Fun With Small Sample Sizes

I know how horribly cliché it’s become to write about the impact that Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie has made since being called up only nine games ago. As much as I wince whenever I read terms like “bringing an energy” or “putting forth a contagious effort,” Lawrie seems to do all these things.

Unlike so many of the best players who use their natural physical gifts to make their movements on the field seem free flowing and easy, there is nothing graceful about Lawrie’s play. Whether he’s fielding a grounder, swinging at a pitch or running the base paths, he’s going full tilt and it looks like he’s going full tilt. For a player who was born in Canada and playing on Canada’s only baseball team, putting forth what appears to be an effort on par with a hockey grinder, well, it’s getting Canadian baseball fans excited, and rightly so.

In addition to his appearance, Lawrie is also putting up the numbers that excite creatures like me who believe the height of hilarity is typing “80085″ or an upside down “01134″ on a calculator. Of course, these numbers are after only 33 plate appearances and have all the predictive qualities of a broken magic eight ball, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little bit of fun manipulating parameters to compare the start Lawrie’s MLB career to other players who have had long and successful lives as Major League Baseball players.

For instance, as Sam Miller pointed out to me, Brett Lawrie has the highest slugging percentage (.710) in the history of baseball for players with 30 or more plate appearances. Second on that list? Some guy named Babe Ruth. The rest of the top five are Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Albert Pujols.

Here’s a list of other notable stats for Lawrie’s carrer that benefit from a minuscule sample size (all with a minimum of 30 PAs):

  • The highest ISO (isolated power) of all time (.355);
  • The second highest OPS+ of all time (194);
  • The third highest OPS of all time (1.104); and
  • The seventh highest batting average of all time (.355).

And of course, it’s not just career numbers, here’s more comparisons from this year against the rest of the league (again, with a minimum of 30 PAs):

  • The highest wOBA (.476);
  • The highest SLG (.710);
  • The highest wRC+ (208);
  • The fewest amount of first pitch strikes from pitchers (39.4%);
  • The second highest AVG (.355);
  • The second highest ISO (.355);
  • The third lowest swing rate (33.9%); and
  • The fourth lowest swing rate at pitches outside of the zone (15.9%).

While most of these rankings are fun, and little else, it is interesting to note that Lawrie’s reputation as someone eager to impress might be preceding him. How else to explain the lack of first pitch strikes coming his way?

Fortunately for Lawrie and his future as a big leaguer, he hasn’t been the impetuous batter that many would think he is after watching him come up to the plate and windmill his bat before facing a pitch. He’s actually swinging at a lesser rate of pitches than all but two other batters (again, after a very small sample size). A large part of that is his vision at the plate as evidenced by having such a low rate of swings at pitches outside the zone, but it also speaks volumes about Lawrie’s confidence by showing that he’s willing to wait for a pitch with which he can make good contact. His patience extends even to taking strikes that might not be of the good contact variety. At the moment, he’s swinging at only 55% of pitches landing in the zone, that’s 10% less than the Major League average of 65%.

As much as we applaud the appearance of Lawrie going full tilt, it could well be his patience that’s leading to his successful start, but just as looks can be deceiving in this instance, so can initial numbers after only nine games of baseball. While Blue Jays fans may be foolish to expect Lawrie to sustain his slugging numbers, it wouldn’t be the least bit silly to believe that if he can continue to approach his at bats with the patience he’s exhibited so far, astounding numbers will follow.