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.”

We hoped you liked reading The Bloom Is Off Brett Lawrie’s Rose by Paul Swydan!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

newest oldest most voted
Mike Green
Guest
Mike Green

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
Guest
chief00

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
Guest
Giant WOBA

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

chief00
Guest
chief00

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

who cares?

nilbog44
Member
nilbog44

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
Guest
Peter2

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
Guest
Peter2

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
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

@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.