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Justin Lawrence swept his way to becoming one of the Rockies’ best relievers

The Lion of Panama was the king of the Rockies’ bullpen jungle thanks in part to his devastating sweeper.

Welcome to the 2023 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at every player to log playing time for the Rockies in 2023. 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. 7, Justin Lawrence: 1.4 rWAR

It’s no secret that Justin Lawrence is a favorite here at Purple Row. With his flowing mane of hair, unique arm slot, and fearless approach on the mound, I’ve taken to calling him “the Lion of Panama.” Said nickname is Justin Lawrence approved.

Justin Lawrence’s career has been defined by a series of important mechanical adjustments. He first debuted for the Rockies in 2021 as a fireballer. His sinker averaged 97.4 MPH and could top out at 102 with a high spin rate, but he had little control over his arsenal. Lawrence had a 10.3 BB/9 and a WHIP of 2.400 over 16 23 innings through 19 with an 8.64 ERA in his rookie campaign.

In 2022, he eased off the gas in exchange for more control and utilized his secondary slider more, helping him cut his BB/9 down to 4.6 and his WHIP to 1.547 as the Rockies began to use him more. He finished the season with an ERA of 5.70 over 42 23 innings and 38 appearances and had become a staple of the Rockies’ late season bullpen.

“The game changes. It’s an ever-changing game,” Lawrence told the Rockies blog in August. “For me, the velo got me here, and then I realized very quickly that you need than just velo. Throwing 100 miles an hour is cool, but if I start every hitter off to 1–0 or 2–1, I’m behind and these guys are the best hitters in the world. So I decided to have two really good pitches instead of trying to focus on three or four. Let me just focus on having two really good pitches and being able to execute them.”

Lawrence continued to make adjustments and tinker with his mechanics over the offseason. He spoke with and researched other pitchers with sidearm deliveries—such as Steve Cishek and Reed—to make use of his unique arm slot. He also made alterations to his pitching movement and positioning during his delivery. Most notably, Lawrence converted his secondary slider into a dominant sweeper.

With up to 14.4 inches of horizontal break and 34.3 inches of vertical drop, Lawrence’s sweeper turned the heads of both pitching analysts and the opposing batters whom he made look foolish.

Lawrence began his 2023 season pitching in the World Baseball Classic for his native Team Panama in the Taichung, Taiwan Pool A round. While Panama didn’t advance after finishing 2-2 in pool play, Lawrence looked impressive by striking out three batters over two scoreless, hitless innings. He also struck out 13 batters in 7 13 spring training innings as he made his way onto the Rockies’ Opening Day roster.

Justin Lawrence turned in the best season of his young career and one of the best performances of the Rockies’ relief corps as one of the team’s main workhorses. His 69 appearances out of the bullpen were the most on the team, and only fellow iron-man Jake Bird threw more innings than Lawrence’s 75 frames.

The first half of Lawrence’s season was All-Star worthy.. Over 38 appearances and 45 23 innings Lawrence held an ERA of just 2.76 with 45 strikeouts and just one home run allowed and 31 total hits. By the break he was already one of the most used relievers in the league by both total innings and appearances. Opposing batters hit just .188/.284/.269 against him during the first half.

Unfortunately, the second half is where fatigue began to set in. Over 31 second half appearances his ERA was 5.22 over 29 13 innings. He still struck out 33 batters but gave up four home runs and 35 hits while opposing hitters were .299/.400/.470 against him.

Lawrence’s drop-off in the second half is understandable considering just how much he was used. The last time he made over 40 appearances during the regular season came in 2018 when he was with the High-A Lancaster JetHawks, where he pitched 55 times. He also hadn’t pitched more than 60 innings since 2016 when he combined for 65 innings across Short Season-A and A-Level ball. He eclipsed both his minor and major league single season usage rates by a mile.

Despite being in the top 25 for relief pitcher appearances with 69 and tied for the ninth-most innings pitched out of the bullpen, Lawrence still finished the season with a career best 3.72 ERA—second best of all Rockies pitchers behind Brent Suter—a 1.347 WHIP, and 78 strikeouts. He walked just 36 batters and had a career low 4.3 BB/9.

Now that Lawrence has cemented himself as a big league reliever, the next step is to replicate the success. Should he do so, the Lion of Panama should be the king of the Colorado Rockies’ bullpen jungle for years to come.