There’s no doubt that Colorado Rockies reliever Justin Lawrence has come a long way. Once a rookie getting sporadic playing time with the big league club, Lawrence has developed into one of the Rockies’ most used and most useful bullpen arms. With a worn down and beleaguered rotation, Lawrence has been turned to often out of the Rockies’ bullpen. He’s pitched the fifth most relief innings in MLB at 38 and is tied for ninth in appearances with 31 so far. He and fellow teammate Jake Bird have pitched the most innings of relief for the Rockies and it’s not particularly close.
Justin Lawrence made his MLB debut in 2021 as a fireballer with scorch-your-eyebrows-off velocity on his sinker. With a high spin rate and an average velocity of 97.4 MPH, Lawrence’s heater could top out at 102 MPH. However, he couldn’t control the firepower. Lawrence had a 10.3 BB/9 and a WHIP of 2.400 as he walked 19 batters in 16 2⁄3 innings over 19 appearances. He also had difficulty consistently placing his secondary slider.
Lawrence made adjustments.
He eased up on the throttle, sacrificing a few ticks of velocity on his sinker in exchange for better command. He didn’t just shave a few points off his BB/9, he cut it more than in half. Lawrence’s 2022 BB/9 went all the way down to 4.6, and he also saw improvements in his H/9 and SO/9. Lawrence’s mechanical changes also resulted in more movement on his pitches. His sinker gained more vertical break while his slider gained more horizontal break.
Although Lawrence spent a large part of the 2022 season being frustratingly optioned to and recalled from Triple-A Albuquerque multiple times, he ended the season as one of the Rockies most used relievers. From August through the end of the season Lawrence was called upon from the bullpen 22 times, cementing himself as a big league pitcher.
However, there was still work to be done. While he was turning in quality performances during low and medium leverage situations, Lawrence could struggle with his situational pitching and high leverage outings.
Lawrence made adjustments.
Speaking with Ryan Spilborghs on an episode of The Club—AT&T Sports’ weekly Rockies show—Lawrence detailed his mechanical adjustments. He has altered his pitching movement and positioning based on researching and talking to other sidearm pitchers across the league.
His most noticeable change has been slider, which he converted into an absolutely devastating sweeper. With up to 14.5 inches of horizontal break and 33.4 inches of vertical drop, Lawrence’s sweeper is capable of making opposing batters look silly. He also utilizes it much more often, forming more of a right jab, left hook combo rather than having a primary and secondary pitch.
Lawrence has also seen more use in high leverage situations, in which he is finding success. Where he struggled in his first two seasons, he is now thriving. Lawrence is the Rockies’ most turned to pitcher in late and close game situations. Defined by Baseball Reference as “Plate Appearances in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck,” Lawrence has seen 96 late and close plate appearances. In these plate appearances, Lawrence is holding opposing batters to a line of just .173/.280/.259 with 24 strikeouts to 11 walks. He is similarly dominating batters in overall high leverage situations, much more-so than either of his previous two seasons.
Justin Lawrence High Leverage Performance, 2021-2023
Lawrence has excelled in high leverage situations and is being turned to more in those situations in return. Often coming on with inherited runners in close ballgames, his ability to get out of jams or stop the bleeding can’t be ignored. He has inherited 19 runners so far this season and allowed only one to cross the plate, giving him a league best 5.3% of inherited runners scored. We saw him come in with the bases loaded and no outs on June 7th against the San Francisco Giants where he worked three extremely difficult outs. We saw him do it again on June 13th against the Boston Red Sox where he shut down the inning with runners on second and third with no outs.
Because of his ability to pitch in single inning high leverage situations this season, I think Lawrence is more suited than perhaps anyone else to take over the mantle of closer with Pierce Johnson removed from the role. Should Daniel Bard not take his spot back, the Rockies should seriously consider handing Lawrence the ball in the ninth.
Even if he isn’t the closer, we have seen Justin Lawrence adjust and develop every season of his career to become the pitcher we see today. The “Lion of Panama,” with his unique arm action, long mane of hair, and ability to fearlessly navigate out of difficult situations makes him a vital member of the Rockies bullpen.
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MLB.com’s minor league writer Sam Dykstra takes a look at the best draft picks of 2022 for each MLB team so far. For the Rockies he chooses 3B/OF Sterlin Thompson with the High-A Spokane Indians. If not for missing most of May due to injury, Thompson would qualify to have the best batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in the Northwest League.
We’re all still riding high on the Denver Nuggets winning their first NBA Championship over their 47-year history. Aaron Hurt over at Call to the Pen breaks down four quick lessons the Rockies can learn from their neighbors at Ball Arena.
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On the Farm
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