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Brett Lawrie: 2012 Flop, 2013 Rebound?

This week is all about the hot corner. Our own mathemagician Zach Sanders published his final season rankings and dollar values for third basemen this morning. Sitting all the way down at a disappointing 19, with just $4 earned, is the Blue Jays’ third sacker Brett Lawrie. In the pre-season, we were pretty consistent with our opinon on Lawrie and ranked him fifth overall, tied with Adrian Beltre. Were we suckered in by his sizzling play in 2011 in a small sample of just 150 at-bats?

Early in the offseason, I performed a fun exercise on Lawrie titled “Arguing with Myself“. I pretended to play both sides of the coin, acting as the super fan and also the skeptic. After the argument, I admitted to be closer to the bull side of the argument. A major reason why was because of his speed. Fantasy owners don’t typically receive much of a contribution in the stolen base department from third basemen. Lawrie, however, has stolen as many as 30 bases in the minor leagues, and stole 7 in his short time with the Jays in 2011, for a 27 steal pace over 650 plate appearances. Well, he turned out to be a relative bust in the category, as he swiped just 13 bases. So what happened?

An easy answer is that he just wasn’t very good at succeeding on his attempts. He was only caught once on his 8 attempts in 2011 with the Jays, and twice in 15 attempts in the minors. In total, he was successful 88% of the time, which is fantastic. This year, he went just 13 for 21, for a poor 62% success rate. This lack of success is actually nothing new for Lawrie, as he succeeded only 70% of the time in the minors in 2010 and 63% of the time in 2009. So really, 2011 was the first year he seemed to actually benefit his team when he ran. He clearly has above average speed, but his technique appears to still need some work. In addition, he attempted a steal about once per 21 plate appearances in 2011, but that rate fell to once every 26 this season. A lot of the blame could go to his OBP, which at .324, meant that he simply didn’t reach first base as often as he had in previous years. He has never really shown a penchant for taking the base on balls, so his stolen base opportunities shouldn’t be expected to spike unless he learns better plate patience overnight.

So now that we’ve covered his speed, we’ll move on to perhaps an even more disappointing part of Lawrie’s season – his power. In 2009 and 2010, Lawrie showed solid, albeit unspectacular power potential. Then something clicked in 2011 and he busted out at Triple-A to the tune of a .308 ISO, which included 18 homers in 292 at-bats. That power surge continued in the Majors, as he belted another 9 homers in 150 big league at-bats and posted a massive .287 ISO. Of course, we know by now not to take Pacific Coast League statistics at face value. Lawrie’s home park inflated offense considerably and boasted a 112 right-handed home run park factor last year. But the fact that the spike was sustained in the Majors certainly turned some skeptics into believers, and one of those skeptics-turned-believers was me.

Then, 2012 happened. Lawrie’s power came crashing back to Earth and his home run ability returned to his 2009 and 2010 levels, as if 2011 simply never occurred. His ISO plummeted to .132 and he hit just 11 homers. Only 12 third basemen hit fewer than him and he ranked 27th in the category at the position. Even the most pessimistic of projections probably had Lawrie reaching the upper teens, but who knew he would barely crack double digits?

One glaring problem was a sudden penchant for the ground ball. In the small sample of 2011, Lawrie lofted fly balls at a power friendly 45%. This year, he decided that he preferred killing worms, as his FB% dropped to just about 30%. The drastic change is a bit odd because the Jays love to hit fly balls. They ranked fourth in baseball in FB%, and would have ranked third at the very worst if not for Lawrie’s decline in the category. His minor league batted ball distribution seemed to hint at league average rates at the very worst, with maybe an even distribution between grounders and flies. This makes this year’s splits even more baffling. Sometimes an injury is to blame for such a shift as the hitter is forced to compensate for the pain and changes his swing. Lawrie battled small injuries during the season and then missed time with an oblique strain. None of the injuries sounded like the type that would cause a change in swing, but you never know.

Lawrie’s average distance on his fly balls and home runs was just 277 feet, barely above the league average. This isn’t what you want or expect to see from a supposed budding power hitter. The distance supports the mediocre 9.0% HR/FB ratio, but of course tells us little about whether he could improve upon it next year.

I think Lawrie’s breakout 2011 performance and the splash he made in his debut with the Jays caused expectations and the hype to spiral out of control. But, I think this is a perfect situation for fantasy owners in next year’s drafts. He may very well have been hampered by various injuries throughout the season and he has two obvious paths to a power improvement. A rebound in fly ball rate, plus an increase in HR/FB ratio, can combine to result in maybe even a doubling of his home run total. He has also shown good base thievery skills at one point, so the possibility is there to run a little more often and successfully as well, which would strongly increase his stolen base total.

So the bottom line is that the post-hype prospect coming off a disappointing season is exactly the type that makes for a profitable pick in fantasy leagues. With the promise of double digit stolen bases placing a floor on Lawrie’s value, he makes for an excellent target in next year’s drafts, provided all your leaguemates didn’t also read this article and come away with the same idea.