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Growing as a Power Pitcher: Interviews & a Scouting Report on Reggie Lawson

I have always been enamored with box scores, checking them religiously since I was kid, but the inherent problem with box scores is that seldom do they tell the whole story.  For instance, Reggie Lawson’s numbers from Friday night’s box score (5.1 IP, 3 ER, 9 K’s, 3 BB’s) might make you think he had a decent but wild night, with unpredictability driving up his strikeouts; however, it leaves out the keynote story of the game, which was that he was perfect for five innings.

Now, this isn’t to say that the final line doesn’t matter because, as Herm Edwards once said, “you play to win the game.”  Yet, I think, in the absence of how and why a prospect was or was not successful in a game, the meaningfulness of those numbers is limited.

I had the opportunity to both interview Lawson a couple of weeks ago and to be present at his most recent start, in hopes that I could catch a glimpse of where he is developmentally based on scouting reports and his own insight.  As such, I wanted to take a few moments to expound on some of the items Lawson shared and what manifested in his marvelous performance on Friday.

Power Pitching

One of the first topics I inquired about was the influence of Burt Hooton, the TinCaps’ pitching coach and a former MLB starting pitcher, and the particular direction he had given Lawson upon working with him at Fort Wayne.  “I love Burt; he goes about the business the right way, so I definitely listen to everything he has to tell me because he plays a big part in everything I do here on a daily basis…but he tells me to throw every pitch like it’s a power pitch and to not ever take a pitch off.”

Since Lawson was described as “raw” in his scouting profile prior to the Padres drafting him, there’s little doubt that his stuff is so tantalizing that he was worthy of the high selection even with the risk and projected development timeline.  Still even with that level of raw talent, it’s easy for a young pitcher to not trust their stuff and begin thinking too much as they pitch rather than relying on strengths, so it makes a great deal of sense that Hooton would emphasize power pitching at this juncture.

In his start on Friday, Lawson continued to take Hooton’s words to heart, attacking and ramping up the velocity early.  Yet, he didn’t lay off as the game progressed, continuing to touch 94-95 mph (his max velocity) even after he had reached 80 plus pitches.  He was incredibly effective up until the sixth inning.  At that point, he strove to maintain the velocity, but struggled to exercise consistent control (and the Umpire also didn’t do him any favors).

As he continues to grow more comfortable in full season ball, he’ll likely look for more of balance when it comes to velocity and control late in games, but for now, he’s attacking exactly as he’s been instructed to do.

The Fastball

Last year, Lawson’s fastball hung around the lower 90’s but predictably slowed as the game progressed, but it worked in the 92-95 mph for the entire night.

Early in the start, he was a little erratic, losing a few fastballs well up over the zone, but Lawson settled down as the game went on and was able to locate the fastball on both sides of the plate without frequently leaving mistake pitches in the heart of the zone.  What was even more impressive was that he was able to effectively locate it when the pressure was on.  On several occasions, Lawson found himself in 3-1 or 3-2 counts, but he attacked with a well a located fastball each time to retire the hitters.

In terms of movement, his fastball displayed strong arm-side action that should play well as he moves up the organizational ladder, but he needs to run it in on batters to jam them more often.  The one concern is that it isn’t exactly much of a worm-eater, meaning he’s going to have to find a way to keep flyballs/home runs from damaging him.  Yet, with his swing and miss potential on the fastball, honing his fastball to climb the ladder in the age of launch angle could pay dividends

The Curveball

A few weeks ago, Lawson referenced that he was going to approach the curveball with that same power pitching mindset, saying, “With the curveball, I sometimes get a little loopy and baby it, but you can’t do that with [Burt Hooton].  He says that pretty much every pitch is a power pitch, and I take that to heart, and my curveball has been way better since he told me that… I’d definitely say it’s my go-to pitch after my fastball.”

Lawson seemed to embrace that strategy with his curveball on Friday, but it was devastatingly wild.  While there wasn’t a lot of “babying it,” there were far too many balls hard into the dirt or sailing well above the zone as he tried to power it by hitters.  On the bright side, it’s shape makes it difficult enough to hit in the first place, so the capricious nature of his control rendered hitters lost on the night.

