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|
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.”