Thursday, June 6, 2013

Young Man Blues - Where Does Brett Lawrie Go From Here?

Photo courtesy the outstanding @james_in_to's Flickr stream.
If there's one aspect of being a baseball fan that has transformed most dramatically since this blog was launched seven seasons ago, it's the way that young players are taken into consideration.

I remember at various times in the not-so-distant past keeping a watchful eye on the stat lines of players such as John-Ford Griffin, or Robinson Diaz, or Brian Dopirak, or even Chad Mottola, with the full expectation that at some point they would translate their minor league excellence into a career as everyday players with the Jays.

In more recent years, the mark of the more sophisticated baseball connoisseur was the ability to scoff at such middling organizational filler and rattle off the long list of more pertinent and exciting prospects within a system and throughout the game. A new surfeit of readily available resources that rate and rank and analyze ballplayers and teams allowed us to form opinions from our couches on athletes that we might not see at the top level for years...if at all.

Actually, that last part is the one that increasingly preoccupies me. Having indulged in so-called "prospect porn" for the last few years, the one thing that increasingly impresses itself upon me is the high failure rate of prospects. And this isn't limited to your garden variety organizational filler. I'm talking about the number of "blue chip", "can't miss" prospects. The top five percentile that fill the top ends of those perpetual speculative top 100 lists based on the gaudy numbers they post against their peers in the lower, developmental levels. The players who make their way onto a Major League Baseball roster to all matter of hoopla and frantic fantasy baseball waiver wire activity.

All this new information gives us some alleged sense of knowledge on players about whom we know very little beyond the blurbs. But what has been striking over the past couple of seasons are the number of top-flight young players who simply cannot make a go of it once they face real live big leaguers.

Previously, there were players like Jeremy Hermida or Brandon Wood, who stood out because they seemed to be the exceptions as top 10 prospects who never were able to convert that promise into something more tangible. Lately, though, it seems like this list is getting longer in a hurry. This includes premier minor league players like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Gordon Beckham, and yes, Travis Snider.

This failure rate for young players is quite unlike anything you see in the other major professional sports. Basketball, hockey, and football all draft impact players from the amateur ranks and have them producing at the highest level within a year or two. They slide into the professional game seemingly by sheer virtue of their athletic prowess.

Which brings us to this month's whipping boy, Brett Lawrie.

There's little question that Brett Lawrie is an exceptional athletic specimen, and that certainly helped him push his way into the major league lineup ahead of schedule, at 21 years of age. He made the leap into MLB after just 326 minor league games. That's fewer games than it took for Roberto Alomar to make it to the big leagues. It's almost a full season less than it took for Tony Fernandez to make it and it is about half as many games as it took for Carlos Delgado to crack the premier lineup.

It probably helped that the Jays needed to show some return from their trade of opening day starter Shaun Marcum while a mixed bag of third baseman barely held the spot warm for him. Meanwhile, Lawrie posted numbers in Las Vegas that were otherworldly, and beyond what he'd ever posted before in his minor league career.

Lawrie's debut with the team in the latter stages of 2011 was something of an astrological event. New-found plate discipline and a hell-for-leather approach to all other aspects of the game made him appear to be something more than an all-star. Lawrie appeared destined to become a transcendent sports figure in Toronto, and one who brought non-baseball fans into the fold. One needed only look at the names and numbers on the backs in the crowds at the Rogers Centre to see whose stardom shone above all others.

But like those many other phenoms before him, Lawrie began to struggle as the league became more acquainted with him. In 162 games in the two seasons following his sparkling debut, Lawrie has posted a .710 OPS (.311 OBP) and an OPS+ of 91. While his defense has been sterling and continues to improve, the more difficult to master tool of hitting seemingly continues to slip away from him.

Which brings me to my point, as much as I'm talking concentric circles around it: Baseball is hard. Really hard. It's harder than we as fans realize. Even more so, harder than some players realize.

And if there is an existential quandary that is leading Brett Lawrie to mow further down into his nail beds, throw equipment hither and yon, pout intensely and point fingers at his teammates, it's might just fact that this game which he had mastered (well, somewhat) at most every level is suddenly beyond him at this point.

Okay, let's slow down for a moment. We're moving into an area of speculative, long-distance psychology, and I'll cop to being on the shakiest of ground in proceeding down this train of thought. But given that Brett Lawrie's name has been often accompanied with a question mark in recent days, indulge me for a moment as I hypothesize on what's going on in his head, and where he needs to go to get through the other side.

Here's the short form of how I think Brett Lawrie's mind works: "I want something, and if I want it bad enough, I've gotta go get it. Take it. It's mine if I want it." I base this on the "Never Surrender" tattoos, the times when he's been thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop, and often, the defiance in the post-game interviews when it all goes wrong.

All of this adds up - in my mind, anyways - to a player who attacks the game. Takes no prisoners. Lays the smack down.

But baseball is a game that doesn’t cotton to being attacked.

