Is Brett Lawrie one of the greatest fielders ever?

This post was suggested by reader Paul E who remarked on the defensive accomplishments of Brett Lawrie of the Blue Jays. Toronto acquired Lawrie from the Brewers after the 2010 season, and brought him up to the big team in mid-summer last year. Other than a week missed to injury at the end of last season, he’s been the Jays’ regular third baseman since.

As of this writing, Lawrie has a career of slightly less than half of a 162 game season. Yet, he is in a tie for 13th place since 1901 among all non-pitchers in WAR fielding runs accumulated in the first two seasons of a career.

Here’s the list.

Rk Player Rfield OPS+ WAR/pos From To Age G PA R H HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG Pos Tm
1 Glenn Wright 43 99 9.5 1924 1925 23-24 306 1322 177 366 25 232 58 84 .298 .330 .453 *6/5 PIT
2 Austin Jackson 42 95 9.6 2010 2011 23-24 304 1343 193 328 14 86 103 351 .271 .331 .387 *8/D DET
3 Phil Rizzuto 41 100 9.3 1941 1942 23-24 277 1160 144 315 7 114 71 76 .295 .343 .386 *6 NYY
4 Kirby Puckett 40 86 6.0 1984 1985 24-25 289 1327 143 364 4 105 57 156 .292 .325 .363 *8 MIN
5 Barry Bonds 32 110 8.8 1986 1987 21-22 263 1095 171 236 41 107 119 190 .245 .329 .460 *87/9 PIT
6 Rey Ordonez 31 50 0.9 1996 1997 25-26 271 921 86 206 2 63 40 89 .240 .275 .283 *6 NYM
7 Jason Heyward 30 115 8.7 2010 2011 20-21 270 1079 133 234 32 114 142 221 .255 .362 .427 *9 ATL
8 Ozzie Guillen 30 64 3.4 1985 1986 21-22 309 1090 129 271 3 80 24 88 .261 .278 .333 *6/D CHW
9 Bobby Knoop 30 83 4.4 1964 1965 25-26 304 1051 89 230 14 81 77 210 .242 .301 .330 *4 LAA-CAL
10 Joe Gordon 30 116 9.2 1938 1939 23-24 278 1169 175 278 53 208 131 129 .271 .357 .504 *4 NYY
11 Chris Singleton 29 87 5.4 1999 2000 26-27 280 1096 155 279 28 134 57 130 .277 .314 .435 *8/7D9 CHW
12 Hobe Ferris 29 78 2.9 1901 1902 26-27 272 1100 125 253 10 126 44 102 .248 .283 .365 *4/6 BOS
13 Brett Lawrie 28 127 5.5 2011 2012 21-22 75 305 42 79 12 42 23 54 .288 .353 .500 /*5D TOR
14 Evan Longoria 28 130 11.2 2008 2009 22-23 279 1179 167 286 60 198 118 262 .277 .355 .528 *5/D6 TBR
15 Mark Kotsay 28 89 3.6 1997 1998 21-22 168 680 77 171 11 72 38 68 .271 .313 .390 *9/83 FLA
16 Andruw Jones 28 90 3.3 1996 1997 19-20 184 580 71 115 23 83 63 136 .228 .317 .422 *9/87 ATL
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/11/2012.

So, all of the players ahead of him have at least 3 times as many PAs and 3.5 times as many games. At his current rate and barring injury, Lawrie will be at the top of this list by the end of the year, and probably by a comfortable margin. And, in just a season and a quarter of playing time!

So, how do Lawrie’s fielding runs compare as a rate stat? I’ll use PAs as a measure of playing time and compare to WAR Fielding Runs. Here are the players to accumulate career WAR Fielding Runs of more than 3.5% of PAs (min. 300 PAs).