It sat anywhere from 71-78 mph, which did serve to give some necessary variance to offset the high usage of the pitch.

The Changeup

As Dinelson Lamet’s up and down performance has repeatedly underlined, a starting pitcher needs a third pitch to keep hitters off-balance no matter how devastating his other two pitches are. Lawson is crafting his changeup, and while most scouts project it to be at least average, it’s quite far behind his fastball and curveball.  When we spoke, Lawson mentioned that having confidence in the pitch is the biggest hurdle right now.

“My changeup is pretty good, which Burt and everyone else is telling me.  My problem is just trusting it…you have to trust it, play more catch with it, and bring it into games, but it’s definitely a good pitch in the making.”

Unfortunately, I hardly had a live look at his nascent changeup since he only tossed it a couple of times all game; although, he didn’t much need it through the first five innings.  After the game, I asked if the lack of changeup utilization was more the product of his success or a part of the game-plan.

“Yeah, it was just part of the game-plan,” Lawson replied.  “My fastball was really good tonight, and they really weren’t ever on it, so we stuck with it.  If it’s not broke, then why fix it?”

Given Lawson’s age and level, it’s likely that honing his two main offerings is more important at the moment than integrating the changeup; however, it’s glaring need as he continues to develop.

Some General Items/Observations

Several prospect sites noted that Lawson added some muscle this off-season, but they apparently exaggerated the amount, suggesting it was close to 20 lbs.  Lawson corrected it and shared the effect it’s had on him this season as continues to hold up to longer and more frequent outings.

“I added 11 lb’s,” Lawson said.  I pretty much worked out this entire offseason with BSTI in California.  Those guys do a great job down there, and it got me stronger so that my body feels amazing right now.  It definitely helps my body recover faster, putting more work in and making your body stronger than it used to be lets my body can take a little more of a beating before bouncing back.

In addition to his strong work ethic, Lawson has been a willing student not only for Burt Hooton but also for catcher A.J. Kennedy.

“A.J. has definitely played a role in my success the past couple of games,” Lawson offered.  “He calls a great game, and I just follow his lead.  And just believing in yourself and knowing that you belong here play a role as you get settled in.  Kennedy helped with that by pretty much just being a big help in helping me believe I belong here and that I should keep trusting the work I put in.”

Since it was the second or third time that I’d heard Lawson speak about Kennedy’s role in his success, I thought it would be beneficial to check in with Kennedy, who shared the following about Lawson:

“Reggie is a great pitcher.  I met him at instructs before spring training and I got to know the kind of person he is.  Also, he’s from California, so we have a good connection there.  During batting practice, I can joke around with him and keep him loose.  During bullpen sessions, I hold him accountable on every pitch, and he’s actually getting after it…I just try and make sure he’s on every pitch because I can tell he’s going to be a special pitcher someday.  So I try to push him to be Reggie Lawson and nobody else, and you can tell that’s been pretty good.”

Final Thoughts

Even though Lawson has plenty to work on this year, I’d say that Kennedy’s phrase about “pushing him to be Reggie Lawson” is probably the most significant part of Lawson’s development right now.  He’s a power pitcher that thrives because of a combination of an electric fastball and a sweeping curveball, and he needs to continue to embrace that identity as a pitcher.

Some might speculate that he deserves at least a cup of coffee at Lake Elsinore, but I think it’d be more logical for him to continue working with Kennedy and Hooton at Fort Wayne for the remainder of the season.  The ceiling remains high, but there’s no need to risk his development by pushing him up too quickly.  Besides, being on a team that’s making a strong push for the playoffs in the second half could be just as beneficial as facing tougher competition.

In fact, Lawson shared that this was his goal for the season, elaborating, “Yeah, I definitely want to help this team get to the playoffs this season, and then for me, my personal goals are to just keep doing what I am doing and continue the momentum from my last couple of starts, as well as do whatever I got to do to get this team to the playoffs.”

If all goes according to plan, Lawson will aid the playoff pursuit, building off his recent run of stellar starts.