Head and shoulders above the rest. Literally.
Did you know Brett Lawrie is very good? It is true. Brett Lawrie is a great baseball player. We think. He sure looked like a great baseball player when he set the world ablaze during his whirlwind 150 at bat rookie extravaganza.

Much of the Blue Jays season (and future) hinges on Brett Lawrie, which is both exciting and deeply troubling. Fans and bloggers are bullish on the Jays young firebrand and rightly so. But what can the Jays realistically expect from Lawrie in 2012?

Brett Lawrie’s arrival in the Blue Jays system and subsequent rise to demigod status owes a great deal to serendipity. Things kept happening to Brett Lawrie at the wrong time while Brett Lawrie kept happening to the universe at large at precisely the right moment. For every ridiculous home run in a high leverage situation (he hit three of his nine home runs in late & close situations) there was an injury that held him out of the big leagues or kept him in the minors for a few extra weeks.

As a result of Lawrie’s assorted hand injuries, there are only 171 plate appearances to work with. Which is to say…not that much. He looked great and showed the plate discipline the team requested of him like it was as simple as flicking a switch.

Which is weird, because going from swinging at everything to swinging at nothing is not as simple as flicking a switch. Which results in some pretty divided opinions and assorted weirdness among the various projections for Lawrie in 2012. Who to believe? The hearts, minds, and eyes of Jays fans and baseball watchers or the thousands and thousands of similar players who came before him?

The 2012 Blue Jays ZiPS projections went live this past week are very peculiar when it comes to Brett Lawrie. 27 home runs? Wow. That’s a lot. 10 triples? That’s a lot for most people. Brett Lawrie is not most people. The worrisome part of their Lawrie numbers is the strikeouts. And the walks – or lack thereof.

The 44 walks and 135 strikeouts ZiPS hands Lawrie is bad. From their 600 plate appearance projection, that results in a 7.3% walk rate against a 22.5% strikeout rate. Based on 2011 levels, that is a below-average walk rate and above-average strikeout rate. They also stand in stark contrast to the better than average walk and K rates Lawrie posted in his 2011 cameo. But, once again, the sample size conundrum rears its ugly head, leaving the rest of us scratching ours.

Other projections are similarly murky on Lawrie’s 2012. Bill James (famously offensive) projection system tips Lawrie to post a comparably low walk rate with more manageable strikeouts. Rotochamp is bullish on Lawrie, projecting a 10% BB rate against 17.3% strikeouts.

So which is it? Looking at Lawrie’s minor league numbers, it is easy to understand why some systems consider the Jays third baseman more free-swinging than he showed in the big leagues. Projections are cold calculations based solely on what they already know (a.k.a. the main criticism against projections.) SQL Queries don’t know that 21 year-old Lawrie made a concerted effort to be more selective: they don’t care. But it certainly matters.

Looking at recent history, we see very few players of Lawrie’s vintage with his high level of play at the big league level. Take a look at this list of second or third basemen, between 20 and 22, in their first or second at the big league level. Lawrie’s superlative season ranks five by WAR (first by OPS) in a third of the playing time.

It is easy to see the big names and how their initial runs through the league went. David Wright is an increasingly common comparable for Lawrie. Hot bat, good glove, can’t miss. But what about some of the other names on that list: like Hank Blalock? A left-handed hitter, sure, but that isn’t a name inspiring much confidence among Jays fans.

Hank Blalock posted the terrific season you see above in 2003 and followed up with another great year in 2004. Then the outs started coming fast and furious before the injuries started taking their toll. Injuries are like that. Injuries are not new for Brett Lawrie.

The Wright comps or Kinsler or Braun may excite Blue Jays fans but there is just so much about Brett Lawrie still shrouded in mystery. He looked great and but many a princess turns pumpkin between at bats 400 and 500 in a given season.

Pitches figure things out. Look at the below heat map showing Brett Lawrie’s handling of hard & soft pitches versus right-handed pitching. Does anything you see suggest Brett Lawrie will see Fastball One in 2012?

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

There is no good way to grasp what Brett Lawrie might actually be on the baseball field. The taste Brett Lawrie gave baseball fans in 2011 was the perfect size to tease and tantalize without being exceptionally useful. From a statistical standpoint, that is. Is his ceiling a 8 WAR super duper start from now until he spontaneously combusts on the field? Is he Kinsler? Braun? Longoria? Zimmerman? Wright? Schmidt? Adams? Blalock?

To watch him play was to witness a player who looked exactly like he belonged the second he stepped on the field. His ability to spit on pitches just outside the zone and drive those foolishly left up suggest a player for which the sky truly is the limit.

Lest the hopes and dreams of an entire nation run unchecked, we must take a step back. Reserve judgement until the plate appearances climb and, perhaps most importantly, Lawrie proves he can avoid the freakish injuries that seem to dog him. Give the considerable pitching prowess of the American League a chance to make its adjustments before anointing Lawrie the Chosen One.

Given his growing stature within the Canadian baseball landscape and the incredible first impression made all across the baseball industry, keeping perspective about the future of the Blue Jays might be the most difficult task of all.