Checking in on Brett Lawrie

In the preseason I hypothesized that Brett Lawrie was not going to be a post-hype sleeper. This past week one of my best Twitter friends, Moe Koltun (@moeproblems), asked if my thoughts on Lawrie had changed from the preseason. Seeing that I needed something to write about for my regular Wednesday post, I thought I’d answer Moe’s question with 1,000 words or so.

In my long look at Lawrie from the preseason, I came to the conclusion that more fly balls and being a more efficient base stealer were the keys to his fantasy success.

His fly ball rate was almost 45% in his breakout stretch at the end of 2011, and his GB/FB ratio was 0.85. But in 2012 and 2013, taken together, his FB% was just 31.7%, and his GB/FB ratio was 1.56. He was better in 2013 than he was in 2012. In fact his FB% last year was essentially the same as his career FB% of about 34%. He’s been putting more balls in the air this year with a 37% FB % and 1.29 GB/FB ratio, but with only 161 PA, we’re not quite at the point where those stats have stabilized. Even if the modest improvements stick around, we’re still nowhere close to the fly ball heavy guy from 2011. On the bright side, once his batted ball stats do even out, he should start hitting a few more line drives, which should lead to his BABIP and possibly his batting average recovering.

Of course what’s more important than how many fly balls Lawrie puts in the air is how many of them leave the yard. So far Lawrie has matched his 2011 breakout in terms of HR/FB rate (roughly 17%). However, his average home run and fly ball distance is within a foot of what it was last year when his HR/FB rate was 9.6%. I think it’s unlikely that he maintains his current HR/FB rate and unlikely that he keeps hitting as many balls in the air, or at least unlikely that he’ll hit them in the air at a rate higher than where he currently sits.

But maybe you disagree with me. Below is a chart showing how many home runs Lawrie will hit the rest of the way depending on what you think his true FB% and HR/FB rate are. I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he’ll get 449 PA the rest of the way as Steamer projects (600+ for the year) and assumed his strikeout and walk rates the rest of the season will be in line with his career rates. That’s despite the fact that his strikeout rate is up this year (more on that in a moment). After deducting strikeouts, walks and hit-by-pitches (five), I’ve got Lawrie putting 339 more balls in play this season.

FB% Flyballs 9.5% HR/FB 11.5% HR/FB 14% HR/FB 17% HR/FB
34% 115 10.9 13.2 16.1 19.6
37% 125 11.9 14.4 17.5 21.3
40% 135 12.8 15.5 18.9 23.0
45% 152 14.4 17.5 21.3 25.8

I think his FB% ends up between 34-37% and his HR/FB rate is around his career average, so 14 home runs from here on out seems about right to me. That would give him 21 on the year, which is a total I think all of his owners would have taken on draft day. I had him pegged for just 16 in 575 PA.

But there are other problems. First the base stealing issue I mentioned earlier. Lawrie was successful on seven of his first eight tries in the big leagues but is just 22 for 35 since (62.8%). I was hoping he’d improve on that rate this year, but he hasn’t had the chance to as he hasn’t attempted a single steal yet. He missed about a week’s worth of games earlier this month because of hamstring tightness, so that could be what’s keeping him on first base. Presumably he’ll start running at some point, but we’re no longer talking about a potential 15/15 guy it would seem. It’s nice that one of the 15s is wrong in that he may hit 20 home runs, but the increase in power is really mitigated by the lack of speed.

The other problem is the spike in strikeout rate, which I did not foresee in the preseason. Prior to this year Lawrie seemed like he had settled into a slightly above average K% and slightly below average BB% due to him swinging a little more than league average but making contact at a rate better than league average. But this year he’s swinging a little more than he had in the past and making less contact. It’s a little odd because he’s had the most trouble making contact with off speed pitches in his career, but he’s seeing more fastballs this year than he ever has.

A look at his Brooks Baseball page shows he’s aware of his troubles with off speed pitches, and he has laid off the off speed stuff more and more this year and last. But he is chasing more fastballs and breaking pitches out of the zone, and making less contact primarily on fastballs. It may be that Lawrie has just been a bit overeager and aggressive early in the season. The issue seems like it’s correctable or just something that will correct itself in a larger sample. The extra strikeouts early in the year probably aren’t the biggest concern for Lawrie, and his BABIP and batting average should recover once his batted ball and plate discipline stats even out a bit.

The bigger concerns are pretty much the same ones I had in the preseason. Can he continue to hit more balls in the air to make up for a potential drop in his HR/FB rate, and will he start running again? Meeting or exceeding power expectations is a much safer bet than him meeting speed expectations at this point, but it’s disappointing that he’s unlikely to be a dual threat. And I haven’t even mentioned yet that he’s failed to reach the 600 PA mark that I gave him credit for above. The concerns outweigh the upside for me, but there’s probably not much you can do about it. You probably can’t sell him for anything decent given his .236 average, and there isn’t anyone better on the wire. You’re just going to have to ride it out and hope I’m wrong.

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You didn’t discuss the fact that he is now 2B eligible in many leagues. While 3B has been disappointing and 2B surprisingly deep, I think the flexibility does add to his value in fantasy.

Otherwise great points. Hopefully his average can continue to climb.