Justin Lawrence Ready for a Strong 2024 Season

Justin Lawrence of the Colorado Rockies warming up prior to pitcher workouts.
(Photo by Evan Thompson/Sport Relay)

Justin Lawrence Ready for a Strong Season

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (Feb. 15) — Colorado Rockies reliever Justin Lawrence comes into Spring Training 2024 on a mission to dominate from start to finish. With the injury to Daniel Bard, he is among the candidates to be the closer, a role he had for a while in 2023. When he was in good form, he was a tough puzzle for hitters to solve. If he can make that form permanent in 2024, he will solve one of the Rockies’ biggest struggles from 2023 — relief pitching, especially in late innings.

A Great Start to the Season

Justin Lawrence had some dominant stretches in 2023. On August 14, he closed out a 6–4 Rockies comeback victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks by striking out Christian Walker, Kyle Lewis, and Jace Peterson in a 1-2-3 ninth. His stat line was one of the strongest among National League closers. In 50 appearances, Lawrence tossed 58 2/3 innings with a 2.76 ERA (55 ERA-minus), keeping his opponents from scoring an earned run in 39 of the 50 appearances (78%, nine points better than league average). Additionally, he had 61 strikeouts, 26 walks, and a 1.108 WHIP. His percentages were strong, with a 25.4 K%, 10.8 BB%, 14.6 K–BB%, and 1.3 HR%. He rarely allowed inherited runners to score up to that point — 7% (2-of-29), well below the season-long NL average of 32%.

Prior to that game, then-teammate Brent Suter spoke to Sport Relay about Lawrence. Suter mentioned that Lawrence has “great energy” and is a “funny guy,” but when he entered a game, he was “a different animal.” Suter specifically mentioned Lawrence’s ability to prevent inherited runners from scoring.

Nasty Pitches

It all came from an increase in command, conviction, and the ability to compete. “Every pitch, he believes in,” Suter said. “He’s got some of the nastiest splits. One (pitch) goes this way, another goes this way — it’s crazy.” As he described the movement of the pitches, he moved his hand in opposite directions.

Walker, a regular tormenter of the Rockies since taking over as the everyday Diamondbacks first baseman in 2019, is 0-for-5 in his career against Lawrence with two strikeouts and a double-play groundout. What makes Lawrence tough for Walker goes along with what Suter said. Walker told Sport Relay in August, “The deception of his release point — third-base side of the rubber, real low slot, kind of hunched over, crossfire. It’s tricky to match that angle.” Walker added that the fastball, sinker, and slider in Lawrence’s arsenal make his release angle especially effective.

How Justin Lawrence Became the Closer

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Justin Lawrence had become the closer after an unfortunate series of events. Bard had been the Rockies’ closer since the middle of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, with a stellar 2022 season leading to MVP votes and a Team USA roster spot for the 2023 World Baseball Classic. His performance in that tournament was nightmarish, so much so that Bard had to understandably spend some time away for mental health reasons. When that happened, manager Bud Black used Pierce Johnson as the closer from March through May. But the wheels came off in June after he had gone 11-for-his-first-11 in save opportunities. He lost the closer job, and the Rockies ultimately traded him to the Atlanta Braves on July 24.

When Johnson lost the closer job, Lawrence took over. Lawrence called the entire situation an “opportunity” in an August 16 interview. And when that opportunity presented itself to Lawrence, Bard and Suter were right there for advice and support. Bard said prior to the game on August 15 that it had been great being able to “watch him grow up for the last four years.” During Spring Training 2020, Bard had his first encounter with Lawrence while throwing light batting practice. “I had never seen a sidearmer throw that hard,” Bard recalled. “This was back when he was throwing 98 to 100 pretty consistently.”

But Lawrence was wild at that time, something Suter had observed across the diamond as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers. Backing off on how hard he threw his fastball led to better command and control, and Lawrence saw better results. Bard said that came from figuring out “how to use his stuff” in the majors and “learning to calm himself down in high-leverage situations.”

The “Caliber of Talent”

Black, prior to the August 15 game, praised Lawrence’s “caliber of talent.” What stood out to him about Lawrence was “the fastball, mid-90s with movement from a low arm slot. His ability to spin the ball consistently from that arm slot — it’s a devastating combination.” Black added that his “package of fastball-slider” is “real stuff.” Additionally, Black praised Lawrence’s growth over the previous two seasons, specifically mentioning his improvement in controlling the running game, fielding his position, and being durable.

But that night, Lawrence had a completely different outing than his dominant 1–2–3 ninth the night before. He took the hill in the top of the ninth with a 5–3 lead, positioned to give the Rockies their second straight victory against the Diamondbacks. Alek Thomas led off with a ground-ball single to left and advanced to third on a double to deep right-center by Geraldo Perdomo. Ketel Marte tied the game with a single that plated both runners. A fly to right by Corbin Carroll and fly to left by Christian Walker sandwiched a go-ahead double to left by Tommy Pham. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. scored Pham with a single to center, ending Lawrence’s night. Tyler Kinley could not keep Gurriel from scoring, giving Lawrence a game line of five runs on five hits in 2/3 of an inning.

