Friday, August 12, 2011

Guess Who's Back

Where I live, and in most places, competition is all around us. When a McDonalds opens, Burger King or Wendys pops up right across the street. Where there is a Dunkins, a Heavenly Donuts or Starbucks opens up. For CVS, Walgreens is never too far behind. As a consumer of these businesses, the competition between them only yields lower prices and better service. Since they are not the only place of their kind in the area, they must work hard at being the best in order to keep their customers. It is one of the most basic economic principles: competition breeds results.

The same situation will be underway in the Red Sox clubhouse in order to decide on who will be the team's starting shortstop come October for the playoff run. With the return of Jed Lowrie, who has now played two games since being injured on June 16th, incumbent Marco Scutaro now has to be looking over his shoulder for his starting job. The Red Sox hope this friendly competition will only drive both players to perform at high levels, making it a difficult decision come the end of September.

Since June, around the time Lowrie first went down, Scutaro has a triple-slash line of .294/.348/.396. All of those numbers are above his career average, especially that batting average. I would expect some regression from Scutaro as the season progresses. While his BABIP is on par with his career average of .292, he is doing so with a lower line drive percentage, which he is making up for with a higher ground ball percentage. This tells me that he is getting lucky by sneaking more grounders through the infield for base hits rather than hitting solid line drive base hits.

On the other side of the coin, Lowrie is coming in as the challenger. He may be the fan favorite, but that is probably just because his remarkably hot April inspired a Twitter page @jedlowrielegend and the #legendofjedlowrie hashtag. However, after hitting .368/.389/.574 in April, Lowrie stumbled in May and has lost his starting job after being injured shortly thereafter. Lowrie is probably the better hitter of the two, but he is a very streaky one. He could easily get hot and put Francona in a position where he absolutely can not be on the bench. However, he can just as easily get into a rut and force Francona to give Scutaro more at bats. The one thing Lowrie can stand to improve the most is his walk rate. Right now, he is walking just 6.7% of his plate appearances, compared to his career rate of around 10%. One of the reasons for this is that he is swinging at 28.5% of pitches he sees out of the strike zone, a career high. He is also only making contact on 68% of those pitches, compared to 82% just a year ago. Better plate discipline will go a long way in this competition.

Offense, however, is only a part of this competition, especially when it comes to a premium position like shortstop. As I stated in the previous paragraph, Lowrie is the better hitter. However, Scutaro is definitively the better short stop of the pair. This has been the biggest knock on Lowrie since he's entered the league: can he be an everyday shortstop on a playoff contender. According to Fangraphs, Lowrie's defense since the start of 2010 has cost the Red Sox 4.7 runs, while Scutaro's shortstop play has cost the team just 1.5 runs, and has saved the team 1.4 runs in 2011.

In the end, Lowrie will decide his fate more than Scutaro. We know what Scutaro is for the most part. He is about a league-average shortstop in every facet of the game, and a guy who we can stick at the bottom of the lineup and feel pretty comfortable about it. However, Lowrie is more of an unknown. As a guy who has never been able to stay healthy, we haven't seen enough out of him to categorize his skills yet. It is very possible he hits a hot streak for the last month and a half  (a la April 2011) and demands a spot in the postseason lineup. However, I see him hitting around .270 with a .775 OPS, and making this a very difficult decision for Francona. If Lowrie proves he can be an adequate shortstop defensively, he should be the guy on the lineup card for game 1 of the ALDS.

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