Brett Lawrie Doesn’t Like To Think

Brett Lawrie

In the beginning of May, Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie was moved to second base and Juan Francisco played third base in order to keep Francisco’s potent bat in the lineup during inter-league play.  Lawrie made it clear that he was unhappy about the switch and that he sees himself as a third baseman.  The reason?

“I enjoy playing the game when I’m not thinking,” he said. “Second base, you’re worried about double plays, worrying about all these different things, where I’m doing my best (is) when I’m not thinking at all.”

I thought that was a bit of a strange quote at the time, since every position in baseball requires a great deal of thinking on a pitch-to-pitch basis. Perhaps he wasn’t thinking when he made the comment.

In a game against Philadelphia, Lawrie tweaked his hamstring and the position-switch-issue was put to rest… until yesterday.  Lawrie returned to the Blue Jays starting lineup, but Colby Rasmus was on the bench with a tweaked hamstring of his own. Lawrie began the game as a third baseman, but to cover for Rasmus’ absence, Lawrie was moved to second base in the 7th inning.  When asked how he felt about it post-game, Lawrie explained:

“Just go over there and pretend it’s an overshift,” he said. “Just make the play, not think about it.” – Buehrle solid, Bautista and Lawrie go deep to avert sweep, May 20, 2014.

What’s with Lawrie’s reluctance to fire a few neurons in his brain when he’s playing baseball?  He makes it sound like one has to be a rocket scientist to have the brain-power required to play second base with all of “these different things.”  More concerning is the fact that Lawrie professes he’s at his best when he’s not thinking at all.  This implies that the third base position doesn’t require a lot of thinking.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

To a large extent, a player can put his brain into neutral when the opposing team has no runners on base.  Yet with the Blue Jays’ current state of affairs in regard to pitching, this is not often the case.  It’s when runners are on base that a third baseman’s mind has to be at its sharpest.

For instance, if there are runners on first and third and one out, what is the third baseman thinking? Firstly, how fast is the runner?  If it’s a hard grounder, it’s a 5-4-3 double play.  If it’s a line drive? Look to double off the runner at first because the man on third base freezes on anything in the air until it gets through the infield.

If it’s a soft grounder or a hit and run?  If the player at bat is fast, you know you’re not going to turn two.  Look the runner at third back to the bag and make the force at second.  At the very least, get one out.  There’s two out with two runners in scoring position, but it’s better than bases loaded with one out because the hitter beat the throw to first.

A grounder in the hole? It takes the third baseman away from the plate so that he has to throw to second and hope for the double play.  A rocket down the line and you take what you can get, which might just be the runner at first.

Each and every one of these scenarios must be visualized before each pitch.  On top of that, the third baseman has to anticipate where the ball might be hit according to where the catcher sets up and what pitch is thrown.  If you’re not thinking – and Lawrie claims not to – what will you do after you’ve slid hard in the dirt after a ground ball and you’re trying to find the ball in your glove? Do you have time to go through all the scenarios in your head at that point? No.  It’s automatic or it doesn’t get done.

In addition to all those scenarios I just mentioned, there’s an entirely different set of defensive possibilities in the event of a fly ball or a base hit to the outfield.  As well, bespoke defensive positioning for each hitter needs to be taken into account.  Shade a player close to the line? Move toward the shortstop?  It also depends on the pitcher and how well he is performing on any given night.

Often times pitchers will ask the third baseman to position themselves according to their plan of attack.  If the pitcher wants the third baseman to move, he will give him a look or a cue.  This is something the third baseman needs to be aware of before each pitch.

With the count 2-1, for instance, a pitcher will likely throw something in the strike zone.  The hitter knows this and he’s set on crushing it – usually anticipating a fastball inside.  If it’s a right-handed hitter, it’s wise for a third baseman to hug the line.

If the count is 1-2, a hitter is protecting the plate.  If it’s not a pitch that he can drive, he’s trying to get a piece of it, foul it off.  He’ll let the pitch travel further into the strike zone than he normally would in order to avoid the strike out.  Knowing a hitter will be holding back that split second means the third baseman should be shaded toward the shortstop.

