When Narrative Goes Right: Brett Lawrie's 2013 Season

What a heroic sort. - Jonathan Ferrey

Narratives used by commentators and journalists in baseball often have no basis in demonstrable evidence. Unfortunately that doesn't mean they are always wrong.

One of my biggest pet peeves as a sports fan in general, but a baseball fan specifically, is the way commentators and reporters can latch onto a narrative with absolutely no basis in provable fact and trumpet it repeatedly as if it's gospel. Jon Paul Morosi's infamous tweet regarding Colby Rasmus's lack of "winning baseball instincts" is a perfect example. It is impossible to really define what he means by that term, let alone prove that it doesn't apply to Rasmus, yet he is willing to throw it out willy nilly as if it is an absolute matter of fact. A lot of comments coming out about John Gibbons recently with terms like "winning culture" strike me as similarly illogical. Maybe Gibbons has installed a great winning culture but the players have just been awful, or you know, injured. Even if everything a Dirk Hayhurst type says is true, if he has no way of proving it so he ought to keep to himself. If CNN had a story that they were pretty sure was true but wasn't supported by reliable sources they would not run the story. In fact, I'm sure there are dozens of stories daily that are relevant and would drive viewership that networks feel are true, but can't run due to a lack of indisputable evidence. For some reason, sports reporters often feel no need for such a standard.

I know that there are excellent reporters who position such things as their opinion only and are very responsible with such statements but I feel like they are in the minority. The Blue Jays TV commentary team habitually makes statements about the importance of veterans that could conceivably be true, but probably aren't and are completely impossible to prove. Suffice it to say that I am skeptical of a large percentage of mainstream media narratives. That being said, sometimes I have to tip my hat when the Buck Martinez's and Pat Tabler's of the world seem to have gotten something right. Random chance would suggest they are bound to at some point, but I don't mean to be dismissive. I mean to be congratulatory. Today we examine the rare phenomenon of narratives going right with the story of Brett Lawrie's 2013 season.

The Narrative of Brett Lawrie's Season: Brett Lawrie was hurried back from an oblique injury in April because the team was struggling and needed a boost. Given that he had not participated in Spring Training he did not have his timing down and struggled. When he hurt his ankle he was brought back at a slower pace, with a solid rehab stint, and was MLB ready upon his return, leading to his success.

First things first, as I am not Brett Lawrie I can't verify how he felt at any of these stages or how ready he was to play major league ball. The main part of this statement I mean to address is the one regarding his timing. Normally I think it would be pretty difficult to quantify a problem with a hitter's timing and usually I find saying a hitter's timing is off to be an incomplete analysis that doesn't offer much in the way of true understanding. However, in this case I think there is compelling numerical evidence to suggest that Brett Lawrie's timing was in fact off at the beginning of the season. In order to explore how this could be the case we'll start with the basics. The first thing to do is to look at Lawrie's numbers when he came back from his oblique injury in April and compare them to his numbers after his return from his ankle injury in July. I will use the long form to describe these time periods in this chart but for the rest of the article they will be referred to as "Return 1" and "Return 2":

Time Period

Average

On-Base

Slugging

K%

BB%

Isolated Power

Return from Oblique Injury-Ankle Injury

.209

.281

.374

23.4%

5.9%

.165

Return from Ankle Injury- Present

.308

.357

.490

8.9%

6.3%

.182

Given that the power and patience numbers here are very similar, the major differences between these two lines are the strikeouts and the BABIP. First we'll look at the strikeouts. Strikeouts have never been a huge problem for Lawrie before this year, or recently, as seen in the chart below tracking his strikeout rate and contact rate over time:

Time Period

K%

Contact%

2011 Season

18.1%

77.9%

2012 Season

16%

83.6%

April 2013

28.1%

70.9%

May 2013

20.8%

77.4%

July 2013

15%

88.4%

August 2013

5.2%

87.9%

Career

16.4%

81.9%

This definitely has the look of a player struggling with his timing early and finding it later in the year. However, strikeouts and contact% are not related to timing alone and this isn't enough to confirm the narrative. To do that we need to be a little bit more specific.

I recalled thinking that Lawrie was struggling with fastballs early in the year and I figured that was a good a place to start as any. Below is the Brooks Baseball picture outlining Lawrie's Whiff rate against fastballs from the beginning of the year until his ankle injury (aka "Return 1").

All of the individual samples here are pretty small but the overall picture is a guy who was swinging and missing on fastballs a lot. This is especially troubling in the strike zone where hitters normally abuse fastballs. Consider the comparison between this picture and Lawrie's whiffs on fastballs since "Return 2":

Here we see a guy who is not getting beat by fastballs. This seems like a more Brett Lawrie-esque picture. One thinks of Lawrie as being a fastball hitter and being unable to handle the heater, as he was earlier this year, seems pretty out of character. Below is chart showing some of Lawrie's outcomes against the fastball in these two time periods as well as his career:

Time Period

Whiff%

Ball in Play%

Line Drive %

Return 1

13.82%

13.82%

3.69%

Return 2

5.10%

23.53%

5.88%

Career

8.17%

19.63%

4.66%

Early in the year Lawrie proved unable to make contact with and drive fastballs, a problem that has not been typical of his career to date. I think this lends credence to the idea that his timing was off because the ability to square up a fastball seems like one of the best possible indicators of "timing" available.

If we are working on the theory that Lawrie couldn't catch up to fastballs early in the year one place to look to confirm that information would be with batted ball data. Here's is a spray chart with Lawrie's hits in April and May with pitch type indicated by color:

It is clear that Lawrie is not turning on fastballs and pulling them to left field. The majority of the fastballs, and balls to the outfield in general, go to right field. In theory there is nothing wrong with taking the ball the other way but Lawrie has a .247 BABIP and 97 wRC+ when hitting the ball the opposite way as opposed to a 267 BABIP and 166 wRC+ when pulling it in 2013 so I doubt that this is by design. Instead, I think that this, along with the whiffs, lends credence to the idea that Lawrie might have been late on fastballs to begin the year. The difference is apparent when examining his spray chart since his return from his ankle injury in July:

Here we see Lawrie depositing the ball in left field and quite a few instances of him pulling fastballs with authority.Not only does this indicate an ability to catch up to fastballs it is also a major reason for his bump in BABIP as he's had a higher BABIP going to centre field and left field that hitting the ball the other way.

When people figured that Brett Lawrie's timing was off early in 2013 as a result of missing Spring Training it seemed like a lazy explanation to me at the time. I figured there had to be more to the story than that. However, after examining the evidence it appears that the narrative weavers may have gotten one right this time. Messed up timing, due a lack of game action, could definitely account for a mysterious inability to catch up to fastballs for a 23 year old player who had never had that problem. In fact, given the data presented here I can't think of a more logical explanation. This doesn't make me any less of a skeptic regarding convenient stories like this one, but a hat tip is deserved in this case. Just because it doesn't seem like someone has the information to support their claim it doesn't necessarily mean they are wrong. However, I do think it makes them much more likely to be wrong.

The battle between "old school" and "new school" is often a hot topic in the world of baseball and the way that commonly manifests itself is in debates regarding common baseball narratives. Personally, I would rather admit ignorance then declare knowledge of something I can't possibly know or prove, like how veterans are affecting a locker room or what the effect of a particular manager's leadership style is. For that reason I find myself firmly on one side of debates of that nature. Brett Lawrie's season represents a win for the other side but I'm not discouraged. I'm in this for the long haul.

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