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Justin Lawrence has found his big league form

Colorado Rockies news and links for Thursday, April 21st, 2022

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It’s been a difficult stretch for hard-throwing Panamanian righty Justin Lawrence. A highly-touted pitching prospect who threw straight gas via a sidearm delivery, Lawrence entered 2019 with high expectations. He made 38 appearances across Double-A Hartford and Triple-A Albuquerque while getting roughed up to the tune of an 8.76 ERA.

“This last year was a tough year for him,” Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black told the Denver Post after the season. “He was coming off a great deal of momentum in 2018 with the second half of that season, the Arizona Fall League, being in big league camp for the first time, being on the radar with a lot of talk around the industry about his arm and about his stuff. The performance he put out there is not what he’s capable of.”

Instead of being able to bounce back from a tough season, Lawrence found himself facing an 80-game suspension after testing positive for a performance enhancing drug called DHCMT. He adamantly denied the use of PEDs, and believes his positive test was the result of a tainted athletic supplement. Lawrence served out his suspension while reflecting on his future and putting in the work to improve his pitching artistry before being reinstated in September of 2020.

“What’s important right now is using this time as an opportunity to make sure I come out of this thing as the best teammate, player and person that I can be,” Lawrence said. “I have the organization in my corner, and they’re working around their schedules to make sure I’m getting in my live B.P., my simulated games and everything I need to stay ready.”

Lawrence had an excellent spring training in 2021, posting an ERA of 2.16 over nine appearances and 8 13 innings. He struck out six batters, but walked five. He wasn’t selected for the Rockies’ Opening Day 26-man roster and began the year with the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes, but would quickly get his call. Lawrence made his big league debut on April 29th, 2021 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he pitched a scoreless frame with a strikeout but also gave up a walk and a hit.

He spent the rest of the season’s first half bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the Rockies with less than positive results. After July 27th he remained in Albuquerque for the rest of the season barring one final appearance on September 1st. His first big league season ended with an ERA of 8.64 in 19 appearances and 16 23 innings.

The key components of Lawrence’s struggles is that he gives up a lot of contact and issues a lot of walks. Lawrence’s high spin rate sinker fastball in 2021 had an average velocity of 97 mph and topped out at a scorching 102 mph. The issue was that he couldn’t keep it in the strike zone... and when he did it would frequently get hit for contact. He also had trouble consistently placing his slider.

Justin Lawrence 2021 pitch distribution and location
Image courtesy of Baseball Savant

Across six years in the Rockies organization and 10 stints across varying levels, Lawrence had an H/9 over 10.0 five times and a BB/9 over 3.0 seven times. His first big league action saw him post a career high BB/9 and an H/9 over 10.

Justin Lawrence 2015-2021

Year Team G IP ERA H ER HR BB SO H/9 BB/9 SO/9 HR/9
Year Team G IP ERA H ER HR BB SO H/9 BB/9 SO/9 HR/9
2015 ROK Grand Junction 6 5.2 9.53 10 6 1 1 3 15.9 1.6 4.8 1.6
2015 A- Boise 16 19.0 8.05 21 17 3 15 15 9.9 7.1 7.1 1.4
2016 A- Boise 23 28.2 2.20 27 7 0 6 40 8.5 1.9 12.6 0.0
2016 A Asheville 26 36.1 7.18 48 29 4 14 23 11.9 3.5 5.7 1.0
2017 A Asheville 16 16.1 1.65 10 3 1 4 20 5.5 2.2 11.0 0.6
2018 A+ Lancaster 55 54.1 2.65 36 16 2 27 62 6.0 4.5 10.3 0.3
2019 Double-A Hartford 30 26.2 8.78 35 26 1 20 26 11.8 6.8 8.8 0.3
2019 Triple-A Albuquerque 8 10.1 8.71 12 10 3 9 6 10.5 7.8 5.2 2.6
2021 Triple-A Albuquerque 31 32.1 4.73 32 17 3 12 30 8.9 3.3 8.4 0.8
2021 MLB Rockies 19 16.2 8.64 21 16 0 19 17 11.3 10.3 9.2 0.0
Emphasis on H, BB, H/9, and BB/9. Stats retrieved from Baseball Reference.

Lawrence again didn’t make the Opening Day roster in 2022, being assigned back to Triple-A Albuquerque after spring training. However, he found himself with the Rockies on Opening Day as a COVID replacement. This sudden change ended up being a boon for not just Lawrence, but for the Rockies bullpen as well.

Justin Lawrence appears to have found his major league form early in the 2022 season, and he’s done it by making veteran adjustments barely removed from his rookie status. What he’s done is ease off the gas in exchange for more control. The average velocity on his sinker has dropped to 94.8 mph and tops out around 96/97 mph, though he can still reach into his back pocket for some “burn-your-eyebrows-off” velocity if he needs it. Thanks to this adjustment he’s locating his sinker much better. He’s also started the season throwing his whippy slider much more frequently. In 2021 he threw the slider 35% of the time. So far in 2022 he’s throwing it 50.5% of the time.