Rk Player Rfield OPS+ WAR/pos PA From To Age G Rfield% of PAs BA OBP SLG Pos Tm
1 Mark Belanger 240 68 37.6 6601 1965 1982 21-38 2016 3.6% .228 .300 .280 *6/45 BAL-LAD
2 Adam Everett 111 66 10.7 3070 2001 2011 24-34 880 3.6% .242 .294 .346 *6/54D HOU-MIN-DET-CLE
3 Brett Gardner 78 92 14.3 1616 2008 2012 24-28 468 4.8% .265 .355 .368 *78/D NYY
4 Mike Benjamin 78 61 6.1 2124 1989 2002 23-36 817 3.7% .229 .277 .339 654/3D19 SFG-PHI-BOS-PIT
5 Brendan Ryan 68 77 11.4 1928 2007 2012 25-30 566 3.5% .251 .312 .334 *6/4597 STL-SEA
6 Tsuyoshi Shinjo 34 77 3.4 960 2001 2003 29-31 303 3.5% .245 .299 .370 *8/79 NYM-SFG
7 Peter Bourjos 29 99 6.5 806 2010 2012 23-25 219 3.6% .249 .300 .414 *8/D LAA
8 Brett Lawrie 28 127 5.5 305 2011 2012 21-22 75 9.2% .288 .353 .500 /*5D TOR
9 Don Kelly 26 74 2.1 663 2007 2012 27-32 307 3.9% .241 .287 .357 7/5938D6421 PIT-DET
10 Brett Carroll 20 58 1.0 324 2007 2012 24-29 180 6.2% .201 .280 .319 /*978 FLA-MIL-WSN
11 Roy Staiger 19 65 2.1 496 1975 1979 25-29 152 3.8% .228 .274 .300 *5/6 NYM-NYY
12 Kimera Bartee 18 49 0.4 473 1996 2001 23-28 243 3.8% .216 .282 .298 *8/7D9 DET-CIN-COL
13 Brian Bogusevic 13 105 2.2 321 2010 2012 26-28 134 4.0% .257 .335 .405 /978 HOU
14 Casper Wells 13 116 3.2 371 2010 2012 25-27 146 3.5% .259 .327 .461 /*978D DET-TOT-SEA
15 Charles Gipson 13 69 0.6 366 1998 2005 25-32 373 3.6% .237 .311 .327 7/985D64 SEA-NYY-TBD-HOU
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/11/2012.

That 9.2% Rfield per PA kind of stands out, doesn’t it? Nobody else over 6.2% and only one other above 4.8%. Also, it seems you should be named Brett if you want to be a top fielder – the three Bretts on this list have the top 3 scores.

I know what you’re going to say – sample size, sample size, sample size. Most of the players here are active or had only very short careers. And, only the top 2 players on this list had careers of a significant length, so maintaining Fielding Runs at this rate for an extended period isn’t likely. True enough. But, for Lawrie, we’re not talking about having a good week or a good month – it is half a season of everyday work. Is it likely that, playing everyday over that long a period, defensive stats could be so massively skewed from representing true ability? Skewed somewhat, sure – but as much as this appears to be? I guess I’ll let you statisticians out there answer those last two questions.

So, is it a mirage or could we be looking at one of the best defensive third basemen ever? What do you think?

39 thoughts on “Is Brett Lawrie one of the greatest fielders ever?

  1. 1
    John B says:

    Well, I’d like to see him in action.

    Baseball Reference redid it’s WAR calculations – supposedly, they’re more accurate, but I’ve got to imagine there are some kinks to iron out.

    He’s on a pace of 7.3 dWAR/162, through half a season.

    No one in history, at any position, has ever gotten more than 4.

    This would be the equivalent of someone getting to the all-star break with 60 HR.

    • 2
      John B says:

      Err, I guess Darrin Erstad’s 2002 season with 4.2 is the highest? As far as I can tell. My bad.

    • 9
      Doug says:

      “This would be the equivalent of someone getting to the all-star break with 60 HR.”

      Indeed it would. And yet he already has 1.6 dWAR in the bank for one-fifth of this season, the same as he had for his quarter-season’s work in 2011.

