Is There Hope for Brett Lawrie?

Brett Lawrie isn’t quite ready to sign with a club, according to a report by Jim Bowden from Wednesday afternoon. Lawrie is still working through a soft-tissue, lower-body issue. Teams like the Blue Jays, Mets, Rays and Royals reportedly have some level of interest in Lawrie after he was released by the White Sox.

What kind of role Lawrie can expect to land is unclear. And what we can expect from a player who was once one of the more exciting prospects in the game — who was once selected 15th overall in an ESPN franchise player draft in 2012 — a player whom Bowden himself once predicted would become a batting champion, is uncertain.

After he burst on to the scene with a .293/.373/.580 slash line in a 43-game span as a rookie, Lawrie averaged two wins per season from 2012 to -14. But in what was supposed to represent the beginning of his prime years in 2015 and 2016 — i.e. his age-25 and -26 seasons — Lawrie’s performance continued to decline. Most notably, what was once a strength, his bat-to-ball skills, began to erode.

Perhaps we can pinpoint the beginning of the issue. It’s difficult to have a tougher day than Lawrie endured on April 7, 2015, for the A’s against the Rangers. Over the course of four plate appearances, all of which ended in a strikeout, Lawrie saw 12 pitches: eight sliders, three curveballs, and just one fastball. For posterity, the following footage documents those 11 breaking pitches.

His first at-bat versus Colby Lewis:

His second at-bat versus Lewis:

In the seventh, against Keone Kela:

And in the ninth, to end the game, against Neftali Feliz:

That was not the look of a player who appeared comfortable. Lawrie takes for called strikes almost all the breaking pitches in the zone. He swings, on the other hand, at all the pitches that fall out of it. He also appears to be anxious or over-hyped before triggering his swing. He’s a high-energy player. Perhaps, too high-energy.

It was just one game. But it was a most unusual performance. And it was that second game of his 2015 season that perhaps created a template for other teams to follow, which explains why Lawrie’s ability to make contact – once one of his strongest skills – has eroded as teams have attacked him with more breaking stuff each of the last two years.

Teams have increased their curveball and slider usage against Lawrie. Only 6.8% of pitches Lawrie faced in 2014 were curveballs. Last season, that rate had nearly doubled, to a career-high 11.3%. In 2014, 16.8% of pitches Lawrie saw were sliders. That jumped to a career-high 22.4% in 2015, and 19.2% last season.

Correspondingly, Lawrie’s swinging-strike rate has jumped, from 8.8% in 2014 to 11.9% in 2015 and to a career-high 13.2% last season. His contact rate with pitches in the zone has declined each year from a career-best 90.5% in 2012 with the Blue Jays, to a pedestrian 80.9% mark last season.

The book appears to be out on Lawrie, as seen in this Brooks Baseball chart:

What’s troubling about Lawrie’s career trend is that often, when we think of a hitter losing contact ability, we think — or hope, for his sake — that there ought to be a corresponding improvement in power. This is especially true for a player in his 20s. But not only has Lawrie seen his ability to make contact erode, his isolated slugging has declined from its 2014 level.

I asked Sean Dolinar for help in researching hitters who have had two-year contract trends like Lawrie, combined with loss of power. Among the sample that includes all qualified hitters since 1950, Lawrie has the ninth-greatest increase in strikeout rate.

Greatest Two-Year K% Increases with ISO Decrease (since 1950)
Name Seasons Age K% Diff ISO Diff
Ryan Langerhans 2006-07 27 13.1% -.021
Andruw Jones 2007-08 31 12.9% -.178
Justin Morneau 2015-16 35 12.9% -.010
Mike Napoli 2012-13 31 12.7% -.089
Deron Johnson 1965-66 28 12.5% -.064
Al Weis 1965-66 28 12.4% -.023
Steve Kemp 1984-85 30 11.5% -.061
Mark McGwire 2000-01 37 11.1% -.114
Brett Lawrie 2015-16 26 11.0% -.009
Billy Conigliaro 1971-72 24 10.4% -.029
Jason Kubel 2012-13 31 10.3% -.061
Jack Clark 1985-86 30 10.2% -.031

Of the top-12 players here, Jones produced four total wins over the next four seasons, the final four of his career. Morneau remains unsigned this spring. Napoli’s struggles continued into 2015, though he enjoyed a 34-homer season last year on a one-year deal with Cleveland. McGwire’s final season was in 2001. Kubel last played in the majors in 2014.

Of course, all of them were all over 30.

Some good news for Lawrie: Clark rebounded to post five consecutive seasons of wRC+ 129 or better.

As for the 30-and-under crowd, Langerhans never again received more than 139 plate appearances in a season. Weis was a reserve middle infielder who finished with a 61 wRC+ for his career. Kemp received just 59 more plate appearances in the majors. Johnson is one modest success story: he went on to post four seasons of wRC+s 108 over his career.

Two other significant success stories that suffered similar contact collapses include Dave Henderson, who rebounded at age 29 and posted three 125 wRC+ seasons through age 32, and Mike Stanley, who improved in his age-30 season and produced seven straight seasons of 117 wRC+ or better. But they did not suffer isolated slugging losses.

Lawrie’s No. 1 PECOTA comp is Ryne Sandberg who, after a eight- and six-win seasons early in his career, went through an age 26-27 lull, before entering a five-year peak.

So there’s some hope mixed in with some concern.

In examining Baseball Reference’s top similarity scores for batters comparable to Lawrie through age 26, there are some troubling comps, like that of the most similar hitter, Gene Freese, who enjoyed only one more season (1961) with a starting job in the majors. Another, Russ Davis, produced a 92 wRC+ for his career and 0.0 WAR over over 612 career games.

Logan Forsythe and Justin Turner are two interesting names, appearing as the No. 5 and No. 6 most similar batters to Lawrie, though Turner needed to reinvent his swing to become a star. And perhaps Lawrie needs to make a significant swing adjustment to cut down on his pre-swing movement. The most encouraging name on the list of most similar batters through age 26 is Edwin Encarnacion, who posted a .790 OPS and 102 OPS+ with the Reds from 2005 to -09 and who has since recorded a .850 OPS, 124 OPS+, earning three All-Star invites in the process.

Beyond the bat, Lawrie offers defensive versatility: he’s been an above-average defender for his career (32 defensive runs saved) at third base and plays an acceptable second base. But it’s the bat that will make or break his career. History shows of those players who have endured a similar erosion of contact skills without a gain in power many never recover, though some do. There are even some stars in the group. While Lawrie’s collapse is a bit unusual, there are likely multiple career trajectories he could follow dependent upon health, adjustments and opportunity.

I’d like to believe this guy still exists:

But that walkoff homer from his rookie year is beginning to seem like a long time ago. While there’s evidence of similar players turning around their careers, Lawrie must show the league he has the ability to punch back.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Ron Santo's Little Helper
5 years ago

“A soft-tissue, lower body issue” is one of the vaguest injury descriptions I’ve ever heard. (It’s also strange to see a useful 27-year-old get released by a rebuilding team.) I don’t know what’s really going on with Brett Lawrie, but I’m willing to irresponsibly speculate that it’s something that is none of my business.

5 years ago

Sounds like a man-zone injury to me.

Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago

He pulled his… nah.