Brett Lawrie represents cautionary tale for Bo Bichette hype

Bo Bichette's hot debut shares a lot in common with Brett Lawrie's. (Ciaran Breen/Getty)
Bo Bichette's hot debut shares a lot in common with Brett Lawrie's. (Ciaran Breen/Getty)

What Bo Bichette has accomplished in the first chapter of his MLB career is nothing short of remarkable.

Bichette has broken a number of records for extra-base hits, established himself as a leadoff option, and looked the part at shortstop, despite a few costly errors. Given his early production and prospect pedigree, there seems little reason to doubt his future as part of the Toronto Blue Jays’ core.

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If you’re a betting person, betting against Bichette from here on out is going against the odds. However, that doesn’t mean he has a 100 per cent chance of being the star he looks like now. In fact, the Blue Jays have an instructive example in their recent history that shows an eye-opening start is no guarantee of future greatness.

That example is Brett Lawrie, and his sizzling stretch run in 2011.

Lawrie was a sensation when he first joined the Blue Jays. Fans had been clamouring for his promotion for much of the season, and he delivered beyond their wildest expectations. The fact he was Canadian didn’t hurt, but he would have been a revelation in Blue Jays land whatever his passport said.

The similarities between the two players are difficult to ignore. Much like Bichette, Lawrie came up at the age of 21, was crushing the ball at Triple-A, and ranked as a top-10 prospect in the game - Lawrie was 10th on Baseball America’s 2011 midseason list, while Bichette was sixth this year. Lawrie also brought an electricity to the game that went well beyond his statistical accomplishments - another quality Bichette has in spades.

It is the statistics, though, that hammer in the resemblance of the two’s early days in the majors:

Via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference
Via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

Bichette’s numbers look better, but he also plays in an era that’s friendly to offence, so numbers that account for the context of the league’s offensive environment have the two almost exactly equal.

If anything, Lawrie had an offensive profile that was easier to believe in. The third baseman had a healthy walk rate of 9.4 per cent, compared to Bichette’s anemic 5.4 per cent. The young Canadian’s strikeout rate was 18.1, just below the then-league average of 18.6. Meanwhile, Bichette has struck out 25 percent of the time, a high number even for this era. Of the 426 players with at least 100 plate appearances this season, Bichette’s 0.22 K/BB ration ranks 369th.

Lawrie also had a reasonable .318 BABIP, while his current-day counterpart is rocking an absurd .400. Due to Bichette’s combination of high exit velocity and impressive wheels, his number should always sit above average, but not by that much.

As a result, Lawrie projected to be a better hitter in 2012 by ZiPS than Bichette does in 2020:

Via FanGraphs
Via FanGraphs

Of course Lawrie didn’t sniff those numbers, hitting a modest .273/.324/.405 with 11 home runs and a 1.9 WAR. In the next four seasons, he never cracked 2.0 WAR - which is the approximate benchmark for an average everyday position player.

The combination of Lawrie’s tale and some gaps in Bichette’s underlying numbers lay the groundwork for a sliver of skepticism about the shortstop’s start. For example, ZiPS projects the rookie to hit .263/.311/.411 from here on out, a line that’s slightly below average by wRC+ (96). Taking the over on that seems like a good call, but it’s a prime example of the disconnect between the growing expectations for Bichette and the cold, hard, data.

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The purpose of making this comparison is not to be dismissive or alarmist about the rookie’s future. When you look at Lawrie and Bichette, the former’s failure to live up to his promise was probably less likely than the latter’s chances of reaching his. In all likelihood, the Blue Jays have a very good player on their hands.

Bichette also has some advantages over Lawrie, like the fact he plays a premium position and the probability his body won’t break down like the former third baseman’s. It’s just worth noting that the Blue Jays have been here before and they didn’t get a foundation star out of the bargain.

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