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Like fellow PuRP Reid Humphreys, Justin Lawrence was a two-way player in college. Unlike Humphreys, Lawrence wasn’t really successful at either “way” initially. A lack of game action gave the righty plenty of time to monkey with his motion, including a lowering of his arm slot that improved his fastball’s velocity and life. This success was enough to get Lawrence noticed by the Rockies as a 12th round pick out of a Florida community college in 2015 and earn him a $100k signing bonus.
Thomas Harding of MLB.com has more on Lawrence’s epiphany in a 2015 profile.
Lawrence (who, fun fact, was born in the Panama Canal Zone) did not find immediate success as a pro. In fact, in his professional debut season Lawrence allowed 23 earned runs, 31 hits, and 16 walks in 24 2⁄3 frames between Grand Junction and Boise. For many prospects, that would mean a trip to extended spring training or even a release, but the quality of Lawrence’s stuff was intriguing enough that the Rockies assigned him to Low A to start 2016. In Asheville, Lawrence again produced poor results (7.18 ERA, 5.7 K/9 rate in 36 1⁄3 innings) before getting sent down to Short Season A Boise.
Finally with Boise in a return engagement something clicked. The 6’3” hurler finished with a strong 28 2⁄3 inning stint in the Northwest League with a 2.20 ERA and strong 12.6 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 rates. Given another chance at Asheville in 2017, Lawrence continued his strong form by posting an elite 16 1⁄3 inning stretch where he allowed 3 runs on 10 hits and 4 walks while striking out 20 — that’s a 1.65 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, and 11.0 K/9 rate. Unfortunately, a torn lat muscle ended the season prematurely, but his dominance and stuff got him on the radar of national prospect watchers entering 2018.
Assigned to High A for 2018, Lawrence quickly showed that his 2017 small sample size dominance wasn’t a fluke. Facing the daunting hitter’s haven of Lancaster and the California League, Lawrence renewed his mastery over minor league hitters. In 54 1⁄3 innings, Lawrence compiled 62 strikeouts (10.3 K/9) and 11 saves en route to a 2.65 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and .188 BAA. Yes, the walks were elevated at 4.5 BB/9 and his 3.61 FIP indicated some luck in Lawrence’s results, but a 6.0 H/9 rate is phenomenal especially in that environment. Furthermore, Lawrence demonstrated the ability to pair strong strikeout stuff with extreme ground ball tendencies, as over 63% of his batted balls allowed were on the ground, the 3rd straight year he’d eclipsed that mark.
To put a cherry on top of Lawrence’s 2018, while he wasn’t given the mid-season promotion to Hartford that Humphreys earned, he was selected for the prestigious Arizona Fall League. There he served as a part-time closer for Salt River, allowing 4 runs on 10 hits and 6 walks while striking out 13 over 10 2⁄3 frames. It’s a small sample against other top prospects, but I’ll take the strong K rate even if the results overall weren’t elite. It certainly was enough for the Rockies to protect Lawrence from the Rule 5 draft after the season with a 40 man roster slot despite his zero innings above A ball.
In the below video of Lawrence from the AFL, you can see why it might be very difficult to hit against him:
In their recently posted system overview, Wilson Karaman of Baseball Prospectus ranked Lawrence 12th:
Lawrence got beat in a couple high-profile prospect showcases and ran out of steam a bit by Arizona, but he was absolutely disgusting for most of the year. At his peak he threw a nice stretch of innings in the Antelope Valley summertime elements. He sits in the high-90s with a darting, two-plane slider a dozen mph slower, all out of a twisting, slingshotting delivery that creates a real tough pick-up for righties and a pretty difficult one for lefties too. It was unclear to the naked eye why he never graduated to Hartford last season, but if he brings that stuff with him when he does, he’ll force his way into Colorado’s bullpen development plan this season.
2080 Baseball’s John Eshleman spotlighted Lawrence in May:
The obvious advantage of a side-arm pitcher is the funk; it’s tough for hitters to pick up a low slot that they aren’t used to. In addition to command challenges, the unique angle of a sidearm or submarine pitcher often brings on a corresponding loss in velocity–but not in Justin Lawrence’s case. He pitches from a true side-arm slot, pumping gas up to 98 mph that feels like it’s coming straight at the ear of a right-handed hitter. Needless to say, it’s an uncomfortable at-bat.
The fastball movement was downward, and in my two April looks, Lawrence beat lefties with the heater on the outer-third of the plate. He isn’t pinpoint to spots within the zone, but his velocity, angle, and movement are enough to give him some breathing room in the command department. His fastball plays as plus, with 70 velocity, 60 movement, and 45 command. An 87-to-91 mph splitter dominates A-Ball hitters playing off his fastball, as he’s able to release it through the same tunnel and generate separation and finish on the pitch down in the zone. Lawrence’s splitter is more a chase pitch than one he lands for early-count strikes; how well he’s able to incorporate secondary pitches such that better hitters can’t just sit fastball is the biggest determinant to Lawrence reaching his ceiling.
MLB.com currently places Lawrence 16th in the organization:
Healthy again this year, Lawrence is thriving again thanks to his fastball. Most pitchers don’t throw harder after dropping their arm angle, but he went from a mid-80s heater when he used a more conventional three-quarters slot to working at 92-94 mph and reaching 97 while in junior college. Now he deals at 94-98 mph with premium sink that generates plenty of groundouts.
When Lawrence keeps his sinker down in the zone, hitters have a hard time putting the barrel on the ball. He also throws a short slider in the low 80s and will mix in a decent changeup to counteract left-handers. His control hasn’t been as sharp in 2018 as it was a year ago, but if he can provide more strikes he could advance quickly.
The profile of Lawrence, as is the case with most relief prospects, is headlined by a plus fastball. In Lawrence’s evaluation, the fastball receives a 65 grade but the slider (50), changeup (45) and control (45) grades leave the 24-year old looking a bit one dimensional. At least it’s one heck of a dimension!
Lawrence should begin the year in Double-A and, thanks to his 40 man roster slot and ability to serve as a ROOGY at a Major League level right now, could be a factor for the big league bullpen as soon as this year. Of course, he’ll have plenty of competition for those opportunities as the Rockies already have an over-stuffed pen without even considering any prospect arms. Even with the congestion though, Lawrence is too nasty not to consider an integral future building block for the Rockies, which is why I ranked him 19th on my personal PuRPs ballot with a 40 Future Value as a middle reliever with late inning potential.