Justin Lawrence in His Own Words

The next day, Lawrence described the previous 48 hours as “a microcosm of (his) experience in the big leagues.” He added that he had experienced “the highest of highs and lowest of lows” before stating the importance of “staying even-keeled” while making sure to be ready for the next day. “This game is hard,” he said, “and if you want to stick, you’ve got to be able to bounce back.”

The rough August 15 outing against the Diamondbacks kicked off a tough stretch for Lawrence. He allowed runs, all earned, in five of his next seven appearances. In that stretch, he had fewer innings pitched (six) than appearances (seven) — a bad sign for a closer. Across those six innings, he allowed 12 runs (all earned) on 15 hits with five strikeouts, five walks, two hit batsmen, and a home run. Twenty-two of the forty batters he faced reached base — a .550 on-base percentage.

Taking Responsibility

The last game of that stretch came September 3 against the Toronto Blue Jays. Lawrence took the mound in the top of the ninth with the score tied at five. With two outs and a runner on second, he walked Spencer Horwitz before allowing RBI singles to Whit Merrifield and Ernie Clement, leading to a 7–5 Blue Jays victory.

After that game, an emotionally shaken Lawrence gave reporters an impressively frank postgame interview. (See clip below)

After the video ended, he added (according to Kelsey Wingert-Linch of ATT SportsNet), “This lineup, man. They fight every inning. Every time they come thru. Anytime we go down, they fight back. From top to bottom … When my name’s called, I want to go get the job done. The fact I haven’t been able to do that hurts. Feels like I’m letting everyone down right now.”

A Strong Finish

Justin Lawrence pitched a scoreless outing in his next appearance, kicking off an impressive final stretch. He pitched 12 games, entering every game but one in either the seventh or eighth inning. His inherited runner percentage increased during that stretch (5-of-11 scored), and his WHIP was a bit high (1.548), but the rest of his numbers were strong. He allowed one run on 11 hits, walking five and striking out 12 across 10 1/3 innings. The lone run came on a Freddie Freeman homer September 27.

For the year, Lawrence appeared in 69 games. He had a 3.72 ERA (74 ERA–) with 78 strikeouts, 36 walks, seven hit batsmen, five homers, and a 1.347 WHIP across 75 innings. In addition, 71.0% of his outings were scoreless; 75.4% if using earned runs only. (NL averages: 68.5% and 71.2%, respectively).

Heading into 2024 Spring Training

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Lawrence said Thursday that the rough stretch last August made him a better pitcher. “You learn from those bad stretches, and you learn how to bounce back from those bad stretches. If I never had any of those bad stretches, I wouldn’t be as good of a player as I am today, because that’s where you learn the most, really.”

Black, a former pitcher himself, agreed with Lawrence’s assessment. “Every pitcher learns from experience,” he said. “There’s always something to be gained from getting knocked down and getting back up. You hear that all the time from coaches. It’s how you respond.

“There was a stretch in there where there was a little bit of a struggle, but he bounced back. I thought he, overall — if you look at the big numbers, they were solid. There’s room for improvement there with Justin. There are constant adjustments that he will make — minor, albeit. He doesn’t need to do a lot differently, just fine-tune some things.

“But he’s in a good spot. He’s been at this now for a couple years, had a lot of major league exposure. I think he’s ready to settle in and be a really dependable late-inning reliever.”

Looking Ahead

The key to bouncing back in September was trusting the process and the coaching staff, adjusting the mechanics that needed to be worked on. But there was another key for Lawrence — knowing that it’s a long season. “You see the great players that have those start-to-finish (seasons) where they dominate the entire year. I’m looking forward to having a year like that this year.”

Lawrence worked hard in the offseason so he’d be “ready to compete right away from day one.” He said, “I take a lot of pride and getting ready for camp and just showing up ready to go. It says a lot when a guy comes in and shows up and (you say), ‘Okay, this guy definitely put in work.’ So it’s something I strive to do every offseason.” His offseason routine was “very standard” — have a good breakfast, head to the gym, and have a good workout. The main focus for him is being able to stay healthy for 162 games, something he’s done since making the majors. “I take a lot of pride in that,” he said. Once the throwing program starts, he tries not to ramp up too fast and stick to the protocol.

Given the team’s injury struggles in 2023, the Rockies absolutely need him to continue his habit of staying healthy all season. That is one of Lawrence’s main goals for 2024. The reason? “Being able to contribute to this team, whatever way it is. There’s no specific role or thought for me, as long as I’m contributing to this team and helping (us) win games as much as we can.”

Main Photo Credits:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (Feb. 15) — Colorado Rockies reliever Justin Lawrence warms up prior to spring training workouts. Rockies pitchers and catchers opened camp at Salt River Fields, where position players will officially report on February 19. (Photo by Evan Thompson/Sport Relay)

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Evan M. Thompson, Editor-in-chief

Evan M. Thompson, Editor-in-chief

Evan is the owner and sole contributor of Thompson Talks, a website discussing the Big Four North American Pro Sports as well as soccer. He also is a credentialed member of the Colorado Rockies press corps. His first and biggest love is baseball.

Evan lives in Gilbert, Arizona and loves history, especially of sports. He is the treasurer for the Hemond Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and also is a USSF and AIA soccer referee. He released his first book, Volume I of A Complete History of the Major League Baseball Playoffs, in October of 2021.

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