Burning Questions: Can Brett Lawrie reach potential?
One of the most interesting player archetypes to evaluate is the breakout candidate who didn't quite take the league by storm. Fundamentally, he's still the same player who excited so many, which means we have to be careful and make sure we don't swing too violently in the opposite direction. The vagaries of baseball can be cruel, even to a player who seemingly has all the talent to be a star. At the same time, even the most astute baseball mind is going to overvalue a player from time to time. Even if we're not going to alter our feelings on him too much, it makes sense to sit down and take another look at his overall record, taking last year into account.
No player fits that mold better this year than Brett Lawrie. After an impressive 43-game run in the majors in 2011, the Blue Jays third baseman convinced many he had a chance to be among the elite at his position in his first full year in the league. Given that third base has become a shallow position recently, Lawrie was typically off the board within the first 50 picks of most drafts. And then, as is so often the case with 22 year olds, the reality of the league smacked him in the face. Lawrie hit just .273/.324/.405 with 11 homers and 48 RBI in 125 games. He swiped 13 bags, but was thrown out eight times. His OPS+ was just 97 and his wOBA was .319, which had him rubbing elbows with Michael Saunders, Daniel Murphy and Alcides Escobar. Needless, to say, it wasn't the season many expected Lawrie to have.
Looking ahead to 2013, much of what drove Lawrie's 2012 price tag so high remains the same. Third base is still relatively shallow; there are nine guys I'd feel good about calling my starter. Lawrie is still a supremely talented former first-round pick who cruised through the minors, hitting .353/.415/.661 with 18 homers in 2011 at Triple-A Las Vegas. He still shined in his first shot against major league pitching, and he is still just 23 years old. All of that supports the growing pains theory.
When a young player who starred in the minors struggles in the majors, he typically has trouble making consistent contact. Here, again, there are encouraging needles within Lawrie's disappointing 2012 haystack. His contact rate jumped to 83.6 percent from 77.9 percent. He made contact with pitches he swung at in the strike zone 90.5 percent of the time, up from 83.5 percent in 2011. He swung and missed 7.7 percent of the time, still above league average but down from 8.3 percent the previous year. In the first half, his walk rate was 4.9 percent; in the second, it spiked to 8.6 percent. Not only did he make more contact throughout the year, he grew into a more patient hitter as the season progressed, portending further on-base skills.
Lawrie got into trouble last year when he hit ground balls, and he hit a lot of them. His ground-ball rate was 50.2 percent, way too high for a guy with serious power potential. That number did not get better as the season wore on. It was 50.4 percent before the All-Star break and 50 percent after it. If Lawrie is going to start fulfilling his promise in 2013, this is where he'll have to make his most serious strides. The good news is he never hit a ton of ground balls in the minors. With the information we have about him, we can safely bet that 2012 was the outlier, not 2011.
Another troubling statistic from Lawrie's 2012 season was his average fly ball plus home run distance, which checked in at 277 feet, just slightly above league average. Mike Podhorzer over at Fangraphs tells us noted lightweights such as Brandon Crawford and Erick Aybar were in the same vicinity. That's not the type of company you want to keep if you're a power hitter. Lawrie dealt with a spate of injuries all year, including an oblique strain, so those could have sapped his power.
So what does all this mean for Lawrie's value in 2013? We can't know whether the power he showed two seasons ago was a mirage or a sign of things to come, but the sum of his advanced numbers makes me willing to buy in again this year. His minor league numbers hinted that he could jump a level in power, something he did two seasons ago. MLB history is filled with guys who lost their footing a bit at age 22, only to rebound with a little more seasoning. Third base is a shallow position, and you have to pay a premium to nab one of the top tier guys (Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria). If you miss out on those guys, you're looking at a group that includes Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, Chase Headley, Aramis Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Lawrie. We'll tackle Headley in this space in a few weeks, but I see Lawrie being on par with him and a step behind Hanley and Zimmerman. Despite his poor campaign in 2012, I'm a believer in his improved contact rate, as well as a walk rate that increased in the second half. Lawrie is once again in my Top 50. A 20/20 season is well within his reach.