Brett Lawrie's strike-zone recognition and aggressiveness on the bases has helped to transform the Toronto Blue Jays offense.
Cito Gaston has assisted a lot of hitters in his time, helping them to refine their mechanics and working with Dwayne Murphy to have a consistent plate approach. Murphy has always emphasized looking for a pitch you can hit and laying off the others. Gaston's mentality was similar: If that first pitch is the one you are looking for, then swing and swing hard.
This approach at the plate resulted in a record number of home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010, 257 to be exact, 46 more than the second place Boston Red Sox. But on the other hand, it became increasingly clear that the Jays struggled to score runs without the long ball. They didn't take a lot of walks and were fourth in the American League in strikeouts, which resulted in a 26th best .312 OBP.
There were also a variety of other identifying factors about Gaston's approach to offense. Base-running plays weren't strictly forbidden, but they weren't exactly encouraged, either. Hit-and-runs, sacrifice bunts and flies and stolen bases were not part of the game plan with the 2010 Blue Jays.
Gaston's Blue Jays were last by a large margin in sacrifice hits, fourth last in sacrifice flies, third last in intentional walks (because they knew they could strike them out) and second to last in number of pitches seen in the season.
They still managed to score the ninth best number of runs in the league on the strength of their power at the plate, but it was usually feast or famine.
When John Farrell arrived as the manager in 2011, he knew their were some things he wanted to change, and he started to get the players who were capable of doing it.
Jose Bautista began to change things near the end of 2010, but in 2011, he completely refined his approach and brought a strict strike-zone discipline to the plate. He was well aware that pitchers weren't going to give him much any more, so he had to stay off the outside stuff, resulting in a league-best 114 walks.
Farrell wanted his team to start having more quality at-bats, seeing more pitches and working the counts against the pitcher. Not only did it make the pitcher work harder and likely knock them out of the game earlier, but it gave them a chance to see what kind of stuff the pitcher had and be able to get into favorable hitter's counts.
One of the things that Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos liked about Colby Rasmus before he acquired him was his strike-zone recognition. That discipline has been somewhat off this year, but he has that ability to take pitches and get walks when necessary.
Brett Lawrie, the newest star on the Blue Jays, was putting up monster numbers in Triple-A at the start of the season. But Anthopoulos and Farrell wanted to make sure Lawrie was ready and would add to what they were trying to do with the team, so they encouraged him to improve his plate discipline and take more walks.
Sure enough, Lawrie began to drastically improve in his strikeout-to-walk ratio and has brought that mentality to the Blue Jays. Lawrie almost always takes that first pitch, knowing it likely won't be a good one to hit and to see what the pitcher is capable of. Then through his patience, he often works the count into one more favourable to hit in.
Which is why Lawrie is sporting a stunning .312 AVG and a.386 OBP, with a decent 13 walks to 25 strikeouts.
When he is ahead in the count, Lawrie has a .386, .532, .872 line, but when he is behind in the count it drops dramatically to .206, .229 and .353.
Bautista and Lawrie know about this. They know how working the count dramatically improves their chances to hit and be productive, and this is what the coaches are trying to instill in the rest of the team.
They know how good the pitchers are in the AL East, and how quickly those pitchers can take advantage of batters if they know they are going to swing early and often. The Jays are also aware of how difficult in can be to manufacture runs against these aces, so they can't sit back and wait for something to manifest itself.
It is taking some time, and may not work for all players, but it is starting to work and it shows in the Jays' stats.
While still near the top of the league in runs scored, they are doing it in different ways. They have moved from 15th to fifth in the number of at-bats they have received, a reflection of the Jays' stretching out their lineup to be more effective and their improved ranking in both OBP and number of pitches taken.
The Jays are still low in sacrifice hits, but are tied for seventh in sacrifice flies now. Their strikeouts have remained relatively stable, but they have moved up 10 spots in the league walk rankings.
They have also moved from 28th in stolen bases in 2010 to sixth in 2011.
All of these are a reflection of their improved base running and aggressiveness and their willingness to take that extra base, to recognize an opportunity for a hit-and-run or to pull off an impressive double steal.
This is still just Farrell's first year in the dugout with the Blue Jays, and he has had a constant rotation of new players. But if the strides taken this year into transforming the Jays into a more complete team are built upon next year, the 2012 Blue Jays could have one of the most effective and diverse offenses in the majors, and one that sees Gaston's swing-first mentality fully removed.