As he learned to play baseball, Jed Lowrie – like almost everyone else in the Northwest – found it impossible to resist the temptation to imitate Ken Griffey, Jr. Everyone wanted to be the iconic Mariners outfielder, and to a degree, Lowrie was no different.
When hitting tennis balls with a baseball bat in his back yard, Lowrie would turn his baseball cap around. Though naturally right-handed, he would try to mimic Griffey’s left-handed swing, an early hint of his future as a switch-hitter.
But while Griffey’s allure was irresistible, it was another, less-heralded player who caught Lowrie’s attention as a teenager. Carlos Guillen came to the Mariners in 1998 as part of the package that sent Randy Johnson to the Astros. Lowrie took a natural interest in a switch-hitting shortstop who offered steadiness at the plate and in the field.
“I’ve always respected his game. Even from a young age, I just thought he was a good player,” said Lowrie. “I always felt like he hit the ball hard every time. He played solid defense. He wasn’t going to get all the hype that a superstar was, but he was going to be a guy that was a consistent player for him, day-in, day-out.”
Lowrie seems like a player who could easily end up fitting the same description. Though the 24-year-old will never be confused with Jose Reyes or Hanley Ramirez, he does not lack for confidence in his ability to become a reliable contributor on a winning team.
Guillen emerged from relative obscurity (Lowrie’s enthusiasm notwithstanding) to become a three-time All-Star with the Tigers in the past five seasons. This spring (required disclaimer: it is ONLY the spring, often a terrible time for player evaluation) Lowrie has performed like a player intent on doing the same.
“I feel like I’m a consistent performer,” said Lowrie. “As far as all the rest, what you’re labeled, I guess that’s up to everyone else.”
Lowrie’s brilliant spring has been well chronicled. Even though he clinched the job of Red Sox Opening Day shortstop when Julio Lugo had to undergo surgery on a torn meniscus in his knee, Lowrie has been anything but complacent about his status. He entered Saturday hitting .408 with a .444 on-base percentage. His .776 slugging percentage (through Friday’s games) led the Grapefruit League.
He is tied for the major-league lead with eight doubles this spring. That mark seems particularly significant for a player who judges his performance by his OBP and doubles.
“If I’m getting on base and hitting doubles, that’s my game,” said Lowrie. “I feel like I’ve got some home run power, but if I’m looking at that as a qualifying stat, I’m trying too hard instead of just letting them happen.
“When I’m getting doubles, it’s just happening. My swing feels good. Home runs will happen if I think like that. If I’m thinking of home runs, then I might hit a few more, but the rest of my game isn’t as good.”
That has not been a problem this spring. Lowrie has stung the ball from gap to gap, his approach sound both from the right side (where he excelled last year) and left, where he was hindered by the non-displaced fracture in his left wrist down the stretch.
Obviously, it would be a stretch to imagine Lowrie – or anyone who does not hail from the planet Krypton – sustaining his spring training pace over a full season. Lowrie seems unlikely to go through a regular season while collecting an extra-base hit every four at-bats.
Nonetheless, there is reason to expect that he can offer above-average production for a shortstop. In half a season in the majors last year, while hitting .258 with a .339 OBP and .400 slugging mark in the majors, he collected 30 extra-base hits, including 25 doubles. That followed an exceptional 2007 season, when Lowrie put up 68 extra-base hits (47 doubles, 13 homers) in 133 combined games with Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket.
To put that 2007 power in context, just two American League shortstops have had more than 60 extra-base hits in the past two years. Jhonny Peralta of the Indians has 69 extra-base hits in 2008, and Guillen had 65 in 2007.
“I feel like I’m capable of a lot,” said Lowrie. “I’ve known I’ve had the ability to (hit for extra bases). It’s been a matter of developing, letting myself grow into my body and let it come out.”
One National League evaluator suggested that Lowrie appears capable right now of offering above-average production at his position. Clearly, Lowrie is driven to be something more.
The shortstop (actually a second baseman at the time) was taken by the Sox in the sandwich round of the 2005 draft, the No. 45 overall choice that year. No one taken in that spot has ever been to an All-Star game. Lowrie would like to buck the trend.
“I’ll try to be the first,” said Lowrie. “I want to be the best player I can be, and let everyone else decide where I fall.”