      Since he’s playing everyday, hard to imagine that whatever he’s doing now would suddenly just stop. While I too can’t imagine Lawrie could amass 7.3 dWAR, Erstad’s 4.2 mark would certainly seem to be in range.

  2. 3
    Kevin says:

    I wonder how many of those DRS for Lawrie come from the more abundant use of shifts. He’s been by the SS-2B position for Gonzalez and Ortiz, to give a couple of examples.

    • 4
      Neil L. says:

      The Jays are defensively shifting a great deal, Kevin, so there is no doubt his defensive metrics are getting a boost from putouts from short right field. He usually switches over to play between first and second for left handed batters.

      However, that being said, he is incredibly quick on his feet and very mobile to either side. With apologies to poster Timmy Pea, I would describe Brett Lawrie as cat-like in the field.

      Add to his natural athleticism his willingness to get his uniform dirty, and you’ve got a pretty good package defensively.

      There’s no way I would have suspected, Doug, that Lawrie was so high in position WAR.

  3. 6
    Paul E says:

    There is no way humanly possibly Lawrie could be THAT superior a defender unless it is tied to the positional shifts. Give him another 4 1/2 months and if he looks just as outrageously superior to his peers (Beltre, healthy Longoria & Zimmerman), it’s got to be the shift. No?

    • 10
      Doug says:

      The shift may help, but hard to imagine it would account for this much of a disparity. You’re talking about a defensive scheme used for a handful of dead-pull LH hitters – it’s not like that’s going to double your dWAR. And, that’s not even accounting for the fielding opportunities lost when the shift backfires.

      • 22
        Evan says:

        Lawrie has been involved in 10 DPs each season, which works out to 40-50 for a full season (about 1/4 season last year, about 1/5 this season). This seems like a very high number (I looked at Rolen and his best season was 41, but he average in the low 20’s). I’m not sure how the defensive numbers credit DPs, but if he is participating in a few extra because he is essentially playing SS or 2B it could distort the numbers a bit.

  4. 7
    Neil L. says:

    “So, is it a mirage or could we be looking at one of the best defensive third basemen ever?”

    A very intersting question, Doug, in my opinion. I don’t think we can annoint Brett Lawrie as one of the best hot-corner defenders ever, just yet. However, there isn’t much doubt, barring injury, that he will top the position WAR list be the end of the season.

    But neither is it a complete mirage. He benefitted by being good enough at the plate to be an everyday player as soon as he was called up. Also, the Blue Jays pitchers, Romero, Drabek, Morrow and company have been keeping the ball on the ground. The Blue Jays lead the league in GB/FB ratio with 0.98 compared to a league average of 0.81 through last night.

    So circumstances have combined to favour Lawrie as well.

    His triple slash line is matched only by Evan Longoria.

    • 8
      bstar says:

      Neil, real good info on the GB rates of the Jays staff. I’d love to hear more about where exactly Lawrie is playing in this shift. Are you saying that he is actually between the 2B and the 1Bman or between the SS and 2Bman? Were the Jays employing this shift with as much frequency at the end of last year when Lawrie got his start?

      I think astute Jays fans are probably the ones to best ask these questions, so I’d love to hear more from possibly bjstatsgeek or any other Jays fans frequenting this site. I’m extremely intrigued by Lawrie’s high totals, and how he passes the eye test to Jays fans is going to give us some much needed info here.

      • 11
        Doug says:

        Lawrie plays in short right field (about midway between the RFer and the second baseman) and perhaps slightly closer to the foul line than the 2nd baseman. The SS plays up the middle (or even on the right side of 2nd base) and the second baseman is about where he’d be normally for a LH pull hitter.

        I’ve seen Lawrie snag a low liner in that position, and throw out a runner on a hot grounder through the infield. And, he tried to throw out a runner who had hit a little nubber that the catcher threw into right field – could have done it too based on the replay, but the ball slipped out of his hand when he threw.

