When we were divvying up guys for third base week, I selected Brett Lawrie assuming I could take the angle that he was poised to be a post-hype sleeper. When he came up in 2011 as a 21 year old and hit .293 with nine homers and seven steals in just 171 PA, I assumed we were looking at a kid that was going to be a top fantasy option at third base for a decade or so. And that opinion was bolstered by the fact that he also displayed the power/speed combo in the minors. But in the almost 1000 PA he’s had since, Lawrie hasn’t looked anything like he did in 2011. But because I had long ago decided that he was going to be a stud, I assumed I would find evidence of his likely return to stud-dom. Alas, that wasn’t the case.
To find evidence of the rebound I expected to portend, I had to first figure out what it was that Lawrie did so well during his inital call up. Essentially, Lawrie did two things well: he hit the ball in the air a lot and he stole bases efficiently.
In 2011 he had a FB% of 44.9% and a GB/FB ratio of 0.85. But that completely flipped the next year when his GB% jumped up to 50.2% (25th highest in the league among qualified hitters), and his GB/FB ratio was 1.69. Things were a little bit better this year, but he was still hitting way too many balls on the ground with a 48.5% GB% and a 1.42 GB/FB ratio.
I was hopeful that a look at Lawrie’s monthly batted ball splits from this season would reveal a trend in the right direction that might indicate Lawrie was primed to put more balls in the air next year. But unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Below is a chart showing a general downward trend in FB% on all pitch types.
Because Lawrie is still so young, there’s obviously a chance he’s able to adjust his batted ball profile. When you take a look at hitters who amassed 1,000 or more PA at age 23 or younger and who had a GB% as high or higher than Lawrie’s career GB%, you’ll find some young hitters that learned to put the ball in the air. Both Robinson Cano and Jason Heyward started to get the ball off the ground and into the air either via the line drive or the fly ball after their first 1,000 or so PA. But the there are more guys on that list who continued to hit a lot of groundballs past that point. We’re talking about guys like Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford, Adam Jones, Eric Hosmer, and Billy Butler. A young hitter with groundball tendencies is likely to retain those tendencies.
As for the speed, Lawrie is just 22 for 35 when trying to steal over the last two seasons (62.8%). Base stealing is obviously a skill that a young player can improve upon, but I’d be lying if I said I had any idea whether Lawrie will do that or not.
There have been some positive developments in Lawrie’s game. He’s making contact at an above average rate which, despite swinging a bit too much, has allowed him to have a K% of just under 16% for the last two years. It’d be nice if he was a bit more selective and bumped his BB% up from about 6.5%, but he certainly displays good plate discipline, which is often a problem for young hitters. But ultimately it will be improvements to his FB% and success rate on the base paths that will determine Lawrie’s fantasy value.
The simple fact that Lawrie is going to be 24 for the 2014 season and has had success before means that a lot of people are going to think he’s a trendy sleeper pick. There seem to be about eight, maybe nine, “safe” third basemen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lawrie is one of the 3B being drafted as a starting third baseman by the three or four owners in 12-team leagues who miss out on the top options at the position. But I won’t be one of those owners because I just don’t see the evidence for a big turnaround.