Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Taming the (Red) Bull

By: Chris Sherwin

Brett Lawrie burst onto the scene for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011 posting a .293/.373/.580 slash line and 9 home runs in 43 games. He showed off a textbook swing paired with terrific bat speed which gave Jays fans hope for the future. While most of us knew that regression was coming in 2012, even still his .273/.324/.405 line was still seen as a disappointment. Outside of the month of June, his power vanished and his on-base percentage was barely average.

Even with the disappointing year, Lawrie still has one of the best swings in the majors. He has incredible bat speed and when he gets himself into full extension he has tremendous power potential. Anyone that’s watched an inning of Blue Jays baseball has gotten used to Brett Lawrie’s high strung nature and Red Bull fueled energy. This has gotten in the way of his development at the plate in the years since his debut. He has so much pre-load movement in his batting stance, and he tries to hit the ball out of the pitchers hand instead of letting the ball come to him. He has a half squat and slightly open stance while wagging his bat all over the place. Sometimes I think he looks like a kid opening his or hers first present on Christmas morning.

This movement throws off his timing and as a result he was constantly grounding out, and failing to elevate pitches you’d expect him to crush. The longer the batter can wait on a pitch, the less likely he is of being fooled. If Lawrie can learn to ease up and sit back he has the bat speed to wait and punish pitches. Changing a batters mechanics can be a very tricky project for hitting coaches. A players mental makeup can get in the way when someone is trying to change them (Looking at you, Travis Snider), however there are critical changes that need to be made to Lawrie’s mechanics for him to develop into the hitter we all hope he can.

One of the common issues people have with Lawrie’s pre load mechanics is the “hitch” in his swing. A hitch in the swing is when a player drops his hands during the pitchers windup and then raises them again before swinging. This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine because of how misunderstood the term is. Lawrie in fact doesn’t have a hitch in his swing. People confuse his bat waggle for a hitch. As you can see from the gif below, Lawrie gets his hands in a great position before starting his swing and they are very fast and controlled.

What we can’t deny is that something had to change about all the pre load movement. Prior to the All Star Break he was putting up miserable numbers at the plate and had one the worst two strike approaches around (9 wRC+ in 0-2 counts!) I criticised the Jays for appearing to not make an effort to change obvious flaws that were holding a potential superstar back. In their defense, athletes like Lawrie can be tough to change. His ultra turbo attitude makes him the player he his. Trying to remove some of that could be very harmful. However outside of a few memorable instances one thing we’ve noticed this year about Lawrie is his ability to cool off in certain situations and be more mature on the field. This kind of restraint is something I was worried he wouldn’t be capable of. My foot was officially removed from my mouth on July 24th. Lawrie came to the plate that night standing taller rather than squatting.

This change was a minor win for me because finally we saw evidence of mechanical tweaking by Lawrie and the coaches. There was still the problem with too much movement but it was a positive sign nonetheless. On July 28 I was stunned to see Lawrie step up to the plate standing straight up and holding his hands closer to his body and his bat more vertical. By staying vertical Lawrie can take advantage of the loop in his swing and get the ball in the air. His bat waggle is still there and may never leave but it’s a much calmer waggle. Instead of getting both arms involved he now waggles the wrists while staying vertical and a still body. This is a huge win for Chad Motolla because he was able to calm Lawrie’s pre load without taking away all of his agro (Bat waggle).

Since making this adjustment at the plate Lawrie has an 11 game hit streak and his slash line is .381/.447/.643 with 2 HR’s, a wOBA of .466 and .262 ISO. Now this is a painful example of small sample size but the success is critical because it reinforces the changes that have been made. During Lawrie’s short career he’s shown some makeup issues and refused to admit when he’s wrong. That seems to be changing as this season goes on and willingness to let up on his agro at the plate is a very positive sign for Jays fans.

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