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.

Comments (23)

  1. You sir, are a Party Pooper.

    • Really? I thought it was pretty fan boyish.

      • Anything less than “Lawrie IS God” is pretty much raining on my parade at this point.

        With pretty much every single other thing about the Blue Jays being at least somewhat in doubt right now can’t I at least live in a world where Brett Lawrie is a 100% sure-fire sure thing super duper awesome guy?

  2. On related note that baseball reference tool blows my friggin mind.

    On an UNrelated note…. Baseball-reference says that Ricky Romero’s nickname is “R R Cool Jay”. Which may be the worst thing I’ve ever read.

  3. The other part of this is what we should expect from his 3B defense next year.

    Before arriving we heard that his defense needed improvement, but he seemed to excel with his defense during his brief big league stint. Hopefully this wasn’t an anomaly either.

  4. I’m just hoping that in 2012′s homeplate celebration photos, there will be no images of Chris Woodward

  5. The best part of the pic above is Woody in the background. I was at that game and I can vividly remember him pimping Lawrie’s homerun with a bat flip when he was in the batters box.

  6. If you look closely at the photo, you can see some spider-web webbing hanging from Brett Lawrie’s left wrist. Clearly he’s just swinging down from atop the Skydome. The Amazing Lawrie-Man!

  7. Lawrie has an absolute massive ceiling as a baseball player. That much is clear based on his short stint last season. He has all the tools, and in my mind, he’s also got the mental aspect of the game down as well.

    If he keeps playing the game with as much intensity as he does, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the injuries keep coming in the future. That may be an issue.

    • I agree. Hell, most of the reason I wrote this post was out of surprise his already-awesome ZiPS projection wasn’t better.

      • Yeah, I noticed Hosmer’s offensive ZiPS projection was slightly better than Lawrie’s despite the fact that Lawrie was a more disciplined hitter last season. Both should be great hitters very soon, of course, but that difference probably comes back to their minor league numbers.

  8. In that clip, he was at home plate before most of the team was out of the dugout.


  9. The stat I worry about most is games missed due to injury because of the gung-ho way he plays. In addition to all the mouthwatering offence and defence he showed us in the bigs, there was also the knee injury suffered colliding with a catcher. We could find ourselves saying ”’oh yeah, well just wait til Brett gets back” a lot. Or, at the end of the year, ”we’d have made the playoffs with a healthy Brett all year.”

  10. Its so hard to tell what will happen. Everything in me wants him to be a superstar. He clearly has the makeup of one.

    A lot of his success last year – as you noted – came from his ability to be very selective at the plate… to identify fastballs.. and to mash them all over the goddamn place. If he can continue to walk, be selective at the plate and to not develop Lind-itis (swinging at every pitch regardless of how far off of the plate it is) I think he has the chance to be something special.

    I don’t suspect that he’ll have a 1000OPS season, but he’s a huge upgrade for the jays over any third baseman in recent memory.

    • Ernie? That you? Hey I was hoping after Gibby left that you’d be the skipper! Still hoping it happens, I always said: What? Good enough for Baseball Canada but not for the Jays?
      I’m not anti-Farrel, just pro-Whitt

      Brett’s selectiveness caught my eye as a fan last year, I think I saw a stat somewhere that he was seeing just about as many pitches per at bat as that Bautista guy. Keeping that up will be key for Lawrie. Here’s hoping!

      Go Jays!

  11. The injury concearns are overblown people. Hit on the hand during an at bat…..that could happen to anyone. Then another freak hand injury while fielding a ground ball in warm ups. Seriously!!!! He’s not blowing hamstrings…………

  12. If you convert ZiPs projections for Lawrie (roughly) into WAR it’s appx. 4.0 WAR over 148 games.

    That would be an excellent first full season, not in the stratosphere like some fans may expect (6.0 WAR projections by Fans on Fangraphs), but damn good nonetheless.

  13. I’ma cling to my image of Lawrie as our very own Evan Longoria…until circumstances force me to revise it.

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