to do to get that kid to go to OSU?’ I said, ‘I think you missed it.’”
Successful switch-hitters can do more than dig into the box on both sides of the plate. A switch-hitter who can’t make solid contact from one side of the plate or the other isn’t worthwhile at all.
If Lowrie was going to hit from both sides of the plate in college, in the minor leagues and, eventually, in the major leagues, he was going to have to hit with a little bit of power. Flashes of that power emerged when he was in high school — he hit six home runs in his career at North Salem — but he didn’t hit a single home run in 212 at-bats his freshman year at Stanford.
“I had some hand-eye coordination from the left side, but I don’t think I was probably making solid contact inside the ball every single swing from the left side,” he said.
Lowrie first attended baseball camps at Stanford when he was in high school. He was not, to put it lightly, an impressive physical specimen. He had plenty of athletic ability — Lee called him “Smooth” in high school, an homage to the Carlos Santana song that was very popular around that time — but he had work to do in terms of building strength.
“He wasn’t very strong,” Stotz said. “In fact, I’d probably classify him on the weak side. He was tall and very slender and very skinny. I’d be lying to you if I said we thought he’d become the player he is. He was a kid that did everything right in camp, but he wasn’t physically developed enough.”
Lowrie put on 10 pounds between his freshman and sophomore years at Stanford. His power came right along with it. He hit .399 with a .505 on-base percentage, 19 doubles and 17 home runs, and he was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year in 2004 — beating out a field that included, among others, Arizona State shortstop Dustin Pedroia.
The strength was the last thing to come. All of the mechanics necessary to hit for power already were in place.
“He just does a great job of not letting himself lose his balance,” Brock said. “He stays very under control, and he uses his hands and legs extremely well together. That creates his power, which equates into his timing to the baseball. That enables him to square it up and hit it as hard as he can. To me, that’s the power part with him. That’s what’s gotten him to where he is right now, and he’s so consistent doing that.”
After he hit .317 with 14 home runs and 16 doubles as a junior at Stanford in 2005, Lowrie was drafted No. 45 overall by the Red Sox. Two years later, he hit .298 with a .393 on-base percentage, 13 home runs and 47 doubles in a 2007 season split between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket.
Since he returned from wrist surgery that hampered him in 2008 and 2009 and the mononucleosis that cost him half of 2010, he’s been one of the most productive shortstops in the major leagues. Only Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki has a higher OPS since the start of the 2010 season. Even Hanley Ramirez lags more than 100 points behind.
Over and over again this season, Lowrie has been asked by reporters just how surprised he is that he’s been able to be as productive as he’s been. Without a hint of the bravado that oozes from Pedroia, a player who similarly has overachieved relative to his stature, Lowrie has made clear that he planned on nothing less.
“I know I say it a lot, but I just come to the park and prepare myself to play every day,” he said. “It might get redundant, but that’s because it’s what I do.”
Said Stotz, “He’s just a hell of a player — and he’s a feisty bugger. When you tell him he can’t, he always has.”
Top batting average among shortstops, since 2010 (minimum 250 plate appearances)
1. Jed Lowrie, Red Sox, .308
2. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies, .305
3. Starlin Castro, Cubs, .303
4. Rafael Furcal, Dodgers, .293
5. Jose Reyes, Mets, .288
Jamey Carroll, Dodgers, .288
Top OPS among shortstops since 2010 (minimum 250 plate appearances)
1. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies, .936
2. Jed Lowrie, Red Sox, .909
3. Stephen Drew, Diamondbacks, .813
4. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins, .809
5. Rafael Furcal, Dodgers, .804
Statistics through Thursday's games