But the most important play for a third baseman to master? Knowing when to not make a play. As is often the case with young players, many of Lawrie’s errors have been of the throwing variety.  It usually happens when he gets out of the dirt or off the turf and hurries the throw.  What he should do is eat the ball, but being young (Lawrie is only 24) he sometimes doesn’t know when to concede.  The most important thought a thinking third baseman can have is knowing when to pull the plug.

Even while playing brain dead, Brett Lawrie is already an elite defender and one of the top defensive third basemen in all of baseball.  But how much better could Brett Lawrie be if he put some thought into his play?  The sky is the limit. But with life coaches Brian Butterfield, Omar Vizquel and Mark DeRosa now departed, who will be the one to educate him?

Brett Lawrie, Mark DeRosa
Photo credit: Matt Slocum/AP

Featured image courtesy of Matt Slocum/AP

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  • guest

    This is utter bs. Lawrie plays Third instinctively. He has been drilled into reacting instantly to the various situations that arise. His body is balanced in anticipation of movements characteristic of fielding the position. He could do it blindfolded.
    This is not true of Second. when fielding there he has to make constant positional evaluations which begin with telling himself that he is not a Third.
    Just let the kid play the position he has spent the past three years learning. Move him around and you lose his lightning swift reflex plays and, by demanding movement in accustomed positions ensure that he will muscles or hamstrings.
    The Jays need a good Second Base they have three pretty good candidates. If they move Lawrie to Second they will then need a Third Baseman because Francisco is no more one than EE was.

  • guest

    Ya, this article is a little silly. He’s just saying he is used to playing 3rd and knows how to react to plays instinctively. If you’re too busy thinking how to react to a new situation you may hesitate or take your focus off the ball for a moment.

    • In his professional career, Lawrie has played 269 games at second base and 387 games at third base. So the situation is not exactly new to him.

  • JB

    This article sounds like listening to my wife’s analysis. Get a clue. This is an elite athlete dealing in fractions of a second to make plays. Instinct developed through years of repetition vs. starting that from scratch at the highest level possible is what the guy is failing to articulate. Again elite athlete not a professor.

  • FamousAmazingGuy

    Tell him to think about how much money he’ll make if he can prove himself as both an elite 2B and 3B.

    There is is such a shortage of good players at both positions in MLB that he will be positioned to make a mint come free agency. So many teams will have interest.

  • Evander

    Its all about comfort level. He’s more comfortable playing 3rd so he doesn’t have to think about the plays at that position, he simply reads and reacts to it. When he’s playing 2B, a position where he isn’t as comfortable, he has to actively think about the situation and what hes doing more, rather than just reacting on instinct. You hear coaches say all the time “don’t overthink it” or “keep it simple” which is why Brett prefers 3rd, hes used to that position so he doesn’t have to overthink and his raw athleticism will take over. Saying “he doesn’t like to think” is a gross over-generalization and you’re twisting his words around to make a catchy headline. Great journalism.

    • Evander, reading and reacting is the same as thinking and reacting. Major League Baseball players do not play their positions on auto-pilot, no matter how much raw athleticism they have. Speaking of twisting words around, it’s interesting how Brett’s quote of “Just make the play, not think about it” becomes “don’t overthink it” in your eyes. You’re twisting his words around to fit your premise.

  • AZ

    1. Lawrie is a baseball player, not an English major. As other readers have implied, he probably meant: ‘I play more instinctively at third’. (Which is true. I imagine that “Tinker to Evers to Chance” took a great deal of repetition, both on the practice field and in game conditions.)
    2. Your statement that he “has played 269 games at second base and 387 games at third base” is a journalistic no-no. While strictly speaking accurate, it distorts the discussion by leaving out a salient fact. The vast majority of the games at second were played long ago, and almost all {all?} of the mentoring you mentioned was at third.
    3. And speaking of mentoring, I had hoped that when the Jays took on Vizquel in the twilight of his career, it was with an eye towards hiring him as a roving minor league infield instructor when he retired. Wouldn’t that be a great role for Johnny Mac when he hangs up his cleats?

