It’s kind of hard to pick apart Brett Lawrie’s game right now. Yes, the strikeout rate is up some and the walk rate down even further, but he already has a career-high in home runs, his isolated slugging is up and he is once again posting roughly a league-average weighted runs created plus (98), more than enough to make him a valuable player thanks to his quality defense at both second and third.
With that said, Lawrie really could stand to get out of his own way a little bit.
This isn’t one of those pieces suggesting a high-energy player tone down the intensity or anything like that, because that’s part of what makers Lawrie the Stone Cold Steve Austin-if-Red Bull-were-beer of baseball. But Lawrie is on the disabled list after fracturing a finger on his right hand, the second time this month he was caught on the hands with a pitch.
Take a look at where Lawrie is set up for each pitch that caught him:
Lawrie is definitely in the inner portion of the batter’s box, and he leans in as he sets to bring his hands through the zone:
The first is hardly an egregious lean in, but Lawrie isn’t exactly doing himself any favors in terms of safety by leaving his hands exposed. As a comparison, here’s Lawrie from last season (though the camera angles appear slightly off, you get the idea):
You’re going to get hit in the course of a season, which is fine, but Lawrie’s getting hit more than most. It’s an odd measure, but of the 257 qualified hitters spanning 2011 to the present, Lawrie ranks 39th in frequency of being hit by a pitch on a per-pitch basis, taking a beanball every 266 pitches faced.
(Carlos Quentin is first by a long shot, for whatever that’s worth, getting hit every 84 pitches faced, roughly 33 percent more frequently than anyone else. Danny Valencia, meanwhile, hasn’t been plunked in 3,864 pitches faced. The sample average has qualified players getting hit every 446 pitches faced.)
This year, Lawrie is getting hit every 208 pitches faced, ranking 19th in the league. Is this a small sample? For a low-event statistic like hit by pitches, absolutely. But with Lawrie, it may be intentional, as hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has Lawrie focusing on hand location to make him more of an all-fields hitter.
The results have been, as mentioned off the top, generally positive, with the balls Lawrie puts in play (or out) doing more damage than in the past two years, and only his discipline profile remaining a concern. The tradeoff has been that Lawrie is doing a slightly better job with pitches middle and in and slightly worse on pitches high and outside, which isn’t an obvious result from moving in closer to the plate.
Lawrie’s slugging numbers, however, don’t necessarily back up that Lawrie is having more success on the inner half. Up and in, absolutely, but Lawrie’s slugging lower on pitches middle-in and especially low and inside:
That holds if only fastballs are narrowed in on, too. His contact rate on inside pitches is down slightly, as well.
So, Lawrie’s overall production on inside stuff is up slightly despite his slugging and contact being down some. That’s in part due to feasting on pitches up and in, but think about what moving closer to the plate means – you have greater plate coverage on the outer half (Lawrie’s contact rate on pitches on the outer half of the plate is up appreciably), but your coverage on the inner half is decreased, requiring an awful lot of bat speed for anything down and in.
A recent piece at SB Nation on the effect of location on velocity showed that pitches up and in are “effectively” faster due to the bat speed constraints required, but low and in pitches may be the hardest to square up if you’ve moved in close, as the swing plane required isn’t one conducive to power (right-handed hitters have hit low-and-in fastballs for home runs more than other pitches, but we can’t control for player position in the box). It follows, then, that Lawrie may be having issues connecting on said pitches.
The numbers so far back that up, with Lawrie showing an incredible hole in his swing on the 39 pitches he’s seen in that spot. He’s done okay on pitches around that area but he hasn’t seen many, and the effect is actually exacerbated against right-handed pitchers.
Admittedly, this may be looking for an issue where there isn’t one, considering Lawrie is having a solid start to his season at the dish. Perhaps it’s an overreaction to Lawrie taking a pair of pitches on the hands in the same week, once again landing him on the disabled list.
But he’s crowding and exposing his hands, and it’s created a hole in his swing that the opposition is yet to exploit with greater frequency. It’s something to watch out for when he gets back from the disabled list, both because he may want to be more protective of his hands and because word may get out on a potential way to exploit the oft-eager Canadian.
Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.