Standing By Brett Lawrie
I’m not perfect. My worst call of the 2013 season can be found here. Yeah, I was the guy who told you not to keep Chris Davis. I even followed my own advice and traded away the current home run leader—along with James Shields—for Jason Kipnis in the offseason. For those who listened to my advice: I’m sorry it didn’t work out. For those who still read my advice: Thank you for not trolling me on Twitter. I can already tell you the Chris Davis call won’t be the last bad call I make. In fact, I can guarantee it. So now that I’ve stripped down and showed you my warts, how about we give it another go with someone you’re probably not sure about keeping in 2014 and beyond: Toronto’s Brett Lawrie.
Lawrie came up in 2011 and set the fantasy world on fire. The then 21-year old hit .293/.373/.580 with nine home runs, 26 runs, 25 RBIs and seven steals in 43 games for the out-of-contention Blue Jays. I remember missing out on Lawrie that season and thinking, “Damn. This kid is going to be a fantasy monster.” I even recall one fantasy pundit prematurely calling Lawrie a “mini Ryan Braun,” so, yeah, I guess by association he is a bit of a monster. See what I did there?
In 2012, Lawrie hit .273/.324/.405 with 11 homers, 73 runs, 48 RBIs and 13 steals in 125 games, which isn’t terrible at first glance, but it’s nowhere close to the 20/20 season many predicted. Despite unfulfilled expectations, Lawrie was drafted at a respectable 94.1 ADP, according to FantasyPros.com, or as the 11th third baseman selected in 2013 drafts–ahead of Pedro Alvarez (153.7), Kyle Seager (170.6) and Manny Machado (220.5). Today, Lawrie is the 31st ranked third baseman on the ESPN Player Rater, while Alvarez, Seager and Machado all reside in the top 10.
Since the start of the 2012 season, Lawrie has smacked 20 bombs in 793 plate appearances, or one homer for (roughly) every 40 trips to the plate. But maybe the biggest problem—and biggest frustration among fantasy owners—has been a lack of consistent playing time, as Lawrie has already landed on the disabled three times in his young career, in addition to a smattering of nagging injuries along the way. In all, he’s missed 92 of 243 games since the start of 2012, including 55 games this season (with two trips to the DL).
So why analyze an oft-injured underachiever? Since coming back from an ankle injury on July 13, Lawrie has picked it up offensively, hitting .312 with four home runs, six doubles, 14 runs, 14 RBIs and three steals in 26 games—compared to a .208 BA with five home runs, four doubles, 11 runs, 14 RBIs and two steals in 37 games pre-injury. It’s that little bit of success that keeps fantasy owners around dreaming of big, big things in the future.
First thing: It’s nice to see some of Lawrie’s speed back. In the minors, he had seasons of 19 and 30 steals, so those expecting major league campaigns of 20 steals or more weren’t just blowing smoke. He stole seven bags in 43 games in 2011 and followed it up with 13 more in 2012 (although he was thrown out an additional eight times). Given that he’s come back running post ankle injury, it’d be foolish to completely abandon hope of mid-teen-ish numbers in future seasons. And I’m willing to bet he does reach that season of 20 down the line. Plus, John Gibbons and the Blue Jays aren’t afraid to run—Toronto’s 116 stolen base attempts are the fourth most in the majors.
What about the power? After hitting just 11 home runs last season, Lawrie’s power has crept up considerably, from a .132 ISO in 2012 to a .189 ISO in 2013. This has come at the expense of Lawrie’s highest strikeout rate (19.1 percent) to date, but it’s a necessary step in the search for more home runs. Looking at batted ball distances at BaseballHeatMaps.com, we can see that Lawrie’s batted ball distance has increased by 9.17, from 265.43 in 2012 to 274.60 in 2013. And Lawrie has even pushed his fly ball rate into the upper 30 percent range after waffling to 29.8 percent in 2012. If Lawrie continues to build on his power from 2013, we’re staring straight at a 20-homer season in 2014. And, like his speed, Lawrie has shown more pop since coming back from injury, which is an encouraging sign going forward.
The thing I’m least worried about is run production. In 2012, Lawrie scored 73 runs despite missing 37 games. While he’s batting in the six-hole for now, my guess is he gets bumped up to the second spot for next season. With Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion all under contract through 2015, Lawrie’s sitting pretty in a lineup full of offensive firepower. Over a full season, 90 runs should be in reach, with RBI numbers in the 65-75 range. As far as his average goes, Lawrie has finished anywhere from a .250 BA to a .293 BA—I think the real Lawrie is somewhere in the middle, as he basically has league average contact rates but the upside for an improved walk rate, to go along with a solid 17.2 percent strikeout rate for his career.
I’m looking to hold onto Lawrie in any leagues I have him, as the 23-year old still has the potential to be a top-10 third baseman with a 20/20 season well within his sights. If he somehow has eligibility at second base for you next year (he’s played there six times in 2013), then he’s an even better keep. Acquiring him might be easier than expected, as guys like Alvarez, Seager and Machado have emerged as solid fantasy options at the hot corner. It’s easy to write off a career outlier year (ala Chris Davis in 2012), but it’s easier to write off a year littered with injuries. I won’t be making that mistake with Lawrie.