    • 1. Non-sequiter: appeal to probability. Who are you to say what he “probably” means? That is distortion in and of itself.
      2. The statement was in response to a comment that he was in “a new situation.” He’s been in that situation 269 times before. The timeline of that situation is irrelevant, though he played 131 games at 2B as recently as three seasons ago. The discussion would only be distorted if we were to pretend he had never played the position before. The mentoring at third base has nothing to do with his play at 2B, obviously. Furthermore, this is a blog – not a journal.
      3. Absolutely!

  • Frank Drakman

    Oh, for pity’s sake. First, I’m going to quote Yogi: “I can’t think and hit at the same time!”.
    Next, anyone who’s ever played golf and broken 90 knows exactly what Lawrie means. If you try to THINK about your swing while swinging (‘keep the left arm straight’, ‘don’t move your head’, ‘make sure your left knee points behind the ball’, etc., etc.), you invariably scuff/shank/slice the ball. Your conscious mind is simply too slow to keep up with the body’s speed. So you beat balls on the range until your muscle memory is grooved, and you don’t have to think.
    I’m sure it’s the same for Lawrie, both at the tactical and strategic level. On the great DP he made on Tuesday, I’m certain he didn’t think “dive for the ball!”. By the time he’d formulated that thought, the ball would have been in left. But that’s tactical – what about his strategic reaction? As he explained after the game, he knew that after he’d scrabbled for the ball, he had no chance to get anyone at first, but that Ortiz had to stop to see if he’d caught it. So he went home. He DID think, but it was more a subconscious pattern recognition than a conscious process. And subconscious pattern recognition requires hundreds, if not thousands, of reps. His 2B pattern recognition is rusty, and he has to force himself to think through scenarios that he doesn’t have to do at third.
    Which is what I think he’s complaining about. He’s worked hard at his conversion to 3B, and the set of patterns he must recognize is distinctly different than those he saw at 2B earlier in his career. Because of his youth, his emotional makeup, and his apparent lack of a filter between brain and mouth, he complains about having to switch – sometimes mid-game! – between different roles. Yes, it’s difficult, but Johnny Mac and Marco made it look easy; part of it is experience, part of it is maturity, and Brett is lacking in both. As he gets more experience, I expect that, if pressed into a different role, he’ll accept it more easily.

    • Ohhh Frank. First, he doesn’t have a bat when he’s out on the field playing second base. Fielding and hitting are two very different things. Next, this is baseball and not golf. Apples and oranges. Thinking about the mechanics of your golf swing and baseball defensive strategy are two very different, unrelated things.

      With your comment about diving for the ball and not thinking about it, I get the impression that you read the headline and quote and then didn’t bother to read this post at all. No, you don’t need to think to know you need to dive for a ball that is out of your reach. Where the thinking comes in is when you have to decide what to do with the ball once you have it in your glove.

      Good for him for thinking! Perhaps his self-limiting belief that he can’t handle the thinking involved to play second is false. But, in this instance, he was playing third base. And what he did on the Ortiz double play was exactly the kind of thinking a third baseman needs to do – it’s not instinctive or subconscious. That was a situation he needed to go over in his head before-hand, as written in the above post.

      Finally, I agree with your final thought. Brett is already showing increased experience and maturity – as evidenced by his awareness that he could not nail the runner at 1B on the double play. A younger Brett may not have accepted that reality.

  • CertainKindOfFool

    Agreed, this is a stupid article. Thought, especially in sports depends to a considerable extent on not having to think about large segments of the menial details of activity, in order to concentrate on more complicated and higher order considerations within the game.

    “But for the immense economy in which experience becomes habitual and unconscious, man would have neither the time nor the energy for deliberation.” – A. N. Whitehead