The second inning of Brett Lawrie's big-league debut was supposed to be a microcosm of what to expect from him during his career.
Competing against the Baltimore Orioles in Camden Yards on Aug. 5, 2011 the brash, energetic Canadian singled to centre-field to score Edwin Encarnacion in his first at-bat. But the euphoria quickly receded when he bobbled the first ground ball that was hit to him in the same frame.
Entering the 2011 campaign, the book on Lawrie was that his bat was ready for the big leagues, but his glove wasn't. And given that he wasn't particularly sure-handed in his first two pro seasons as a second baseman and that the Toronto Blue Jays were now shifting him to third base, you could understand this assessment.
"Lawrie has smoothed out some of his rough edges in the field but still must work on making his hands softer, as evidenced by the 25 errors he committed in 131 games at second base last year," says the 2011 Baseball America Prospect Handbook. "Lawrie won't have to be a Gold Glove defender because his bat will get him to the big leagues and keep him there."
Well, that scouting report has proven to be only partially accurate. In 60 major league contests through April 24, Lawrie boasts a .294 batting average, .362 on-base percentage and a .528 slugging percentage, so his bat has been potent as advertised. But the gritty Canuck has surprised many by becoming not just an adequate fielder, but an outstanding glove man.
After making 16 errors in 72 games in the minors in 2011, Lawrie has honed his defensive skills to the point that he has to be considered one of the best fielding third basemen in baseball. The fiery Canadian has combined with fellow infielders Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson and Adam Lind to provide sparkling defence and turn a major league-high 26 double plays this season.
Lawrie's athleticism, arm strength and versatility have also enabled the Jays to employ a series of infield shifts on certain batters. All of this is welcome news for a pitching staff whose workhorses - Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero - are attempting to pitch more to contact.
And this is not just the Lawrie hype machine working overtime, as it's wont to do these days. The sparkplug third baseman's numbers clearly indicate that he has evolved into one of the best at his position.
Disregard traditional stats
For a true appreciation of Lawrie's defensive prowess, you have to disregard traditional statistics like errors and fielding percentage. Influenced by the decisions of official scorers, fielding percentage fails to account for a player's range.
Aggressive in the field, Lawrie moves to his left as well as any infielder in the game, so statistics like fielding percentage and errors almost punish him for getting to balls that less agile fielders can't touch.
Range Factor per Game (RF/G) is a statistic that helps illustrate how many more balls Lawrie gets to than the average third basemen. This statistic adds the number of putouts and assists a player records and divides them by the number of games they play. Canadian statistician Neil Munro points out that in 43 games last season, Lawrie's RF/G was a jaw dropping 3.67. Just how good was this?
This was the best single-season RF/G by a third baseman (who has played at least 10 games) since Clete Boyer registered a 3.68 RF/G in 1966. The league average RF/G for a third baseman in 2011 was 2.60. And if you've witnessed Lawrie's highlight-reel plays this April, you won't be surprised that he owns a lofty 3.41 RF/G this season.
A statistic that many sabremetricians believe is the best total measure of a player's defensive contributions is called Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). This all-encompassing statistic attempts to quantify how many runs a player saves their team through their defensive performance. The player's range, how many double plays they have been involved in and how many errors they have made are among the criteria factored into the formula.
Because Lawrie has only suited up for 60 big-league contests, the UZR/150 stat - which projects what a player's UZR rating would be over 150 games - should be employed to evaluate his defensive performance and compare it to his contemporaries. FanGraphs, one of the most respected baseball statistics sites, indicates that a UZR score of 15 or above represents Gold Glove-calibre defence.
Lawrie's UZR/150 in 2011 was 15.7, just below that of American League Gold Glove third baseman Adrian Beltre (17), but above that of vaunted defenders like Evan Longoria and Jack Hannahan. And Lawrie has been even better in the field this season. Through April 24, his 2012 UZR/150 is a phenomenal 29.8.
So while Lawrie continues to dazzle us with his bat, it's easy to forget that he wasn't expected to be more than an adequate defensive third baseman.
But his adeptness in the field has proven Baseball America and many other baseball pundits wrong. It looks as though Lawrie could very well earn a Gold Glove in the near future.
Do you have improvements to suggest for this page?