The Bloom Is Off Brett Lawrie’s Rose

In 150 at-bats back in 2011, Brett Lawrie captured our attention and imagination. “If he could hit nine homers in such a short time, Lawrie could have 30-homer potential over the course of a full season,” is likely a sentence you read before the 2012 season. It’s probably a sentence I wrote, as a matter of fact. In the season and a half since though, Lawrie has hit just 16 homers, and has battled a myriad of injuries. He’s just 23-years-old, but perhaps it’s time we stopped waiting for Lawrie to be a star.

At this point, Lawrie has started just over half of the Blue Jays’ games at third base — 37 of 65, to be precise. In those 37 games, he’s hit .209/.268/.374. In the other 34 games, his five replacements — Jose Bautista, Mark DeRosa, Edwin Encarnacion, Maicer Izturis and Andy LaRoche — have hit .205/.268/.420. The latter line is fueled in large part by three homers from Encarnacion, but the point is clear — Lawrie has hit very poorly this season — poorly enough that the Jays have not even missed him offensively when he hasn’t played. And he hasn’t played quite a bit.

This season, Lawrie has already landed on the disabled list twice. He began the season on the DL with a rib cage injury, and he’s on the DL right now with a left-ankle injury. In 2011, he broke a finger in batting practice. Last season, he missed about a month with a similar oblique/rib cage injury, and battled calf, back, knee and groin issues as well. Many of these injuries are self-inflicted. His knee and ankle injuries came as a result of awkward slides, for instance. That stuff happens, of course, but at a certain point a series of seemingly random events becomes a pattern. It’s worth wondering if Lawrie is capable of staying healthy enough to play a full season.

Health has not been Lawrie’s only issue, however. Contact has been just as big of a problem. Lawrie is swinging at the same percent of pitches out of the strike zone, the same percentage of pitchers inside the strike zone and the same percentage of pitches overall. But he is making far less contact. In fact, of the 122 players who posted at least 500 plate appearances and have logged at least 150 PA this season, Lawrie’s 8.80 percent drop in contact percentage is the largest. It’s not really close either. Only eight of the 122 are making contact five percent or less than they did last year:

Player 2012 PA Contact% 2013 PA Contact% Difference
Brett Lawrie 536 83.4% 153 74.6% 8.8%
Justin Upton 628 77.1% 276 69.1% 8.0%
Jeff Francoeur 603 80.3% 175 73.2% 7.1%
Colby Rasmus 625 75.7% 238 69.3% 6.4%
Joe Mauer 641 87.9% 273 81.8% 6.1%
Pedro Alvarez 586 70.7% 217 64.6% 6.1%
Asdrubal Cabrera 616 84.0% 224 77.9% 6.1%
Dan Uggla 630 70.0% 248 64.6% 5.4%

As you can see, there’s a decent gap between Lawrie and even the other egregious contact decliners. He has fallen on both balls in and out of the zone too, so it’s not like the problem is wholly isolated to the location of pitches.

The problems don’t end when he makes contact either. Lawrie is hitting grounders at the same rate that he did last season, but he is hitting more fly balls and fewer line drives. That has led to a slight uptick in homers, but also a slight uptick in infield fly balls. Perhaps this is why Lawrie’s batting average on balls in play is so much lower than it has been in previous seasons. Perhaps he has also been unlucky. Perhaps also his seemingly declining speed is a factor.

After swiping 19, 30 and 20 bases in his first three professional seasons, good for a not-great-but-decent 70 percent, he was only successful on 13 of 21 stolen-base attempts last season. That is neither great nor decent. This year, he isn’t running at all, as he’s swiped two bases in three attempts. His Speed Score is in decline as well, so it’s not just his stolen base totals that point to a decline in speed. Whether or not this is affecting his BABIP is an open and still unanswered question, but it’s certainly not a positive development for the 23-year-old British Columbia native.

Last season, Lawrie flew under the radar, but given his generally decent results, it was a little too soon to paint him as an underachiever. Certainly it was folly to expect him to be amazing as he was in 2011, but he has lowered the bar a lot further than even the most pessimistic watcher would have. After all, he was a regular on top 100 prospect lists before his ’11 debut. It’s not like he sprang on the world unsuspectingly. But combine his ’12 and ’13 stats and compare to his fellow hot corner denizens and it would be hard to say that Lawrie has justified his hype.

