It’s Happening: Brett Lawrie Edition
I vividly remember that time a 21 year old infielder debuted with a .407 wOBA in a hitter’s paradise after slugging .661 in 69 games at AAA that year. Brett Lawrie was my unicorn. If you are reading this, there is a pretty good chance you felt the same way. He hit 18 home runs and stole 13 bases in those 69 games at AAA. Then he hit another nine and stole another seven in his 43 game debut, complete with above average walk and strikeout rates. He looked like a player with a 20/20 floor and 30/30 upside, all while helping your batting average. There was no return big enough to convince his owner to sell.
Fast forward five seasons and he’s an afterthought, besides the occasional sleeper post with no real evidence that he is a sleeper. He can be had for next to nothing and there are clear and visible reasons why. His batting average tanked, he’s quit running, he played in a terrible home park and struck out far more often in 2015 than he did in previous seasons. Even with all of the warts, he was a top 20 second baseman in 2015, according to ESPN’s player rater.(21st actually, but several players are no longer eligible at the position). The dream of a .300 hitter that routinely goes 25/25 is dead. There are reasons to believe 2015 is Brett Lawrie’s floor moving forward and his value will come as more of a power hitting second baseman than as the five category stud we all fawned over.
Sometime last season the girl that Brett Lawrie brought to the dance started to slip out the back door, and he changed a bit. He appeared to make a conscious decision to begin pulling the ball and elevating in the second half of the season. He began hammering it in the process, leading to a second half ISO increase of over 30 points. There is a recent example of a player doing this and doing it successfully: Marlon Byrd in 2013. Marlon Byrd’s 2013 season featured nearly identical walk and strikeout rates to Brett Lawrie in 2015. Keep in mind that Marlon Byrd was a top 50 overall player in 2013 and had he been eligible at second base, he would have finished in the top four at the position.
Lawrie’s pull percentage hovers around 35 percent for his career, but in the second half of 2015 he pulled 43.2 percent of the balls he put in play. He also managed to reduce his strikeout rate and increase his walk rate incrementally over the first half. His Infield fly ball rate fell from 10.6 percent for his career to 5.9 percent in the 2nd half of 2015, suggesting that he’s capable of maintaining a batted ball profile similar to the 2nd half of 2015 over a full season.
Take a look at his spray chart from the second half of 2015, courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net. The red dots are the home runs Lawrie hit after the 30th of July.
According to Baseballheatmaps.com, Lawrie did something in 2015 that Marlon Byrd had never done, he averaged over 290 feet per flyball, adding nearly 14 feet to his 2014 average. The scouting reports on Lawrie have never mentioned elite power potential, but in the second half of 2015 alone, Lawrie pulled three home runs that landed over 446 feet away from home plate and he was one of only seven players to hit a ball over 475 feet. (see the 476 foot shot HERE.) Out of every player with at least as many recorded non-ground balls in play in 2015, only 16 players averaged a higher exit velocity on those balls in play than Brett Lawrie, according to BaseballSavant.com.
We are over 100 plate appearances into 2016 and the plan of attack seems to have stuck. His pull percentage is over 40 and his ground ball rate has plummeted to just over 36 percent, over 10 percent lower than his career average. Something else has unexpectedly happened; Brett Lawrie has stopped swinging at garbage and is walking at a near elite level. His swing percentage on pitches out of the zone has plummeted to better than league average and his walk rate is nearly 13 percent, higher than Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera’s career number. It’s still a very small sample, but walk rate typically begins to stabilize around 120-130 plate appearances.
10 of Lawrie’s 16 home runs were hit away from his home-run-suppressing home park in 2015. With the shift to U.S. Cellular field, which is known as one of the top three or four most friendly home run parks to right-handed hitters, I have very little issue seeing a 25 to 30 home run season in 2016.
All signs are pointing to a monster post-hype breakout and a top five second base finish. He’s still playing with his typical Red Bull-charged, manic aggression, but now he’s showing confidence and that is a scary thought. See this from a few days ago: