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Casey Lawrence might be onto something

Casey Lawrence has been tinkering with his approach this spring.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Tampa Bay Rays Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Among the 40 pitchers who made an appearance for the 2017 Seattle Mariners, Casey Lawrence was one of the most unremarkable. Maybe it’s because he was acquired mid-season. Or maybe because he rode the shuttle between Seattle and Tacoma regularly, never spending more than a few weeks with the team until August. It’s probably simply because he posted a 5.57 ERA with a 4.87 FIP in 42 forgettable innings. You’d be forgiven if you missed his name on the inevitable Sporcle quiz asking you to name all 40 pitchers who pitched last year.

You might not have noticed, but Casey Lawrence is having a pretty nice spring training. Although he was a free agent at the end of last season, the Mariners brought him back on a minor league contract and he’s made the most of his second opportunity with the team. In 12 spring innings he’s faced 46 batters and posted an excellent 28.2% strikeout rate and an even more impressive 2.2% walk rate.

And then there was the excellent piece recently written by Shannon Drayer revealing the adjustments Lawrence has been working on this spring. Specifically, he’s varying his delivery by adding a few tricks to help disrupt the batter’s timing, a la Johnny Cueto. For a pitcher like Lawrence who must maximize everything he can out of his limited repertoire, taking advantage of every resource at his disposal is incredibly important.

While it’s almost impossible to determine the concrete effect of varying the timing of a pitch delivery, we do have a ton of other data to pore over. I wanted to see if Lawrence’s repertoire he showed off last year had any kind of solid foundation to build off of. I was surprised to find that he was actually more effective than I initially thought.

Lawrence’s best pitch by a wide margin is his slider. It comes in a little slower than an average slider but the results he’s able to generate off of it are impressive. Opposing batters whiffed 55% of the time they swung at the pitch, a rate 68% better than the league average for sliders. When they did make contact with the pitch, they popped it up 25% of time, a ridiculously high rate for any pitch. Even a single pitch this effective could make him a decent right-handed specialist in the bullpen.

But there might be something more to the deception Lawrence is experimenting with this spring. The closest we can get to actually measuring deception is through pitch tunnels, a concept I explored a little earlier this offseason. In short, effective pitch tunnels reduce the time batters have to recognize and react to different pitch types. We’re really measuring the effectiveness of pitch sequences and that’s a type of deception altogether different from varying a delivery.

Lawrence has two pitch pairs that really stand out from the rest of the pack: his sinker-changeup pair to left-handed batters and his sinker-slider pair to right-handed batters. Remember, the specific measurement I’m using is Pre-Tunnel Maximum Distance (PreMax), defined as, “the distance between back-to-back pitches at the decision-making point.” League average PreMax across all pitch pairs was 1.54 inches and a smaller PreMax value is better.

Here are the three pitch pairs that I want to highlight:

Pitch Tunnel Pairs

Batter Handednes Pitch Pair PreMax Count
Batter Handednes Pitch Pair PreMax Count
RHB Sinker-Slider 1.21 54
LHB Sinker-Changeup 1.09 48
LHB Changeup-Sinker 1.06 37

His sinker-changeup pairing is extremely good. Among all pitchers who threw a sinker and a changeup, his was the second best sinker-changeup pair last season. And it worked both ways, leading with either the sinker or the changeup. Lawrence really struggled against left-handed batters in 2017, but his changeup wasn’t to blame. He allowed just eight hits off the pitch and only one of those went for extra bases. His other pitches were completely annihilated by lefties but at least there’s a foundation for some success here.

Against right-handed batters, his sinker-slider pitch pair was a deadly combo. I illustrated just how effective his slider was above and now we have a little better understanding as to why. But right-handed hitters were still able to demolish this other three pitches. That’s the problem. He has these two weapons he’s able to deploy but his two fastballs just aren’t good enough to help him be truly effective. That’s why all his tinkering this spring is so important. If a little extra deception in his delivery can help his fastballs even a little bit, it’s definitely worth it. His secondary pitches provide a solid foundation to build off of, now he just needs to put it all together.

Lawrence doesn’t currently hold a spot on the 40-man roster which means he’s probably ticketed for Tacoma to start the year. But if this tinkering really takes off and he’s able to show some improvement, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back in the major leagues later this year.