Of the 32 third basemen with at least 500 PA since the start of 2012, Lawrie has only posted a better wRC+ than nine of them — Alberto Callaspo, Jordan Pacheco, Michael Young, Mike Moustakas, Jamey Carroll, Ryan Roberts, Greg Dobbs, Izturis and Placido Polanco. With the exception of the similarly underwhelming Moustakas, that is a list of either players who are either old, role players or both. Lawrie’s 94 wRC+ is even lower than the 97 wRC+ posted by a completely broken Kevin Youkilis. A full 14 hitters, including the similarly completely broken Alex Rodriguez, have been at least 20 percent better than has Lawrie. No one is expecting Lawrie to suddenly start hitting like Miguel Cabrera, but it was certainly expected that he’d be better than Jeff Keppinger.

My middle school band teacher, Mr. Koziara, was fond of telling us that if we only got two parts of each song right, make it the beginning and the end. People wouldn’t pay as much attention to the middle. Certainly Lawrie got the beginning of his song right. Only six players have posted a wOBA higher than the .407 mark Lawrie posted in his abbreviated 2011 rookie campaign. But he has stumbled significantly since, and while a large portion of his troubles may be injury related, his injury problems are rapidly becoming a feature and not a bug. It’s too early to give up on Lawrie, he can still be a first-division starter. But at this point, we might need to let go of the notion of “Brett Lawrie, superstar.”



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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Mike Green
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Mike Green
3 years 3 months ago

Too early to tell. Paul Molitor was constantly getting injured in his early 20s, and went on to a long and productive career. Making too much of Lawrie’s PAs this year is a mistake. He was injured before the season started and was rushed back when Reyes got injured.

It’s easy to see what Lawrie’s strengths and weaknesses are, but the possibilities remain anywhere from total bust to superstar. Feeling lucky?

chief00
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chief00
3 years 3 months ago

The word I’d use to describe any suspected correlation between Paul Molitor and Brett Lawrie would be “tenuous”. It’s similar to the bewildering but semi-oft-mentioned ‘correlations’ made between Lawrie and George Brett.

It’s a stretch because when Molitor and Brett weren’t injured, they were excellent, very competitive ball players who made their teams better. Lawrie isn’t excellent and he doesn’t make his team better. In place of “very competitive”, I’d be comfortable using a word like “childish”, “petulant”, and even “idiotic” to describe his antics. He needs to get off the Red Bull.

Giant WOBA
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Giant WOBA
3 years 3 months ago

He is one of the best third basemen in terms of defense.

chief00
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chief00
3 years 3 months ago

He’s a good defensive 3B when he’s healthy and he hasn’t been suspended or rebuked by his manager for showing up a teammate or a coach.

Offensively there’s a lot of work to do. On that note he’s a fair base runner, no more.

“One of the best” is an optimistic appraisal whether relative to contemporaries or all-time greats, like Molitor or Brett.

nilbog44
Member
nilbog44
3 years 3 months ago

who cares?

nilbog44
Member
nilbog44
3 years 3 months ago

My “who cares” was addressed towards Giant WOBA. Defense is so overrated. I remember Keith Law going on and on about how much of a disaster the tigers would be with fielder at 1st and miggy at 3rd. Didn’t matter one bit. They can make the routine plays. And most balls hit are routine. When’s the last time a team won a WS because of defense? Does anyone think the yankees were a great defensive team whenever they were winning rings? Remember when the Mariners supposedly found a “market inefficiency” when they signed all those defensive players? They ended up losing 100 games. Here’s how you break it down. Hitting 50% Pitching 40% and defense 10% in terms of importance. And that’s being kind.

Peter2
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Peter2
3 years 3 months ago

During the Yankees’ best season (1998) only two of their 8 defensive regulars (Bernie Williams and Chuck Knoblauch) were below average by UZR. They had especially good defense for years at the corner infield positions, with Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius. I’m not saying defense was their greatest strength, but they were a good defensive team.

For most of the 2000’s, when this team was no longer churning out championships, they had a bad defensive first baseman in Giambi and a parade of centerfielders with mediocre range and horrible arms (Bernie, Lofton, Damon). Posada gradually went from being an average defensive catcher to a liability. Not saying that defense was their greatest weakness as team, but it didn’t help.

I’m not sure where I’d peg the percentage of the relative importance of defense, offense, and pitching. Clearly offense is important enough that you can’t just completely sacrifice it and hope defense is going to make up for it, as the Mariners learned.

Whether any team has ever won a World Series “because” of defense isn’t a real question, because obviously good defense is going to contribute to team success, but it’s never going to be 100% of the reason for it. The 2010 Giants were the best rated team in baseball according to UZR, and won the World Series that year. Of course, they needed some great pitching and timely hitting as well, but it’s hard to imagine that defense played no contributing role…

Peter2
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Peter2
3 years 3 months ago

Btw, between 2002-2008 the Yankees had the worst UZR in baseball, and by a very wide margin. They won no World Series in that span…they had league average defense during their 2009 World Series season.

