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Brett Lawrie’s defensive pride and baseball’s ongoing quest to quantify defence

Brett Lawrie (Getty)Brett Lawrie knows the importance of good defence.

Believe it or not, there was a time when he was a defensive vagabond, a time when defence was identified as his biggest baseball weakness. He was drafted as a catcher, then made a second basemen by the Brewers, and then was subsequently shifted to third base when he was acquired by the Blue Jays before the 2011 season.

It's hard to believe he's only been playing the position for three years when you watch him make plays like this on a regular basis.

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"I work very hard on my defence. Everyone said that I didn’t have a spot coming up through the minor leagues, that I didn’t have a position," said Lawrie. "I take a lot of pride in my defence."

Through the tangible ups-and-downs at the plate and intangible battles with "maturity" and injuries, since arriving in Toronto just over two years ago Lawrie has established himself as one of the league's best with the glove.

Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Range Factor, and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) top the list of advanced statistics trying to quantify defensive value beyond the traditional means. They're beginning to gain a little traction beyond the fringe but there's a long way to go before they reach the mainstream fan or the everyday major league player.

"I don’t know anything about them," said Lawrie. "Obviously they’re there for a reason but I don’t look too much into that. I just look at the point of the game and what’s going on, making the routine play. I let the numbers work themselves out and at the end see how it all stacks up."

The formulas are complex and admittedly still imperfect but their objective is sound and simple. These stats seek to reveal a player's true defensive impact by putting a number on run prevention.

A player's range is not properly reflected using the standard fielding percentage. Fielding percentage treats every play like they're equal. UZR and DRS attempt to provide more information on a player's defensive performance by taking into account where the play was made.

It's the main reason why Lawrie rates well with the advanced metrics - his superior range allows him to get to more batted balls than many other third baseman. It's not a coincidence that the Blue Jays' much talked about defensive issues early in the season weren't nearly as topical when Lawrie and shortstop Jose Reyes were on the field together.

"I love playing beside Jose Reyes. Him and I cover a lot of ground between each other," said Lawrie. "I have fun doing it too because it takes hits away from teams."

Making a key defensive play can have the same impact as a big hit. Run prevention isn't held in the same regard as offensive production because it's more difficult to quantify, even though it plays just as important a role on any given game. A run saved is worth just as much as a run scored.

On the technical level, teams are getting smarter when it comes to defence with the use of defensive shifts becoming increasingly more common around the league.

"It’s one of those things for me that I know when I go out there that I know that any ball that is hit around me or to me I’m going to pick it up and try to make a play," said Lawrie.
"Different situations of the game dictate what happens on defence. The big thing is just taking care of the baseball."

Just like hitting, there's an art to playing the field and fielding your position.

"I like seeing good plays. Evan Longoria is a great third baseman, he’s smooth," said Lawrie. "I like watching certain things about guys and how they go about their game."

This isn't an issue exclusive to baseball. Every sport tends to favour its offensive stars. It's sort of like comparing money earned against money saved. Both are equally important but its the former that captures our attention and is easier to equate to success.

He may not know anything about them, but Brett Lawrie is one of the poster-boys for baseball's defensive statistical revolution, and with good reason.

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