Justin Lawrence 2022 pitch distribution and location
Image courtesy of Baseball Savant

It’s clear that Lawrence’s adjustments are paying dividends. In an admittedly small sample size, his exit velocity is down from 91.2 mph to 83.8 mph, and his hard hit percentage is down from 42% in 2021 to just 20%. His sinker is showing more vertical movement while his slider is showing more horizontal movement. He’s getting barreled less, hitters are getting a worse launch angle, and he’s generating more swings and misses. As he finds his pitches in the zone more frequently, his first pitch strike and first pitch swing percentages have jumped up, and when he’s out of the zone opposing batters are biting more.

Justin Lawrence is tied with Daniel Bard and Tyler Kinley for most appearances at six. He’s pitched the second-most innings out of the bullpen with seven. The Rockies are seeing the newfound reliability of their young reliever and are capitalizing on it. Lawrence is one of just five pitchers on the Rockies staff to have allowed just one or less earned run. His 1.29 ERA is third-best on the pitching staff. The walks are still coming with four, but a BB/9 of 5.1 is already an improvement and can still get lower. Meanwhile he’s getting hit far less. His three hits are the fewest of the Rockies pitching staff, contributing to his 3.9 H/9.

Justin Lawrence lucked into a fresh big league opportunity this year, but his adjustments and poise might just mean he’s here to stay. It’s been a long and difficult journey, but Justin Lawrence the reliable major league reliever has arrived at last.

★ ★ ★

MLB adjusts rules on controversial PED: ‘The world of anti-doping scientists really needs to figure this out’ | The Athletic ($)

The ratification of the new CBA also saw changes to the Joint Drug Agreement , specifically in regards to the PED known as DHCMT or Oral Turinabol. This is the PED that Colton Welker and Justin Lawrence were suspended for. However, players and their agents are confused as to what exactly the changes are while both the league and MLBPA have been tight lipped. Virtually every player suspended for DHCMT use has adamantly denied wrongdoing. I explored the flaws of the previous JDA in regards to DHCMT when Welker was suspended. You can find that article here.

★ ★ ★

On The Farm

Triple-A: Round Rock Express 14, Albuquerque Isotopes 1

The Isotopes performed poorly on each side of the ball. Offensively they were held to just one run on three hits by Scott Schebler, Carlos Pérez, and Taylor Snyder. The lone RBI was a sacrifice fly by Jonathan Morales. Starting pitcher Matt Dennis gave up 9 earned runs on ten hits with a walk in just two innings of work. For the most part the bullpen held tough for six more innings, though Logan Cozart gave up two earned runs on a home run, Julian Fernández yielded one earned run on a home run, and Jordan Sheffield was dinged for two unearned runs due to a fielding error and a home run.

Double-A: Somerset Patriots 5, Hartford Yard Goats 4

The Yard goats left 10 runners stranded while going 5-for-17 with RISP, all while losing to a team that also left 10 stranded and went 2-for-12 with RISP. Starter Mitchell Kilkenny lasted just two innings, giving up two runs on two hits including a home run while walking three. Will Gaddis gave up another two runs on three hits with two walks. On the bright side, Michael Baird, Dugan Darnell, and Blair Calvo all had strong outings. Baird pitched three innings while giving up just one run—a home run— and striking out seven. Darnell struck out three over two innings, and Calvo struck out two in one inning. Isaac Collins, Coco Montes, Brenton Doyle, and Jameson Hannah all had multi-hit games. Willie MacIver walked twice in a 1-for-3 night.

High-A: Spokane Indians 2, Hillsboro Hops 0

Strong pitching from the Indians carried them to victory. Starting pitcher Mike Ruff pitched six scoreless innings on six hits while striking out six batters. Jared Biddy worked two scoreless innings in relief while allowing one hit. Undrafted free agent Luke Taggart continued his impressive start to the season with his fourth appearance. Taggart struck out three batters in his inning of work to earn his first save. The Indians scored just two runs despite nine hits. Eight of the nine starters had a hit, while Zac Veen went 2-for-4 with two doubles. Third baseman Ben Sems hit his first professional home run.

Low-A: Lake Elsinore Storm 8, Fresno Grizzlies 6

Starting pitcher Case Williams allowed five runs on four hits in four innings of work. He struck out six and walked three. Noah Gotsis is credited with the loss after a 2 13 inning relief appearance where he yielded two runs (one earned) on a hit and two walks. Hunter Goodman and Juan Guerrero were both 2-for-4, and Guerrero had two RBIs. The star of the offense was Benny Montgomery, who had a 3-for-5 night with two RBIs without striking out. The Grizzlies made a final push for victory in the bottom of the ninth. Four singles in the final frame plated a run and had the bases loaded. Braxton Fulford was called out on strikes and Juan Guerrero flew out on two pitches to end the game.

★ ★ ★

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