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 3 months ago

@Peter 2, just a question…which team had, by far, the best overall record in baseball from 2002-2008, missing the playoffs only once in that span, despite playing the team with the second best record 15-20 times a season?

Oh, right, the worst defensive team in baseball.

grant
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grant
3 years 3 months ago

A few pretty obvious flaws in some of the logic: referring to “declining speed” using earlier “professional” seasons as a reference point is a it deceiving – those prior seasons were in the minors, where virtually everyone is able to steal more bases than in the majors. Everything is harder in the majors.

And the 2013 contact rate change is still based on only 153 PA. Those also came after an injury, when he his rehab was abbreviated because the team valued his defence enough to live with him being a little rusty at the plate.

The conclusions drawn here may or may not ultimately prove correct, but the evidence they depend on is flimsy. Premature.

Steve
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Steve
3 years 3 months ago

Just because other young players like Trout, Harper, & Machado are succeeding so quickly and so consistently I think the baseball community has started writing off players far too prematurely. Lawrie is still only 23. 23!!! Before the 3 I listed above recently emerged I think there would be a lot more patience and less surprise at Lawrie’s struggles, which may be at least partly due to injury anyway to be fair.

I’d probably agree that he could tone down the aggressiveness some and maybe pick his spots to be such a “gamer” but this is really jumping to conclusions from small sample sizes from an oft-injured player.

Patience.

everdiso
Member
everdiso
3 years 3 months ago

Lawrie had a better start to his career, at the same age, as Machado. Better component stats, better overall stats.

Gyre
Guest
Gyre
3 years 3 months ago

Better defense? Better self-control? No way that Lawrie outranked in sane stats. A big noise now blowing out.

everdiso
Member
everdiso
3 years 3 months ago

better defense, and better control of the strike zone, at least.

Nick
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Nick
3 years 3 months ago

Lawrie debuted at 21. Machado is still 20. Gotta love everdiso, never lets those tricky facts get in the way of his homerism.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 3 months ago

And his defense was simply not better than Machado’s. True SS switched to 3B to accommodate an established starter>>>a player who was switched to 3B because he couldn’t hack it at 2B.

everdiso
Member
everdiso
3 years 3 months ago

B.Lawrie ’11 (21.0): 171pa, 9hr, 25rbi, 7/10sb, 9.4bb%, 18.1k%, .318babip, .293/.373/.580/.953, .407woba, 158wRC+
M.Machado ’13 (20.5): 325pa, 5hr, 37rbi, 5/8sb, 4.3bb%, 13.8k%, .369babip, .325/.356/.492/.848, .367woba, 131wRC+

how long do we think Machado’s gonna keep rocking a .370babip for, anyways?

Cus
Guest
Cus
3 years 3 months ago

The funny thing about a guy like Lawrie who was been preened as a prospect and subjected to intense training basically since birth, is that the innings and gym time logged on his body are probably more akin to a late 20s or 30 year old player. Baseball players do tend to peak late, but I feel a lot of the time that is a result of finally receiving good coaching, training, resources, etc.(Or the improvement quality of life generally for those players from certain regions of the world.)

Oh, Beepy
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Oh, Beepy
3 years 3 months ago

This is interesting and I hadn’t considered it previously. Thank you.

Didn’t think the thumbs up sufficed.

munchtime
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munchtime
3 years 3 months ago

Maybe Milwaukee wasn’t so crazy to trade him for a playoff appearance?

That’s what I am going to tell myself, anyways.

Jeff G
Member
Jeff G
3 years 3 months ago

I drafted Lawrie in the 5th round this year, the 6th or so third basemen. I heard lots of reasons why he was going to be 20/20. I just don’t see how 1/4 of a season of really bad play (which is what brings down his overall slash line so much) tells us anything we can really count on. As the other commenters have said, he’ll be 24 next year with tools and talent and experience. The key, I think, will be health.

th3byrdm4n
Member
th3byrdm4n
3 years 3 months ago

I traded Machado, Halladay (pre-injury), and Valverde for Ellsbury + Lawrie in my keeper league. I’m hoping Lawrie can get to similar Machado production when he returns (I’m sitting on Longoria as the starter), then it’s just two toxic assets for Ellsbury :P

Radivel
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Radivel
3 years 3 months ago

Someone should tell the owners of this site to put a little banner at the top of the page that says “nobody cares about your fantasy team, don’t tell us”.

Mr.GJG
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Mr.GJG
3 years 3 months ago

I agree with everyone who believes this obituary may be somewhat premature.
The guy is in his 3rd year at 23 yrs. old, an age when the majority of players are still toiling in the minors.
We have a guy this very year who was written off as a disappointment and is 2 yrs. older who’s now leading the NL in HR. We can go back a few years earlier and add Alex Gordon who after years of underachieving has become a pretty good hitter in his own right.
I agree with Steve; were it not for the immediate impact of Trout, Harper, and Machado, we’re probably not having this discussion. Those guys are way more exception than rule.

