Brett Lawrie is off to a rough start in his Oakland A's career. Right from the get-go, he was the subject of national ridicule for his free-swinging ways (and the disastrous results of those swings). Within his first month, he'd already been in the middle of a huge unwritten-rules controversy. And even now, during his 11-game hitting streak, he still looks like a disappointment so far, especially if you don't watch him enough to appreciate his defense.
All three of those links go to national SB Nation stories that are either about Lawrie or feature him prominently. That shows both how underwhelming he's been and how big of a microscope he's under. That's no surprise considering he's replacing Josh Donaldson in as directly a fashion as possible, since they play the same position and were traded for each other. Lawrie is hitting .279/.308/.378 with an OPS+ of 92, too many strikeouts, and not enough walks or power -- if you look at it like that, then you will not be happy with his performance to this point.
However, those numbers don't tell the whole story. Lawrie has a reputation as a slow starter and a streaky hitter overall, and we're seeing that now. After going 0-for-5 on April 24, he was hitting .214 with a .542 OPS. Since then, he's on an 11-game hitting streak that I summed up in a post earlier today:
[His 11-game-hitting streak] is the longest current streak in baseball. It's also the second-longest streak of the young season so far, behind a pair of players who each had 12-game runs: teammates Josh Reddick and Billy Butler. Lawrie is 16-for-41 during his streak, for a line of .390/.395/.537 with 10 RBI (including a clutch eighth-inning go-ahead hit that eventually won a game). Granted, he's struck out 11 times in those 43 plate appearances with only 1 walk, so he's still beatable, but he's no longer having the embarrassing, flailing, auto-out at-bats he had in early April. He seems to be settling in and making a lot of hard contact, and that's a good first step.
Lawrie has caught fire, even though it's mostly singles and he's riding a .500 BABIP during his streak. Hey, at least he's making good contact; you can't luck into a single when you strike out. And only a few of the hits have been lucky.
The part of that snippet I want to highlight here has to do with the game-winning hit, which came last Friday against the Rangers. The A's had entered the 8th inning down 5-0, but they'd rallied back to 5-4 with two out. Neftali Feliz was called in to stem the tide, and in fairness he should have had Lawrie on a two-strike checked swing that went sliiightly too far around. However, the ump didn't call it, and while I would have rung him up it wasn't an egregiously missed call. Given another chance, Lawrie belted a liner into the right-field corner to score a pair and take a 6-5 lead. The A's held on to win 7-5.
I highlight that lucky checked-swing call only in the interest of full transparency. In truth, it was an excellent nine-pitch at-bat and he earned that double.
But that's just one cool highlight, right? An 11-game heater and one game-winning hit probably aren't enough to make you feel more than cautious optimism about a spazzy below-average hitter with a wild swing. But wait! There's more!
While I was perusing Baseball-Reference today, I came across Lawrie's "clutch" stats. Now, I'm not a big believer in the ability to be clutch, but if a guy has noticeably better stats in that department then it's because he literally came through in those situations more often. It doesn't make him a better hitter, necessarily, but it means that the hits he did get were generally worth more than they might appear and therefore his value to this point might exceed his raw stats. That doesn't guarantee he will continue succeeding in those situations, but it means he objectively did so in the past.
Lawrie's clutch stats aren't just good or promising. They are amazing. (In a tiny, generally meaningless sample. Shut up, it's fun and we just lost 3-of-4 to the Twins.) In 27 plate appearances with runners in scoring position (RISP), he's 10-for-23 with 13 RBI and a 1.092 OPS. Make it RISP with two outs, and he improves to 6-for-10 with 10 RBI and a 1.736 OPS. Switch to "high-leverage" situations, and he's 12-for-22 with a 1.338 OPS. Here is an easier-to-digest list (number in parentheses is plate appearances, and for each situation I've listed the batting average and OPS) (click here for full splits at B-Ref):
Lawrie, overall (119): .279/.686
Lawrie w/ RISP (27): .435/1.092
Lawrie w/ RISP & 2 out (11): .600/1.736
Lawrie, high-lev (25): .535/1.338
Lawrie, late & close: .350/.831
His OPS has been terrible with the bases empty (.579), substantially better with men on (.807), out of this world when those men are in scoring position (1.092), and on another plane of existence when those RISP come with two outs (1.736). His OPS is a hundred points better when the A's are trailing (.716) than when they have the lead (.616). He's at his best when there are two outs (.941).
Now, my point here is not to label Lawrie as a permanently clutch performer. His career splits do suggest that he's been slightly better than normal in big spots (especially RISP, high-leverage, and late & close), and that might be because he's an aggressive hitter who is at least likely to put the ball in play -- the high strikeouts are a new phenomenon this year, and they're already slowly subsiding. Rather, my point is just to revel in some neat oddities in Lawrie's early-season splits, oddities that mean his seemingly lackluster performance has actually been more valuable than it appears.
Lawrie probably won't keep crushing it so hard with runners in scoring position. But then, he probably also won't keep sucking so much when there aren't runners on, and it'll probably even out at the very least.
Alternate explanation: Brett Lawrie is a witch.
What the ... -- Photo credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports