Lawrie Embraced The Need For Change
Brett Lawrie's intensity has never been in question. But this year, everything else was.
Blue Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola had wanted to fix Brett Lawrie "for years."
The new-look Lawrie we've seen at the plate for several weeks wasn't a knee-jerk reaction to a miserable first half of the season which saw him enter the break batting a paltry .204 with a .273 wOBA, and 23% strikeout rate. To be sure, his slump certainly provided the opportunity, but Mottola knew for quite some time that this day would eventually come.
Mottola said he needed Lawrie to be a willing participant, though, and ultimately needed him to fail -- something that, for the most part, was foreign to the third baseman throughout his professional career. Once both happened, the teacher-student pair devised a new stance that has Lawrie standing more upright in the box, looking more comfortable, and with less hand action as he awaits a pitch. Lawrie's stance makeover now includes less body movement as he gears up to hit, with his hands brought in closer to his body.
When undertaking a change so significant, Mottola said getting positive early results buy the hitting coach trust because the batter immediately believes in what's being taught to him. Change doesn't always bring immediate returns, but when it does, it makes the instructor's job easier. It helps the player eliminate doubt.
Mottola was quick to point out, however, that this isn't all about a mechanical change. And the new stance isn't necessarily the reason Lawrie -- hitting .336 with a .397 wOBA and strikeout rate down to 10.1% in the second half -- is swinging the bat the way he is. Incorporating a more measured approach has been as big a factor as any.
"It's the one part of the game that gets overlooked a lot," Mottola said. "Everybody wants to talk mechanics, but sometimes pitchers can do stuff to you that has nothing to do with your mechanics. Having a game plan and an approach really helps that.
"The basis is just relax when you get in the box. Sometimes you want to be so jumpy that you are going to swing no matter where the pitch is at."
To Mottola's point, Lawrie was pressing at the plate for the first half of the season, and Toronto's hitting coach firmly believes two stints on the disabled list -- the first of which zapped into his spring training -- are a result of that. Lawrie was trying to get comfortable while his peers were already there. He was facing pitchers who had knocked the early-season rust off their arms, while he was still bringing his to the plate with him.
That tension continued to build, and finally got to a point where Lawrie was ready for change.
Part of that change meant much more than the early work he was doing on the field with Mottola before games, and more than the extra reps he would take in the cages behind closed corridors. It meant seeking out more experienced hitters on the team for help, something Lawrie hadn't done before.
"[Brett] and Edwin [Encarnacion] are talking game plans of what a pitcher tries to do to right-handed hitters," Mottola said. "He has really welcomed that and taken that to heart, and listened to a veteran guy who has figured it out later in his career. He wants to learn early so he can get ahead of the curve."
SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE
Lawrie and Mottola formed a bond starting in 2011 at Triple-A Las Vegas, a team Lawrie raked on before forcing his way up to the big club. Mottola was Las Vegas' hitting coach and back then there wasn't much to tell Lawrie, he said.
When a hitter is as hot as Lawrie was -- and that continued with the Blue Jays to close out 2011 -- you let him do his thing.
Lawrie was one of the most hyped prospects the Blue Jays had graduated to the big leagues in recent years and was seen by many as one of the game's rising stars. The Milwaukee Brewers' 2008 first-round draft pick possessed loads of talent and, initially, he leveraged that into results.
Mottola knows all about talent -- he had plenty of it himself. He was supposed to be a star, but the No. 5 overall pick in the 1992 draft wound up playing in just 59 major league games over parts of five seasons. Like Mottola, Lawrie's athleticism carried him a long way. But, like Mottola said, "there are a lot of good guys and a lot of good athletes here, and you can't just rely on athleticism anymore."
Mottola said Lawrie is beginning to mature as a player.
"The game has taught him a lot. It's one of those things, you can preach it all you want, but when you never fail, sometimes you have to learn how to learn.
"At the beginning, he didn't know how to learn because he never failed. So now it's one of those things where we are seeing the progression."
A lot was expected of Lawrie, especially after he hit .293/.373/.580 with 21 extra-base hits in his first 43 major league games. Going into the 2012 season, expectations were, in many respects, too high for a player that had only had a cup coffee at the big-league level. And after his slow start this season, the doubters started to emerge.
But Mottola never lost sight of the fact Lawrie is a 23-year-old who has yet to complete two seasons in the majors. The growing pains he has experienced are normal.
"There are a select few, probably a handful ever, that don't have to learn how hard this game is," Mottola said. "It's one of those things as coaches you understand, if you played before, until they fail, they shouldn't have to listen. The game kind of dictates that timeline."
Lawrie was brought back down to earth this season. It isn't to say that Lawrie thought he had it all figured out, but the British Columbia native didn't feel the pressure to change early on because he hadn't truly experienced failure. Hitting .273/.324/.405 in 2012 with elite defense at third base -- as disappointing as many felt last season was -- didn't quite signal the need for major change.
The results this year, however, did.
"I think the game kind of humbled him a little bit," Mottola said. "He just wasn't feeling right. It was time for him to change and he welcomed it this time."
Mottola praised Lawrie for his teachability, adding that he's an easy guy to work with. He said Lawrie wants to be the best and his work ethic has never been called into question.
"He has always been great," Mottola said. "His personality, I'll take that all day. Sometimes he is a little overanxious, but you would rather have it that way.
"There is a trust going in, so I am kind of ahead of the game because he knows where I'm coming from. We already have that relationship where it's a lot easier to say things to him when sometimes his personality is a bit guarded."