When asked about the first expression of the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger,” many will cite Shakespeare’s use of the idea in Antony and Cleopatra. When Cleopatra is told that Antony has married another woman, she threatens to harm the messenger’s eyes, provoking the following response:
Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match.
However, before that Sophocles used the line, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news,” and Plutarch gives us the following story in Parallel Lives:
The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’s coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.
I favour Plutarch’s early use the most because it speaks to the repercussions of confusing bad news with the person who brings it, and lashing out against an inaccurate target.
In terms of baseball blogging, this relates, not with the possibility of a controversial opinion resulting in decapitation, but far too often with hard work and discovery being dismissed by fans through the unfair categorization of bias or trolling.
In Toronto, this is evident by the way in which any criticism of Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie is deemed treasonous. It shouldn’t be that way. Finding flaws in a players’ game in no way suggests a dislike or disrespect or any other dis directed at the player. Admittedly, I’m much more interested in discovering areas that contradict popular belief rather than confirm it, but that doesn’t make the message I have to deliver any less truthful.
And that message is this: I don’t believe that Brett Lawrie is as good of a baseball player as he is being credited.
That’s not to say that I don’t believe he will be a significant part of his current team’s lineup in the future, or that I fail to see the good in what was probably his best game of the season last night, or that I think the Blue Jays should trade him away immediately, burn his uniform and glove, and wipe all memories of his existence from the fan base with a visit from Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones/Josh Brolin.
I believe he’s been overrated by an audience inundated with his praise from a team broadcaster that wants to develop the idea of a Canadian star attraction on the only Canadian team in baseball, who view his unquestionable drive and effort as though it was skill and accomplishment.
The reality of the situation is this:
Among regular third baseman in the American League, Lawrie has the second worst OPS, wOBA and wRC+, ahead of only Wilson Betemit, whose 23 games at the hot corner make him a borderline case for inclusion. Across both AL and NL, he has the second worst isolated power and the fourth worst walk rate among those at his position. Offensively, the value resulting from his production in terms of runs is below average.
The real kicker: Pedro Alvarez, the much maligned third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, has a better OPS than Brett Lawrie.
Whenever his offensive struggles are brought up, Lawrie apologists are quick to counter such arguments with mentions of his incredible defensive numbers, most often citing his astronomically high Defensive Runs Saved, which suggests that the third baseman’s defensive abilities have saved his team from 20 runs. As Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus shows us, that’s not quite as accurate as we’ve been led to believe.
Mr. Wyers points out one of the limitation of the DRS metric, noting that:
A play is considered “not made” when the fielder doesn’t get a putout or assist on the play AND no other fielder had the first putout, assist or error. For example, if the third baseman fields a groundball towards the third base/shortstop hole, we don’t count this play for or against the shortstop.
And then suggesting that:
In the particular shift the Jays are playing, you may note that Lawrie can get to only balls that have already passed by the other infielders. This is true, but the other infielders are positioned based upon knowing that Lawrie is backing them up in short right field. Those balls that Lawrie is fielding from short right field are not the nearly-certain hits that you would assume from comparing Lawrie to a baseline of all third basemen, most of whom aren’t fielding balls in that position not because of a lack of skill but because they’re standing by third base.
Coming to the following overall conclusion:
Instead of measuring how many additional plays made at the team level the shift is contributing, it’s measuring how many additional plays are contributed to Lawrie by the shift, crediting him for some plays that other fielders would have made in a more traditional defensive alignment.
Note: There’s a lot of content from Mr. Wyers’ post on Baseball Prospectus being included here, but all of his 1,800 words, plus charts and visuals should be read to understand the entire argument, so I’ll link to it again.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest that Lawrie is terrible defensively. Other metrics rank him quite well, just not 20 runs saved well. He’s still delivering on defense. In fact, defense, base running and swagger are the only areas in which he’s contributing. These are areas that typically peak earlier in a player’s career than batting talents, so it makes sense.
However, no matter how much the broadcast crew praises his ability to run out ground balls, the package that the fan base was promised by musical montage promotions before he’d even played a single game has not been delivered. And you know what, that’s okay. Lawrie is only 22 years old. The fact that he’s able to make a contribution at any level at all is impressive, and for the organization, there’s really nothing more to do than let him develop.
There’s no point in sending him down to the Minor Leagues (at least not yet) to work on his swing because a) it’s not as though the club is much of a contender with the team requiring a tremendous amount of good luck to make this a playoff season; and b) it’s not as though a clearly superior option to Lawrie is available anyway.
What Toronto has in Brett Lawrie is a good young player developing, not a wunderkind phenomenon taking the league by storm. You have to live in Anaheim or Washington to see one of those.
Photoshop courtesy of Scott Lewis.