It requires a quiet, steady approach. A marksman’s still hand and slow heart beat, not the furious anger of a shootist. It requires patience, not haste. An ability to let the game unfold as it will. A sense of perspective, and an ability to fail with grace.

You gotta be chill, bro.

The problem with this is that Brett Lawrie has been consistently rewarded for his unbridled enthusiasm. From the fans to the front office to his own father, Lawrie's single-minded competitiveness seems to be the attribute for which he is admired and rewarded.

He became something close to a folk hero for throwing his body over barriers, regardless of the damage he caused to himself. People laugh at the notion that he pumps himself up with unhealthy amounts of caffeine in anticipation of a game, figuring that his jacked-up athlete's body will insulate him mood-altering doses of substance that affect the neurological and nervous systems.

And then we wonder he's jumping at pitches.

It could be that the most recent onslaught of negativity could provide the impetus for Lawrie to reevaluate his approach. Maybe this is a learning experience, and somehow, he can learn from the bad times and adapt his game appropriately.

It wouldn't surprise me if he does. In spite of his dude-bro exterior, I've always suspected that there is a very clever and quick mind underneath it all. I think he can adapt, and I think he can transcend from the player that he has become to the player that he could very well be.

But to get there, Lawrie has to want it. And you can't find stillness of mind with the body's hustle.


Unknown said...

I had a twitter conversation with Zaun recently, and he said something that I think fits Lawrie perfectly.

You've got to let a young player do what worked to get him to The Show. Until it doesn't work anymore.

It's pretty clear that Major League pitchers have figured out how to combat his twitchy, over-caffeinated, just-react-to-the-pitch approach that has served him well up until now. Now it's a matter of whether he can put aside the bullheaded "I'm Superman" mentality and change his approach.

I'm not confident that it's going to happen this year. I think it'll take a full season of < .200 BA for him to realize he needs to listen to somebody else's opinion.

marklxndr said...

I take great joy in Baltimore-Toronto games (partially because even though I live in the GTA the O's have been my favourite team since I was a little kid) and watching Lawrie and Machado play against each other. They're such polar opposites.

Lawrie is bursting at the seams with energy and muscle--Machado is a statue at the plate, uniform hanging off of what still looks like a teenager's body.

Especially watching them on defense, it becomes clear that both Lawrie and Machado are incredibly athletically gifted--but Machado has the right temperament for hitting, especially as a young player who is going to be constantly tested by new approaches from the league.

Machado's not perfect--his walk rate is like 5%, he strikes out more than you would like, and the home run power everyone talked about when he was in AA hasn't been totally evident (although power has hardly been an issue for him)--but more than anything else he's got the patience to really consistently improve himself.

I think the gap between their numbers has made it harder to compare Machado and Lawrie than it might have been if Lawrie were performing more to expectations, but they seem to be simultaneously extremely similar (size and athleticism, elite defense at 3B, power potential) and total opposites.

Ty said...

A couple games after Gose was called up this year, he made an ill-advised turn around third base and tried to score on a ball he had no business trying to score on. The throw to the catcher ended up being high, he slid in safely, and most of us cheered because it was an exciting play.

After the game, Gose was contrite, acknowledging that the end didn't justify the means and heading for home in that particular instance was, in fact, a boneheaded move.

I couldn't help but notice the contrast to Lawrie, who has made a number of boneheaded decisions that didn't work out, and has always responded by basically saying "I can do whatever I want, don't try to change me, #YOLO".

Jloon said...

I notice you did't broach the subject of Lawrie's coachability. I think that's what's behind his development coming to a screeching halt (along with a few other young Blue Jays). I agree with you that there is calmer, more logical way to play this game, but Brett needs to hear and and accept the truth of that from within the team structure. That's why those people are there. I still believe in Gibbons. His season may well depend on whether he can get through to Lawrie, or not.

Chad said...

Well, you never played the game at a high level, bro. You can't judge Lawrie.

Ian Hunter said...

I think part of the problem is the bar was set so incredibly high after his short stint in 2011, that anything less than a 2.5 win season just seems like a disappointment.

I still can't believe it myself ... 2.5 WAR in just 43 games. Last year, Brett had 2.5 WAR in 125 games.

That's not Lawrie's fault, but I think subconsciously we'll always be comparing any subsequent season to his "breakout" in 2011.

Bald and Beautiful said...

I remember an interview from a number of years ago with a young player talking about a conversation that they had with Molitor when he was with the Jays. The player in question was slamming the hitting coach, giving Molitor the knowing wink and nod, like "I'm hot shit, these guys know squat. Right? Right?" Molitor apparently stopped him, saying something about the reason why he had such a long career is because he listened to his coaches. It was a humbling moment for the kid.

Perhaps if we had a stronger sense of leadership in the clubhouse instead of a potential all-star who pouts every time a call doesn't go his way, these younger kids may find some perspective and actually reach their potential.