        • 12
          Neil L. says:

          Thanks, Doug, I read bstar’s comment and was going to reply but was posting in another blog and you beat me to it.

          It would be interesting to see how many assists Brett Lawrie has from his shifted position between 1st and second base.

          I assume that any assists or putouts accumulated by Lawrie in short right field still look, on paper, as if they belong to a person playing third base because it is his defensive position in the lineup.

      • 19
        bluejaysstatsgeek says:

        Sorry, I’m late to the party. I think bstar’s question for me was implicitly answered in the difference between BIS and UZR. The shift was used last year, but it seems they are using it more this year.

      • 21
        bstar says:

        Thanks for the info, guys. If you read the first link Ed listed below, it’s interesting that Lawrie, while getting credit for putouts in short right while the shift is on, is also penalized when someone drops a bunt down into his abandoned territory at third according to DRS. Of course, it seems to me that far too few bunts are being laid down on the shift; Brian McCann has already lost at least 10 hits this year as he’s just blasted away repeatedly into the heart of the right side of the infield. McCann is the new Mark Texeira.

        • 23
          Neil L. says:

          But, bstar, it requires unselfishness and the setting-aside of ego, plus a trust in teammates, to tap one down the opposite way while the shif is on.

          Besides it won’t make the evening television highlight reel of the video gallery!

          • 24
            bstar says:

            Neil, I think the general consensus mindset has always been to go ahead and hit like you normally do in spite of the shift, but it seems here recently it’s been more effective than ever at getting hitters out. McCann, who used to punch balls the opposite way every now and then, has seemed to have become more stubborn than ever about pulling the ball every at-bat. It’s getting ridiculous.

          • 25
            John Autin says:

            Actually, I think McCann bunting up the 3B line for an easy hit would be a popular choice for the highlight reels. “Man Bites Dog” is always news, right?

          • 26
            BryanM says:

            Has anyone here seen Brian McCann run? Are we sure that bunting is a good idea for him if the left fielder cheats in a bit?

      • 30
        Niall says:

        I haven’t seen anyone else mention it, but because he’s so fast, I’ve seen him steal 3 or 4 double plays at least just by running over in front of the SS, Escobar, and making the DP that rightfully would have been Escobar’s play if there were any other 3B in the league over there.

  5. 13
    Neil L. says:

    Lawrie has two assists through three defensive innings tonight.

    • 17
      Doug says:

      And he just saved a run on an ill-advised and offline throw from the catcher on a wild-pitch advancement (though I don’t think that’s going to show up anywhere in his defensive numbers).

  6. 14
    Ed says:

    According to this article, the defense numbers from Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) includes credit for runs saved by the shift. On the other hand, Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) doesn’t. Which might explain why Baseball Reference (which uses BIS) has Lawrie at 2.0 total WAR whereas Fangraphs (which uses UZR) has him at 1.2.

    Comparison of the various WAR systems:

    • 16
      bstar says:

      That’s the exact info I think we were looking for, Ed, thanks. I was about to post something about how Lawrie is not viewed quite so highly by UZR as DRS but you beat me to it.

      • 20
        Ed says:

        Yeah, I just wish fangraphs would show the offense/defense breakdown the way B-Ref does. Would make for an easier comparison.

        • 31
          bstar says:

          Ed, on the main player page at fangraphs, just scroll down to VALUE and it will give the offense/defense/baserunning etc. components of their WAR calculation for that player.

  7. 15
    Neil L. says:

    There are some similarities between Bryce Harper and Brett Lawrie in that they were both much-touted prospects, although Harper was brought to the majors earlier.

    This is to find a reason to point out that Harper had a rough night at the plate, going 0-5 with 3 strikeouts and leaving 5 men on base. I didn’t realize the Nationals had him hitting fifth in their lineup until I looked at the box.

    Ah, well, his batting average is 38 points higher than Albert’s and 50 points higher that Jose’s.