GGG
Guest
GGG
3 years 3 months ago

A couple others points relevant to this piece:

He came back early from the injury to start the season. He only had a few games of rehab under his belt (very few at-bats), but came back quickly due to injuries on the Jays. This surely cost him offensively (I understand he continued to hit poorly, but I give him some major grace for those first couple weeks at least)

He is spectacular defensively! There are all sorts of seemingly youthful errors (literally and not), but that defense has a chance to be top 5. This is important when assessing blooms.

ALEastbound
Guest
3 years 3 months ago

Agreed with this. Offensively he has been all over the place in almost every aspect so we don’t know what kind of hitter he will settle in to be. He was rushed back with no spring training, no rhythm and the weight of the entire Jays nation to save a sinking ship. I can’t rush to judge him this year.

Defensively he is a machine. He makes one play every game that only a handful of players could even attempt.

I am not giving up yet. Not even close.

gareth
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gareth
3 years 3 months ago

I’m torn wether or not to drop him for arenado or rendon is a shallow 10 team roto league.

Oh, Beepy
Guest
Oh, Beepy
3 years 3 months ago

If its green at the top don’t let your fantasies drop.

stretchfest
Member
stretchfest
3 years 3 months ago

If its brown, bring ’em on down.

Nevin
Guest
Nevin
3 years 3 months ago

Gordon Beckham unfortunently might be Brett Lawrie. It’d be a shame just because he could be great, but throw in his defense and he’ll probably always be a decent to above average player. Which is all you can really ask for when giving up Shaun marcum

danwatson19
Member
danwatson19
3 years 3 months ago

Side note: That’s the filthiest sounding title for an article in Fangraphs history.

bandgeek
Guest
bandgeek
3 years 3 months ago

that sounds like one bad band teacher you had there

Oh, Beepy
Guest
Oh, Beepy
3 years 3 months ago

When else was he supposed to sneak out for a smoke if not the middle?!

YanksFanInBeantown
Guest
YanksFanInBeantown
3 years 3 months ago

It’s middle school band. I was in the middle school band, and I could barely play and never, ever practiced.

chief00
Guest
chief00
3 years 3 months ago

Lawrie looks like Liev Schreiber. Effect on his career? Unknown.

Pft
Guest
Pft
3 years 3 months ago

His 2013 numbers are off due to the fact is probably is not over the rib injury, such injuries tend to linger.

As such , any analysis of his true talent level offensively using 2013 numbers is offensive.

olerudshelmet
Member
olerudshelmet
3 years 3 months ago

Was that the Mr. Koziara who taught at Shrewsbury Middle?

vivaelpujols
Guest
vivaelpujols
3 years 3 months ago

Wait so you’re saying it was foolish to think that Lawrie could be a star after his first 170 PA… by quoting stats in his 150 PA this year? That’s some good analysis right there.

Lawrie’s got 880 PA of slightly above hitting and slightly above average fielding (it appears) so far at 3B. You’d project him at around 2.5 WAR as of now. Being a 23 year old, he still has plenty of room to grow into being a star, although I agree that it’s not all that likely.

everdiso
Guest
everdiso
3 years 3 months ago

Slightly above average hitting is true:

205gms, .300babip, .266/.324/.433/.757, .330woba, 106wRC+

But his fielding has been elite:

1772.2inn, +39drs, +7.9uzr/150

And of course he’s provided above average baserunning as well.

So far in his career, as a 23yr old with relatively few milb gqmes and plenty of injuries, he has been about a 4.3war player projected over a full season.

Joe
Guest
Joe
3 years 3 months ago

So am I the only one who thinks there’s an outside chance that Lawrie is a juicehead? I mean let’s be honest:

– the guy has roidrage
– went from a wiry frame as an amateur to incredibly muscular physique in a very short period of time
– continually battles injuries
– sudden drop off in power #’s, and contact rate likely indicative of declining batspeed

Scraps
Guest
Scraps
3 years 3 months ago

Who cares? Let us see real evidence, not fan’s speculation.

Synovia
Guest
Synovia
3 years 3 months ago

He’s 23. He could still have a ton of development to do. Or he could be BJUpton, and never get any better.

Who knows. There’s no real way to tell.

As to Joe, they’re all juiceheads. Every. Single. One. And it doesn’t matter.

Roto Star!
Guest
Roto Star!
3 years 3 months ago

Is now a good time to buy low on Lawrie??

Scraps
Guest
Scraps
3 years 3 months ago

Oh yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes, Roto Star! (Incidentdentdentdentdentally, where did you get that fine name?)

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