Perhaps it’s the perception that baseball is a small market in Toronto; that Toronto isn’t seen as a “baseball town” when compared to the Maple Leafs of the NHL. But the emergence of Jays’ 3B Brett Lawrie–albeit a short one–has gone overlooked and under-appreciated.
The 23-year-old Langley, British Columbia native was taken in the 1st-round, No. 16 overall in 2008 by the Milwaukee Brewers. The selection of Lawrie was the fourth-highest a Canadian player has ever been drafted–behind only Jeff Francis, Adam Loewen, and Phillippe Aumont–and the highest a Canadian position player has ever been drafted.
Lawrie was always regarded as a top prospect, and given the opportunity, showed was he could do. In 2008, he was a member of the Canadian Junior National Team at the World Junior Baseball Championship. There, he led the tournament with a scorching .469 batting average, 3 home runs and 16 RBIs, and was rewarded by being selected to play for Canada at the 2008 Summer Olympics. While with the Double-A Huntsville Stars in 2010, he posted a .285 batting average, 8 homeruns, 63 RBIs, 90 runs, 16 triples and 30 stolen bases in 135 games and was named to the Southern League Post-Season All-Star team on September 1, 2010.
Since his arrival in Toronto last season, he’s continued to impress those around him. When asked, Blue Jays’ broadcaster and former manager Buck Martinez, told ESPN this about Lawrie:
“He’s got more ability than George Brett, and I was George’s roommate in Kansas City. Now obviously, he doesn’t have 3,000 hits or [three] batting titles or an MVP award, so he’s got a long ways to go. But he runs and he plays with the same kind of intensity as George did. And that’s as high a compliment as I could pay any player.”
Lawrie finished his first big leagueg season with a .293 batting average, 9 home runs, 25 RBIs, 26 runs and 7 stolen bases over 161 plate appearances (43 games). And that’s not to forget his spectacular .953 OPS and .580 slugging percentage. He also had 21 extra base in just 43 games played, more than Phillies’ 3B Placido Polanco had (19) all of last season over 122 games. And, Polanco made the NL All-Star team.
“I’ve always known that I could play up there. It was just about me getting the opportunity to. I’ve never questioned myself about playing at the big league level because all I’ve ever wanted to do my whole life is play against the best. And when I get put up against the best, I turn on my jets.”
“I just knew that it’s baseball. I wasn’t worried about who was throwing against me or whether we were playing the Yankees. It wasn’t about that. It was like, ‘We’re playing in a big league stadium. We’re playing on TV. Let’s go have some fun.’ And that’s what it was about to me. It was, like, let’s go play.”
Let that sink in for a moment. Yes, his incredible numbers come from a very small sample size, and because of it, it needs to be taken as such. His production over just a month and a half of major league experience, however, has rarely been accomplished in the history of the game. And when it has, that player gets inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame more often than not.
Since 1900, only 12 other players in baseball history have had an OPS over .950 at age 21 or younger with at least 150 major league at-bats. Of those players, 10 are now in the Hall of Fame. Of those two remaining; one is Angels’ 1B Albert Pujols, is a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer, barring an unforeseen steroid test; and the other was Hal Trosky, whose career was ended early by migraines.
The following is a graph, courtesy of Lee Sinins’ Complete Baseball Encyclopaedia, explains the data:
.953 OPS AT AGE 21 OR YOUNGER
|Source: Lee Sinins’ Complete Baseball Encyclopedia|
Lawrie, however, has had a less-than-glowing history away from the diamond. Many had viewed him as cocky and arrogant, and questionable photos of him drinking and partying have surfaced on the web. Jays’ RHP Carlos Villaneueva told ESPN about Lawrie’s first visit with the Brewers following the draft. Villanueva recalls Lawrie telling his future big-league teammates: “Keep my seat warm. I’ll be here real soon.”
“I remember saying, ‘Who’s THIS guy?’ I mean, I’d heard about him. I knew he was a great player, even back then. He was very young, and he’s a very excitable person. He excites everyone around him. But us, back then, not knowing him, we were like, ‘Hey, keep that to yourself.’”
His reported riff with Brewers’ management was also made public. Growing frustrated and wanting to reach the majors as fast as possible (and rightfully so), Lawrie spent 2008 as a catcher, thinking that would be his best chance to get to the bigs. When 2B Rickie Weeks appeared destined to test free agency, Lawrie wanted to move to second base, hoping to advance up the depth chart. But when Weeks signed an extension with the Brewers, Lawrie again wanted to move, this time to third base.
Things went from bad to worse. Following the 2010 season, his second year in the Brewers’ system, he and the club had a major blow-up. After his solid Double-A season with the Stars, he wanted his promotion to the big club, whereas the team wanted him to report to the Arizona Fall League. “No, thanks,” was the response Lawrie gave. Brewers’ manager Doug Melvin told ESPN:
“We told him the plan was, ‘If you go to the Arizona Fall League, we’ll invite you to big league camp, at 19, and that’s never happened before here.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to the Fall League.’ We said, ‘Then we can’t invite you to big league camp.’ He said, ‘I should be in the big leagues in September.’ We said, ‘We know what we’re doing. We have a lot of confidence in your ability. Please trust us.’ But he wanted to be in the big leagues.”
It was this attitude, in part, that led to Lawrie being traded to the Jays for RHP Shaun Marcum on December 5, 2010.
“To tell you the truth, I really don’t know how they felt [about] me. I felt like I wasn’t given the opportunity that I needed there. And it was time for a move, and they needed some pitching, so I was the first candidate to be kind of kicked out the door. I guess you could say it was OK with me because … I needed a fresh start. I needed a new team. I needed some new guys. And I think it was a good way to jump into the big leagues. I got a chance to jump in with a new team,” said Lawrie.
Now, Lawrie’s attitude appears to be a thing of the past. He remains cocky and arrogant personality, but it’s an attitude that stems more from confidence and swagger than showboating or disrespect. For such a young player to have this kind of mentality is odd, and you’d think it would rub many people the wrong way, but the Jays are developing a knack for high-talent, high-potential players that have so desperately needed a change of scenery. Players like SS Yunel Escobar were given up on by the Braves, while OF Colby Rasmus had worn out his welcome with the Cardinals. Escobar had a solid season in Toronto, while Rasmus struggled out of the gate. With a fresh start this season, though, a big season could be around the corner.
Fast-forward from his fallout with Brewers’ management, and Lawrie appears poised for a breakout sophomore season in Toronto. Following in the footsteps of OF Jose Bautista–a talent not afforded the opportunity by another franchise–the Jays are now reaping the rewards of one of the best hitters in baseball. One team’s loss is another team’s gain, and on a franchise as underrated, young and talented as the new-look Blue Jays, it’s a dangerous combination that could see them go from basement-dweller to contender in a hurry.
“Things tend to go wrong when you try and change people. And I think when I was with the Brewers and I was in the minor league system, it felt like I was trying to be changed, like they were trying to change me, like I was the same as everybody else. I’m not the same as everybody else. I’m Brett Lawrie. It’s like, everyone’s different. You can’t try and make everyone be the same.”