Can Mike Lowell Come Back? An Historical Perspective

As one of the most productive hitters the Marlins have ever had, Mike Lowell earned a valuable, long term contract following the 2003 season.

And then there was 2005.

Lowell struggled mightily at the plate, falling from his usual 25 – 90 – .285 Triple Crown statistics to 8 – 58 – .236.  To his credit, he never stopped trying and continued to play solidly in the field.  His bat never affected his glove.

Jack McKeon gave him more than 400 at bats to get out of the slump but it never really happened.  After a while, McKeon had to have another bat in the lineup and began playing Miguel Cabrera at third and giving Lowell’s at bats to Jeff Conine.  When the injury bug finished off the team, Lowell was forced back into the lineup as a second baseman – which Lowell, ever the professional, willingly accepted.

As the season comes to a close, Marlins management is going to have to decide what to do with the star whose value has diminished significantly following a difficult season.  The question being considered is whether Lowell can come back – and if he can, should he do it here or for someone else when Cabrera showed he can capably fill the position.  Lowell went from being a star to being a replacement level player – and replacement level players can be had for far less money than
Lowell is being paid.

Can Lowell come back?  To try and figure this out, I decided to find the most similar batting collapses since 1950 that did not appear to be solely related to injuries.  I looked for players who fell off significantly in homers and batting average, were 30 or 31 years old when the stats collapsed, and tried to look at what happened in the four years that followed the collapse.  I tried to avoid players who were coming off seasons that were outside the norm for a player since
Lowell’s 2004 season was his normal season and not necessarily his best.

Here are the players who most closely matched Lowell: 

(Age-Year:       AB       HR       RBI      AVG)

Bob Allison:

30 – 1964:       492      32        86        .287

31 – 1965:       438      23        78        .233

What isn’t shown here is that Allison also lost 13 doubles that year, so the drop in power goes beyond the drop in homers.  Allison was hurt the next year, but came back in 1967 and 1968 to play somewhat better than 1965, but not as well as he had prior to 1965.  He was out of baseball soon after that.

George Altman:

29 – 1962:       534      22        74        .318

30 – 1963        464      9          47        .274

Altman’s decline is partly attributable to his moving out of Wrigley Field (he was sent to the Cardinals), and partly due to the change in the strike zone.  However, the next season, he was in New York, still didn’t break 10 homers and his batting average was comparable to Lowell’s – .230.  Sent back to Chicago, he had three unproductive seasons and was out of baseball.  Like Lowell, he was a late arrival to the majors but he had fewer really good seasons (two).  Not a perfect comparison, but in the ballpark.

Max Alvis:

29 – 1967:       637      21        70        .256

30 – 1968:       452      8          37        .223

Alvis and Lowell are pretty comparable players given the context of their careers.  1968 was the peak of the pitcher’s era and baseball adjusted the strike zone and mound heights to help the hitters after the season.  Alvis, however, never came back.  He was worse in 1969 and done after 1970.

Clete Boyer:

30 – 1967:       572      26        96        .245

31 – 1968:       273      4          17        .227

The 26 homers are deceiving because it is reflective of his leaving Yankee Stadium and moving to Atlanta.  And, you could argue that he was hurt and 1968 was the year of the pitcher.  When he came back in 1969 and 1970, he was close to his normal statistics – though he was helped by Fulton-County Stadium.  Honestly, he was probably 80% the player he used to be.  However, those were his last two full seasons and he was done after 1971.

Greg Brock:

30 – 1987:       532      13        85        .299

31 – 1988:       364      6          50        .212

Brock came back a little bit in 1989, but to about 75% of where he was in 1987, if that.  He fell back again though in 1990 and was done after 1991.

Alvin Davis:

30 – 1989:       494      17        68        .305

31 – 1990:       462      12        69        .221

Davis had one more year – it was worse.  He was painfully slow and aged very quickly.

Mike Epstein:

29 – 1972:       455      26        70        .270

30 – 1973:       397      9          38        .209

Another late bloomer, Epstein was equally poor in 1974 and out of baseball in 1975.

Alex Gonzalez:

30 – 2003:       536      20        59        .228

31 – 2004:       285      7          27        .225

Not his teammate, but the guy who played against Lowell in the 2003 NLCS for the Cubs.  Gonzalez was never a high average guy.  His 2005 season looks like his 2004 season with more at bats.  I wouldn’t want him; one imagines that Tampa Bay might not want him in 2006.

Kelly Gruber:

29 – 1991:       429      20        65        .252

30 – 1992:       446      11        43        .229

Gruber is another player, very similar to Lowell, whose decline started a year early – but his career also started a bit later than Mike.  Gruber had one more year – a miserable one – and was done.

Larry Herndon:

30 – 1983:       603      20        92        .302

31 – 1984:       407      7          43        .280

Herndon’s first two seasons in Detroit were far better than what he had done in San Francisco, but since he had done it twice in a row, it’s hard to argue that he was way over his head in 1983.  Besides, it was easier to hit in Detroit than, say, Candlestick.  Herndon hit for more power in 1985 (12 homers), but lost another 33 points on his average.  It was his last season as a regular.  He hung on for three more years, having one good season in a part time role.

Randy Jackson:

29 – 1955:       499      21        70        .265

30 – 1956:       307      8          53        .274

Do you see a pattern here?  These are mostly third basemen that get a bit of a late start in their Major League career and then suddenly lose it at 30 or 31 and never really come back.

Terry Pendleton:

29 – 1989:       613      13        74        .264

30 – 1990:       447      6          58        .230

Pendleton is really the only guy who bucks the trend.  In 1991, Pendleton was the comeback player of the year, and helped Atlanta win the NL pennant.  It easily was his best season ever – whereas Lowell would have already seemed to have his (2003).  He was pretty good again in 1992 before coming back down to earth.  Pendleton’s slump was at 30 and not 31, which apparently matters.  The guys who have off years at 30 seem to do better than the guys who have off years at 31 – and much better than the guys who have off years at 32.

Doug Radar:

30 – 1974:       533      17        78        .257

31 – 1975:       448      12        48        .223

Radar came back for two seasons at about 80% of his previous value – maybe a bit more in 1977, but batters were hitting better in 1977 than they were in 1974.  They were his last two seasons.

Chris Sabo:

29 – 1991:       582      26        88        .301

30 – 1992:       344      12        43        .244

Sabo had one more season that was 75% of what he did in 1993 – but was gone very quickly.  Two years later, he was a part-timer.  Two more – he was gone.

Norm Siebern:

30 – 1963:       556      16        83        .272

31 – 1964:       478      12        56        .245

Never had another good season – gone after 1968.

Eric Soderholm:

30 – 1978:       457      20        67        .258

31 – 1979:       357      10        53        .261

Not the same drop in average, but he had a pretty good year in 1980 as a part-timer.  He never played in the majors again.

Frank Thomas:

29 – 1958:       562      35        109      .281

30 – 1959:       374      12        47        .225

I’ll list Frank Thomas just to give you an idea of why crashing at 30 is better than 31.  First, Frank’s 1958 season was his best season ever.  Maybe, then, perhaps Frank shouldn’t count.  If you averaged the two seasons, you’d have something not too terribly off of his normal season (24 – 78 – .259).  He came back a bit each year and, by 1962, was pretty good in the expansion season as a Met.  He faded out of view and was gone after being a bit player in 1965 and 1966.

Alan Trammell:

30 – 1988:       466      15        69        .311

31 – 1989        449      5          43        .243

Trammell was two years removed from his best season (1987), like Lowell, when he crashed.  He came back to approach his 1988 season in 1990 (it was actually better, seeing as he played more, though with less power).  However, with one exception (1993) Trammell reverted back to the lower level for the rest of his career.

Other guys who are similar, but not close enough to make the discussion, and scare you… 

Steve Buechele – could easily be listed above; Billy Doran; Damian Easley – a slow slide into mediocrity; Gary Gaetti – a longer slide at a lower level of play; Ron Gant, an adjustment to a lower level of play; Jim Gentile; Howard Johnson; Mack Jones; Don Lock; Bill Melton; Dennis Menke; Randy Milligan; Don Money; Bob Oliver, Rico Petrocelli; Boog Powell; Jim Presley; Al Rosen; Steve Sax; Vern Stephens (slipped in power at 31, then average at 32 – then out of baseball a few years later); Tom Tresh; John Valentin (actually more power while his average tanked, slipped totally a year later, was done soon after); Otto Velez; Wally Westlake.

Most of these guys are third basemen, first basemen, or slower outfielders – a lot of these guys started their careers a bit late, too.

Others who are similar, but not close enough to make the discussion, and give you some hope: 

Harmon Killebrew – must have been injured, plus everybody got killed in 1968, he came back to have a few more very good years; Don Mincher – beaten down in 1968, came back to have a couple of good years but was gone soon after; Bill Robinson – who is the poster child for guys who come back and have a couple more good years – and the Marlins hitting coach; Tim Salmon; George Scott – suffered from Bret Saberhagen disease in that he was up and down each season.

In summary:

Eighteen players appear to be similar to Mike Lowell in terms of the timing of their off-season.  Of these, ten were never the player they had been before, five of them came back to be about 80% of the players they had been prior to the off-season, and three came back with no ill effects – with Pendleton being the odd exception in that he was actually better than before.  And, of the guys who were vaguely similar, there were 24 guys who fell off the map and five guys who might give you hope for a comeback.

To his credit, Lowell is probably it bit better player than most of the eighteen similar players, so Lowell would be a good shot to bounce back some.  However, he’ll probably give you two or three more years at, say, 80% of his previous norm.  If he were to hit .265 with 18 homers and 75 RBI, it would not be out of the realm of possibility.  I think it’s equally possible that he may hit .250 with 13 homers and 60 RBI, and slip just a bit more in 2007.

As such, Lowell is an expensive gamble for any team.  Fortunately, the Marlins have options at third base, and could have a surprisingly good option in the outfield with Jeremy Hermida.  If the Marlins could trade Lowell for a fifth starter or two decent relievers, the Marlins might be better off letting Lowell go.

That being said, it would not surprise me if Lowell were to return to the Marlins as a broadcaster for a year or two in 2010.  If he was as smooth a color man as he is a fielder, he could hang around for a long time.

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