Brett Lawrie's Glove: Fool's Gold?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The idea that Brett Lawrie is an unbelievable fielder is rarely questioned by Jays fans, but perhaps it should be.

Brett Lawrie has been an unpredictable sort from the moment he exploded on the scene with the Blue Jays, both in terms of his persona and his production. Lawrie's 2.5 WAR in only 171 plate appearances in 2011 gave Blue Jays fans the impression that he would be a dynamic offensive force that would help lead the Jays to greatness for years to come. Instead he's been the sort of dynamic offensive force that doesn't walk or hit for much power and constantly pounds the ball into the ground. Lawrie has posted below average wRC+ marks in each of the last two years and hasn't shown much growth at the plate.

None of that is to say that he won't. Lawrie is only 24, he has definitely flashed signs of excellence with the bat, and his numbers may be depressed by the number of injuries he's suffered. Youth remains on his side, but not for that much longer, and the injury excuse will only work if he can stay healthy for a long enough period of time to show us what the difference between healthy Lawrie and hurt Lawrie is.

He is the type of player that normally wouldn't get the benefit of the doubt from impatient fans waiting to see what blew their socks off in 2011, especially given his controversial uber-competitive demeanor. Two years of subpar production is a lot to ask people who expect excellence to stomach.So, why is it that fans, who definitely aren't getting any more rational, are still on board with Lawrie?

His passport doesn't hurt as a starting point. Fans definitely like to cheer for the "good Canadian kid". However, more significantly, these fans have been conditioned to believe that he has super-human ability with the leather that makes up for all his other flaws. The main culprits are Pat Tabler and Buck Martinez who constantly harp on his glove work and its unmatched brilliance. As a result, Blue Jays fans are sucked into believing that they can wait on Lawrie's bat to come around, which is far from a given, because he's a Gold Glove player who is saving runs for this pitching staff left, right, and centre. To be fair to the Blue Jays broadcasting team, Lawrie tends to pass the eye test.

However, a couple of weeks ago the Tabler-Martinez world view was challenged by Mr. Keith Law. In this article (though to be honest I found the comments over at DJF) Law said that Brett Lawrie "doesn't walk or play enough defense to be an everyday solution if he's not hitting for a high average."

Law is a smart enough guy that his comments are worthy of some examination. While I don't mean to tread on Stoeten's territory in terms of analyzing Keith Law-isms, I do think that Brett Lawrie's defense is worthy of further review. Jays fans have been quick to assume that Lawrie has superlative abilities in the field, and given that the eye test never gave reason to challenge that hypothesis it has persisted for the last couple of years. Today I'm going to put that hypothesis to the test.

When we deal in defensive statistics, there is some controversy that comes with the territory. Everyone has their preferred metrics, and some believe that certain statistics are completely worthless while others are close to gospel. One thing almost everyone agrees that a single season is not enough of a sample size to draw much of a conclusion. To that point, five or six weeks of extraordinary defense at second base is not enough for a sane person/front office to justify belief in a player who is little more than a minor-league veteran as a starting second baseman... but I digress.

No one is going to agree on the exactly what the best method for analyzing a player's defensive production statistically so I figure I would give you some options and you can come to your own conclusion. The first of Lawrie's defensive stats worth examining are the more basic ones. This chart below shows how Lawrie has done in his three-year career in some of the simpler metrics compared to league averages:

Player

Errors

Fielding Percentage

Percentage of balls fielded resulting in outs

Percentage of bunts fielded resulting in outs

Brett Lawrie

33

.959

87%

57%

MLB Average (3B)

N/A

.955

87%

64%

According to these numbers Lawrie is pretty ordinary in the field, but we know how subjective errors can be so in order to broaden the picture we move on to some more advanced numbers. In this case the following table ranks Lawrie among third baseman who have spent at least 2,000 innings in the field over the last 3 years, of which there are 19:

Double Play Runs

Range Runs

Error Runs

UZR

UZR/150

Fan Scouting Report

DRS

0.1 (7th)

8.9 (8th)

0.3 (11th)

9.3 (10th)

5.0 (8th)

20 (3rd)

38 (1st)

Here Lawrie looks like a plus fielder, but far from special, until we look at FSR and DRS which both love him. DRS has him as the best third baseman in the game defensively even after the system had to adjust itself to accommodate Lawrie's shifting.

The last tool we might use to look at Lawrie defensively is the newest in FanGraphs' arsenal: Inside Edge Fielding. Inside Edge Fielding looks at how well each player does making plays that have a particular likelihood of being made, whether they be remote or routine. The table below shows how Brett Lawrie fares with plays across the spectrum of difficulty and once again he is compared to his peers. Since Inside Edge data is only available since 2012, the dataset changes to third baseman who have spent at least 1,500 innings in the field in the last two years. 21 players meet that criterion.

Percentage of plays made on "Remote" attempts (1-10%)

Percentage of plays made on "Unlikely" attempts (10-40%)

Percentage of plays made on "Even" attempts (40-60%)

Percentage of plays made on "Likely" attempts"(60-90%)

Percentage of plays made on "Routine" attempts (90-100%)

12.0% (7th)

33.3% (10th)

54.6% (12th)

81.4% (8th)

96.9% (13th)

For the more visually-inclined folks out there this info comes with some pretty pictures of Lawrie's made plays...

As well as his missed plays...

This info should be taken with a grain of salt because it is fairly new and some of the categories are based on very small sample sizes. After all, a third baseman doesn't get the chance to make a "Remote" play that often. That being said, the Inside Edge Fielding numbers once again show Lawrie as a good, but not great, fielder.

When we stray from the eye test and choose to evaluate defensive prowess statistically, it is difficult to know what information is helpful and what will lead us astray. If you choose to believe that Lawrie is an elite fielder you need look no farther than DRS, a very credible defensive metric, which suggests that the Blue Jays third baseman is the best in the league at his craft.

However, most of the numbers presented today seem to suggest that Lawrie is above-average, but perhaps not as outstanding as many people seem to think at fielding his position. I don't have enough faith in any of the numbers above to definitively make a statement to that effect, but I do think it's a possibility worthy of strong consideration, especially in light of Keith Law's recent comments.

If Brett Lawrie isn't the defensive wizard that many assume he is, he will really need to come around with the bat to be a valuable player for this team. That isn't necessarily an indictment of his ability to contribute to the Jays as an above-average everyday player in the future, or even as early as this year. After all, when they acquired him it was the special bat they were looking for. The talent is still there and time is still on his side, but 2014 would be a good time for Lawrie to take a step forward in the batter's box. The reality is that he's probably more David Wright than Manny Machado in the field, and David Wright didn't become a superstar with his glove alone.

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