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Tinkering, Ground Balls, and Regression: The Search for Brett Lawrie's Power

Cee Angi takes a look at Brett Lawrie's 2012 season and his step backwards with the bat. What happened to the power and will it come back?

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

"He's going to be great, right?"

When Brett Lawrie was called up last season at 21, his 171 plate appearances in 43 games confirmed a lot of assumptions about him as a player. He's gritty and aggressive, can cover the whole plate, and has quick bat speed. The small sample also suggested that he had power and plate discipline, his .293/.373/.580 (.953 OPS), and nine home runs, putting him in the company of other great young players like Al Kaline (.967 OPS at age 20) and Jimmie Foxx (.964 OPS at age 20).

"He'll keep it up next season, won't he?"

Such a monster debut set a high bar for a repeat performance, and in 2012 Lawrie failed to clear it, hitting .273/.324/.405. He matured at the plate in some ways, but devolved in others - he struck out less, but also walked less and argued with umpires more. The biggest difference was a drop in power. His 2011 isolated power of .287 fell to .132 in 2012. He hit nine home runs in his abbreviated rookie season, but hit just two more (11 total) in 2012, despite 365 more plate appearances.

"But...why? Where did his power go?"

That's a question that's usually difficult to answer because the reasons are unique to each player. Some lose power because of injury, or because pitchers finally learn their weaknesses, and sometimes it's just bad luck. In Lawrie's case, it's a little easier to assess what's happened to his power: There has been expected regression, but his approach at the plate has also changed, resulting in a lot of ground balls.

Young players don't often arrive in the majors fully formed, no matter how good they are. It's obvious that Lawrie is good at baseball-scouts know it, and so does he- but his approach in 2011 was erratic and lacked focus, so hitting coach Dwayne Murphy worked with him to quiet his approach in the batter's box. The focus on his mechanics, patience, and pitch selection may have actually hindered his productivity, which raises the question whether or not he needed fixing in the first place. In the same way Ted Williams famously told a young Carl Yastrzemski that he shouldn't let anyone mess with his unorthodox swing, perhaps Lawrie was just fine the way he was.

As with doctors, the primary rule for coaches is, "first do no harm." They realize that each player's swing is like a snowflake. It's the reason hitters like Kevin Youkilis and Ichiro Suzuki are left alone-especially when they're producing. Younger players are seen as a bit more malleable, and while Murphy has not been trying to dramatically alter Lawrie's swing so much as strengthen his approach, it hasn't yet translated into success at the plate. Perhaps paradoxically, these adjustments could serve Lawrie better over the course of his career, even if they seem counterproductive now.

Lawrie's struggles are eerily similar to those endured by another young Blue Jays hitter, Alex Rios. When Rios made his major league debut in 2004, his 2.49 ground ball to fly ball ratio crippled him, and he hit just one home run. It was a huge departure from the power he had shown in the minors and caused many to question his ability as a hitter. By 2006, Rios had improved his approach at the plate, dramatically increasing the percentage of fly balls he hit to 41.6%, and hit 17 home runs.

None of this is meant as a critique of Murphy, though the Jays have had mixed success from hitters throughout his tenure. With his advisement, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista have flourished as power hitters (Bautista's emergence qualifying as historic), but younger players like Adam Lind and Travis Snider have struggled to maintain the consistency they showed in the minors (in ways not wholly attributable to differences between hitter-friendly Las Vegas and the Rogers Centre, which generally ranks as hitter-positive as well). It's not atypical for young hitters to have trouble with consistency as they go through several iterations of their approach. Lawrie certainly isn't broken beyond repair-it's just about finding an approach that works.

In some ways, Lawrie's decline is overstated, because some regression was inevitable-not because Lawrie isn't good, but rather that aspects of success seemed unsustainable, like hitting 17 percent of his fly balls for home runs. Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA, which is a sabermetric forecasting of a player's performance, predicted that, despite Lawrie's .335 True Average (TAv), he would hit something closer to .268 TAv with 18 home runs in 2012, a combination of its estimate of his ability based on his minor league performances, regression, and a larger sample size. While PECOTA is not always accurate, Lawrie's actual performance in 2012 fell below its conservative prediction; he finished the season with a .261 TAv and 11 home runs.

The most obvious reason for Lawrie's power decline is the number of ground balls he hit this season. Of balls that Lawrie put in play, 50.2 percent of those were ground balls, 20.0 percent were line drives, and 29.8 percent were fly balls. His ground ball-fly ball ratio was 1.69, nearly double that of his 2011 0.85 ratio, and well out in front of the 1.28 league average. The change is just as intuitive as it seems-hitting for power is difficult when hitting ground balls and line drives (Have you ever seen a ground ball hit for a home run?), and 70.2 percent of the time this season, that's what Lawrie did.

As mentioned above, 17 percent of his fly balls were home runs last season, which wasn't sustainable, but this season's nine-percent rate was a considerable drop-off, one that again placed him below the league average of 11.9 percent. Ground balls also have a snowball effect on overall slugging percentage, as extra-base hits are rarer for ground-ball hitters in general. It's likely as he matures, he'll find an approach that allows for his fly ball rate to increase, which will be the difference- maker where power is concerned. Addressing the mechanical issues and approach that has led to so many ground balls might be the only adjustment needed for Lawrie's power to return, much as it did for Rios.

The good news for Lawrie is that even though he declined in power, he still had a successful season at the plate. His flaws are obvious, but also the kind that are the easiest to fix. Lawrie's upside is tremendous and while it's easy to get frustrated when a young player struggles, it's important to take the hiccups and growing pains in stride. He'll iron out the throwing errors, the aggressive base running, and mental errors-and if he can figure out how to hit fly balls again, the young star will be all set.

Cee Angi is one of SB Nation's Designated Columnists.