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Justin Lawrence cemented his big-league foundation and now must build on it

The Lion of Panama finally got consistent big-league innings and shows great promise if he can continue to improve, adapt, and adjust.

Welcome to the 2022 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at every player to log playing time for the Rockies in 2022. The purpose of this list is to provide a snapshot of the player in context. The “Ranking” is an organizing principle that’s drawn from Baseball Reference’s WAR (rWAR). It’s not something the staff debated. We’ll begin with the player with the lowest rWAR and end up with the player with the highest.

★ ★ ★

No. 35, Justin Lawrence: -0.2 rWAR

It’s been a long road to get there but Justin Lawrence—whom I have affectionately nicknamed “The Lion of Panama” for his mane of long hair and fearless pitching style—can say without a doubt that he’s a big-league pitcher. In 2021, Lawrence made 19 appearances over 16 23 innings with the big-league club, but spent most of his season with Triple-A Albuquerque. This year, Lawrence doubled his appearances and almost tripled his innings with the Colorado Rockies. He pitched 42 23 innings over 38 appearances.

After Lawrence pitched six innings during spring training with a 4.50 ERA, one home run allowed, five strikeouts and just one walk, he unexpectedly did not make the Opening Day roster. However, when COVID swept through the clubhouse before the season began, Lawrence found himself on the Opening Day roster after all.

Justin Lawrence Pitching 2022

April 8 - May 6 11 12.1 2.19 3.19 9 3 3 10 16 0
May 17 - July 28 5 5.1 13.50 5.18 10 8 8 4 7 1
August 17 - October 3 22 25.0 5.76 3.11 25 16 16 8 25 2
Season 38 42.2 5.70 3.39 44 27 27 22 48 3

Justin Lawrence pitched very well from April 8th to May 6th, posting a 2.19 ERA and 3.19 FIP over those 11 appearances. I spoke very highly of him at the time, praising the adjustments he had made over the offseason and how much he was contributing the Rockies bullpen. Notably he had turned down the velocity on his high-spin sinker in favor of better command. His walks, hits, ERA, exit velocity, and hard hit percentage were all down compared to last season. He was also seeing move movement on both his sinker and slider while locating them better.

That’s why it was so confusing when the Rockies optioned Lawrence to Triple-A on May 8th. At the time he was one of the Rockies’ best and most reliable relievers alongside Daniel Bard and Tyler Kinley. However, for the next few months Lawrence was optioned and recalled five times, reaching the single season option limit established in the new CBA. If the Rockies had optioned him one more time this season he would have had to clear waivers. Over the next few months he fell victim to inconsistent use — only pitching 5 13 innings and giving up eight earned runs from May 17th to July 28th.

Lawrence pitched very well in Triple-A, showing he has very little left to prove at that level. In 28 appearances and 29 13 innings with the Isotopes, he had an ERA of 3.07 and struck out 49 batters while walking just 13 and giving up only two home runs in the hitter-friendly PCL.

Lawrence was recalled again on August 13th. The Rockies would have to keep him on the active roster for the rest of the season or risk him being claimed on waivers if they optioned him again. The Rockies not only kept him on the roster, but also turned to him out of the bullpen more than almost every other reliever from August 17th through the end of the season Lawrence sat atop the bullpen with 22 appearances — only veteran workhorse Carlos Estévez had as many appearances during that time.

Rockies End-of-Season Reliever Usage

Pitcher August September/October Total
Pitcher August September/October Total
Justin Lawrence 6 16 22
Carlos Estévez 13 9 22
Jake Bird 10 10 20
Daniel Bard 9 10 19
Dinelson Lamet 8 11 19
Austin Gomber 6 6 12
Alex Colomé 6 6 12
Chad Smith 1 11 12
Lucas Gilbreath 10 0 10
Robert Stephenson 8 0 8
Gavin Hollowell 0 6 6
Ty Blach 1 5 6
Jhoulys Chacín 1 2 3
Noah Davis 0 1 1
Jordan Sheffield 1 0 1

For most of Lawrence’s 22 appearances he kept an ERA below 5.00, but two difficult outings in late September caused his ERA to bloat. On September 24th he gave up four earned runs in 23 of an inning, and on September 28th he gave up three earned runs in 13 of an inning. Until that point he had been pitching very well. From August 17th through September 22nd Lawrence had an ERA of 3.92 in 16 appearances and a FIP of 3.21 through 20 23 innings. He struck out a whopping 21 batters with just six walks. Lawrence also finished the season strong with three-straight scoreless outings. He earned his first-career save in his final appearance of the season on October 3rd against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Justin Lawrence has cemented his big-league status after what was essentially an extended rookie season. He’s seen major improvements come with mechanical adjustments and experience. Now he needs to build upon the foundation he’s laid for himself. If Lawrence continues to make adjustments and improvements he could become a great reliever for years to come.

★ ★ ★

Be on the lookout for Justin Lawrence in the 2023 World Baseball Classic! Lawrence has committed to pitching for his native Panama in March. Panama won in the Panama City Qualifiers to join the main tournament as part of Pool A in Taichung, Taiwan!