  8. 18
    kds says:

    DRS, the metric now used for the fielding part of brWAR has the AL total to +81 runs when it should add to zero. That is spread over 14 teams, and over 9 positions and more players per team. We don’t know if this is spread randomly or there is some sort of bias that gives certain players extra credit.

    There is strong independent evidence that the Jays have very good defense. (DER) But dividing that between individual players is the hard part.

    An important part of DRS (and UZR) is estimating the likelyhood that each ball in play would be fielded by an average fielder. There seems to be a large increase in use of shifts, maybe even from 2011 to 2012. It may be possible that the lack of experience and past data in shift situations has led to overestimating the difficulty of many plays. Giving too much credit to infielders on teams that shift a lot. Or it could be something completely different.

  9. 27
    MikeD says:

    The general talent evaluation reviews on Lawrie coming up was he an adequate defender, but ultimately might be moved to the OF. So now he’s the greatest fielder ever?

    What I’ve seen of Lawrie says he’s a good defender, but I certainly never have thought once I’m seeing the heir apparent to Brooks Robinson. Of course I don’t completely trust my eyes on these things anymore than I completely trust defensive metrics. Perhaps noise in the machine probably driven by the Blue Jays’ shifts.

    • 28
      Neil L. says:

      He just made an amazing athletic play on barehanding a safety squeeze to the plate to get an out …. and an assist at the plate.

      He was playing deep on the play with runners on 1st and 3rd and one out. The assist looks the same on paper as throwing to first and allowing the run, but it was a good defensive play.

      The next batter flew out to end the inning .

      My point is, I am starting to drink the Kool-Aid. Some of the things Brett Lawrie does do not show up in the box score.

  10. 29
    jariax says:

    We’ve really only had one good defensive third baseman over the years (Scott Rolen) other than J-Mac’s occasional starts there. Lawrie is far superior.

    His first step is a big part of it. He is primed, wanting every ball to be hit to him, and he moves with great instincts. He is the exact opposite of flat-footed.

    His range is the best I’ve ever seen – on both sides. He routinely dives to either side to make plays nobody else comes close to.

    But after he dives, he is back on his feet in 0.3 seconds throwing a bullet to first or second.

    He never double pumps or second guesses. He just gets the ball and throws it, with a very quick release time. I’ve never seen a third baseman start so many double plays before.

    His arm speed is good, although his throws are not laser beams, the way that Rolen threw them.

    He doesn’t throw from his knees, or off-balance or jump in the air while throwing. He always stops and plants, but he is so quick at it, that he really has no need for those other things.

    I think this guy is legit. I mean, he makes Scott Rolen look like a pretty average third basemen.

    • 32
      bstar says:

      Well, jariax, that’s high praise if you’re saying he makes Scott Rolen look pretty average. Have you ever seen Rolen make or attempt the play where he jumps straight up on a high chopper, catches the ball at the apex of his jump, and then fires to first on his way down or right as he hits the ground? I’ve only seen a handful of third basemen even attempt this play, and I’ve got to credit Rolen for inventing it. Has Lawrie ever attempted this?

    • 33
      Neil L. says:

      Jariax, see my post @4 about Lawrie’s quickness.

      • 34
        bstar says:

        Neil, have you ever seen Lawrie attempt the Rolen jump throw play?

        • 35
          Neil L. says:

          Bstar, hey, haven’t directly replied to you in a while.

          I’m not quite sure of the Rolen move you are referring to so I can’t say for sure if I’ve seen Brett Lawrie attempt it.

          But I can endorse most of what jariax has said about Lawrie as a defender @29.

          If Toronto got any kind of television exposure in your great country then the rest of you would get to see him play.

          ESPN and FOX do not know the Blue Jays exist much less the Royals, Pirates or Twins. Only when Darvish is pitching but I digress …..

          • 36
            bstar says:

            Neil, I can’t find a Youtube video of this particular play but it’s one of the more amazing defensive plays I’ve ever seen.

  11. 39

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