Many signs of progress for Blue Jays’ Lawrie

Toronto Blue Jays' Brett Lawrie follows through on a single against the Baltimore Orioles. Gail Burton/AP
April 30, 2014, 10:06 AM

No matter the range of your exposure to Brett Lawrie, you likely have the sense that he’s a rather aggressive dude. You are not wrong. Sometimes, the sheer volume of his energy is almost unbelievable. As if Brett Lawrie the baseball player is just a character he plays on TV—all wild-eyed vigour, crucifix piece jumping up and down on his chest as he furiously sprints all over the place—while Brett Lawrie the private person is a more sedate kind of guy. Like, who could keep that liveliness up over a full day?

But what’s absolutely profound about the Blue Jays third baseman is that what you see on television doesn’t truly do service to how maniacally intense he can be. For instance, in the Blue Jays clubhouse Lawrie and Adam Lind have affixed a miniature basketball hoop atop the empty stall that separates their lockers. At around 3:45 pm on most game days you can reliably find the pair waging spirited, raucous, no-prisoners-taken rounds of HORSE that enthrall the clubhouse. Things get heated. Upon missing a balancing-on-one-foot, wrong-handed corner three, Lawrie will roar full throttle and pound his first into a nearby couch, accentuating how incredibly jacked up he is by his failure to will the toy rubber ball through the hoop.

And it goes on. The fierce dugout head grabbing of Melky Cabrera; the duck-faced selfie-brations with Jonathan Diaz; the unsettling Lloyd-Christmas-meets-Boris-Badenov look on his face as he strokes his moustache after hitting a home run. The man is part cartoon, part fireball, and he’s produced more GIFs this season than extra base hits, which is where you might say the concern with Brett Lawrie the baseball player begins.

Brett Lawrie the baseball player has not been hitting. Through his first 19 games of the season he went 9-for-71 with three times as many strikeouts as walks. And it’s not like he was getting unlucky. His well-hit average of 0.083 was among the bottom 20 in the majors. His swing looked out of sorts. But in his 20th game he smacked a tie-breaking three-run homer to dead centre field. And the next night he hit another to left, one of three hits on the night. The ball started flying off his bat and even his outs were hit hard. Tuesday in Kansas City he added a pair of singles and he now has more hits in his last seven games than he had in those first 19, in the midst of a 10-for-26 run. If he can keep rolling Wednesday night, he has a chance to raise his batting average above .200 for the first time this season.

There is never one tidy answer for why a ballplayer struggles. Still, while it can sound like mindless misdirection when John Gibbons talks about how Lawrie’s been pressing and trying too hard to break out, the numbers support the theory. So far this year the 24-year-old’s been swinging at far more pitches outside the strike zone (37 percent in 2014 vs. 27.6 percent in 2013) which would account for the drop in his contact percentage and the climb in his swinging strikes. And as he’s still seeing a little more than half his pitches inside the zone, it stands to reason that if he can improve his swing selection he’ll improve his results. He’s only 100 at-bats in. If he remains healthy he’ll get 400-500 more. He has time to turn this thing around.

And there are other good signs. His six home runs are tied for fifth in the majors and his 20 RBIs are tied for eighth. Those numbers are referenced begrudgingly, but even the coldest of traditional statistic heart can admit that you cannot hate on Lawrie’s counting stats. He has done well with runners in scoring position (9-for-24 = all the RBIs) and although he has just one extra base hit that hasn’t gone for a home run, there is something to be said for barreling the ball. Lawrie’s slump is much more palatable with the six pitches he’s crushed—five of those homers travelled 400 feet or more—than it would be if those were groundball singles. The long ball success indicates that his swing is fine; that he can have success when he gets all the pieces moving in the right direction; that he could be just a few adjustments away from hitting the ball hard with more consistency.

Whatever those adjustments are, you can be sure Lawrie is working on them. Two places no one can ever criticize Lawrie are his defence and his work ethic. He works out like it’s his oxygen and he’s a regular attendee at Kevin Seitzer’s early batting practice sessions. He’s toned down his panic attack approach at the plate, eliminating some of the moving parts and settling into a calmer rhythm as the pitcher prepares to deliver. He doesn’t look as frustratingly tormented by unfavourable results as he once did and he’s seeing 3.73 pitches per plate appearance, which is up slightly from the past two seasons.

Which is all to say: he’s doing good things. There is reason for optimism. This is a positive for all involved, especially Brett Lawrie the baseball player, who’s reaching the age where you establish what you’re going to be in this game. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are rare exceptions of ballplayers who stammered along for a while before unlocking their potential in their late-20’s. More often than not, it’s the years Lawrie is entering right now that determine how a player will perform as he plays into his 30’s.

Which is a strange thought in and of itself because who could imagine Brett Lawrie in his 30’s? It just seems like he’s going to be this fervent, wrecking ball of energy forever. It’s so hard to picture him as an old ballplayer, all sun-weathered skin, receding hairline and failing knees. That will be him one day—there is no doubt. But what will that even look like?

Or maybe the real question is what would Lawrie look like without his ridiculous intensity and impassioned eccentricities. If he wasn’t such a character. If he wasn’t the Beastie Boys “Sabotage” forever stuck on repeat.

He’d just be Brett Lawrie the baseball player. You can see him on your TV.

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