Back when the Rockers started their season in late May, Tommy Lawrence wasn’t thinking much about playing baseball.
The former college pitcher had spent a year in the Tampa Bay Rays system after finishing at the University of Maine. He had been successful with the Black Bears, going 19-8 over his career, serving as a team captain and was named ECAC Pitcher of the Year.
Lawrence had also had his fill of independent baseball, having pitched for Jamie Keefe and the Rockland, N.Y. Boulders in 2017 and 2018.
Rather than playing baseball, Lawrence’s thoughts in May 2021 were on his job as a pitching instructor at Power House Sports in Seabrook, New Hampshire. And on the pitchers at Winnecunnet High in Hampton, N.H. where Lawrence served as the pitching coach. And on his part-time role as an associate scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Looking back at his career, how would Pirates scout Lawrence have evaluated 18-year old Tommy Lawrence who had led his high school, West Haven, to the 2009 Connecticut state baseball championship?
“Short and dumpy. Five-foot eight, 220 pounds,” said the 30-year old Lawrence. “My first pitch of the game was 89 and my last pitch was 89. My dad sat behind the UConn coaches when they were recruiting me. That’s the hardest I threw in that game.”
That Lawrence was out of baseball before he turned 30 was not what he had planned. Following that state championship at West Haven High, where he also was an all-area quarterback, Lawrence would head to Orono, Maine where he excelled on the mound. Lawrence set the Maine school record with 11 wins in 2013, earning recognition as the America East Pitcher of the Year. He posted a stellar 2.32 ERA and headed to Chatham in the prestigious Cape Cod League for a second season. In 2012, Lawrence had gone 2-1 with a 3.55 ERA. In 2013, he raised his game by going 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA and thoughts of the Major League Draft danced in his head. At one point on the Cape, Lawrence threw 24 consecutive innings without allowing a run.
“You hear Peter Gammons talk about when guys do well in the Cape is usually when they get drafted,” said Lawrence. “I dominated in the Cape. I feel like I’ve always won wherever I go.”
But the call from a Major League team informing him of being drafted never came.
“That was actually really surprising to me,” said Lawrence. “I was told I would go between the eighth and 12th rounds and then not even hearing your name. I never got in trouble or anything. It was just my body type. I was talking with teams. A little disheartening. I hated the game for a little bit. But the game doesn’t owe you anything.”
Tampa Bay was willing to take a chance on the 5-11 Lawrence as an undrafted free agent. He headed to the Gulf Coast rookie league where he went 1-0 with a 2.52 ERA in 12 games. But at the end of the season, the Rays called and told Lawrence he was being released.
The reason for cutting him loose?
“My projectability,” said Lawrence. Which, in layman’s terms, means the Rays did not project that he would ever reach the Major Leagues. “I said ‘What about wins and everything else? If I do my job and I get outs, what’s wrong with that?’ If I was 6’4”, my life would be way different but I’m not.”
Lawrence wound up in independent baseball with the Frontier League’s River City Rascals. He pitched four games and went 2-0. By 2017, Lawrence was with the Rockland Boulders of the Can-Am League where he first came in contact with Keefe who was then Rockland’s manager.
Used mostly as a reliever, Lawrence posted respectable numbers, going 3-5 over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, but was out of baseball by 2019. And trying to figure out his next career move.
“Jamie is very loyal and if you’re loyal to Jamie, he’ll be loyal to you,” said Lawrence. “And if he likes you and you’re a good locker room guy, he will find a place for you. My last year at Rockland, I had an ERA over 10. I probably should have been released. The only reason I think I wasn’t, was because I helped the locker room. I went on the phantom IR for a little bit. I wasn’t hurt, but I was pitching like crap. I figured out what I needed to do. And being around Jamie has helped me a lot too.”
At one point, Lawrence considered a career in the Army. A buddy was a Green Beret and the idea intrigued Lawrence. Except for one little thing. He failed the U.S. Army physical due to a hemangioma.
The red mark in the center of his chest had previously never been a point of concern.
“I thought it was a birthmark my whole life,” recalled Lawrence. “Veins run through it and (the Army) said if I get cut open, I could bleed out. I never once had a doctor tell me I needed to get it checked out. Then I went to a dermatologist to get it examined and he confirmed it is a hemangioma. It was going to take six months to get it fixed and I wasn’t getting any younger. I said ‘What am I going to do for work?’
Keefe had phoned Lawrence in August 2019 before a High Point Rockers series at New Britain. Lawrence spent the weekend with the team, available to pitch if needed, but the call never came. But the visit to see Keefe and regaining a spot in a baseball clubhouse ignited a spark inside of Lawrence.
“I realized how much I missed baseball,” said Lawrence. “I mean, guys hate bus rides. But, secretly, I enjoy them, just hanging with the guys. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Now I soak everything in and it’s different than when I was playing five years ago.”
Finding that job after failing the Army physical seemed like a message from above.
A friend, Mike Montville, now coaching at Class AAA Worcester, Mass., called and offered Lawrence a job as a pitching instructor at Power House Sports.
“I said ‘Wow, this is perfect.’ I ended up loving it,” Lawrence said. “It was different, seeing that side of the game. But it also helped me. Kids should go coach in summer ball when they’re 18, 19 and 20 with younger kids because they’ll learn so much more about the game.”
Beyond Power House, Lawrence mentored the pitchers at Winnecunnet High and helped them to a state championship this past spring. And he learned more about coaching.
“I used to only call fastballs with them but now, everybody can hit fastballs,” said Lawrence. “So I had to change up what I always thought of as my process. Because I was always going to pound the zone with a fastball. See if you can hit it. How far you hit it, I don’t care. But then I noticed everybody was swinging at the first pitch so we started going with breaking balls. That’s kind of what I’m doing now. Just re-learning the game as a coach, that’s helped me out more than anything.”
Lawrence was reunited with Keefe earlier in 2021 when Power House Sports hosted a showcase/tryout for independent players where he put a bug in the manager’s ear about resuming his pitching career.
“I told him ‘If you ever need an arm …’ and he said ‘I might,’” said Lawrence. “I texted him in mid-June and he said ‘I might need you. We’re getting so many guys picked up (by MLB organizations)’. I told him ‘Whenever you need me.’ Obviously, I wanted to do it.”
“I knew at some point this season we’d need him, for a spot start here or there,” said Keefe. “Now that he’s coached for a few years he’s really put the coaching side of it into his game. He knows he doesn’t need to throw 92, 93 miles per hour any more. He knows he can pitch between 84 and 87 miles per hour. It’s really fun to watch him come out and enjoy himself again.”
Lawrence was maintaining some semblance of a training regimen as a coach by throwing with some of his pupils and pitching batting practice to his high school team. Then he upped his game, pitching in a men’s league game in Danvers, Mass. against some former college and pro players.
“I lost 4-1 in my only start,” said Lawrence. Shortly after, Keefe called.
“Jamie asked how I was doing and I told him ‘I just threw a no-hitter in my men’s league game,’ Lawrence laughed. “That’s when he said ‘I need you.’
Keefe told him to fly to High Point and get a physical. Lawrence then signed a contract and boarded a bus with the Rockers to Charleston, West Virginia. He watched from the bullpen as Luke Westphal beat the Power 4-2 on June 22 before Keefe handed him the starting assignment in game two of a doubleheader on June 23.
After not having pitched since 2018 and working on over two years rest, Lawrence held the Power hitless through four innings until Rymer Liriano singled to lead off the bottom of the fifth. He eventually scored to give West Virginia a 1-0 lead. Meanwhile, Power starter Arik Sikula was keeping the Rockers hitless through six innings before Jerry Downs homered with Jared Mitchell aboard to put High Point ahead 2-1. The Rockers would go on to win 3-1.
When it was over, Lawrence had thrown six innings and allowed just three hits while striking out four in earning his first pro win in three years.
While the final result of that start in West Virginia was outstanding, it got off to an ominous start.
“I was warming up and it feels like I’m throwing hard,” recalled Lawrence. “I looked up at the board and it said I was throwing 85. I said, ‘This is not going to be good.’
“I walked the first guy and I was like, ‘With all this ABS (Automated Ball Strike system), I’m never going to be able to throw a strike’ and I was freaking out. And then the next guy swung at the first pitch, a cutter, and hit into a ground ball double play. And the next guy popped up. So, I got out of that inning and then started cruising.”
Lawrence’s time as a Rocker, as a professional pitcher, is something that will help him down the road as a coach. To that, he credits High Point pitching coach Frank Viola.
“If I’m thinking one thing and Frank tells me to do another, I’m going to do what he says because of his pedigree and where he’s been with baseball,” said Lawrence. “Honestly, I like listening to him talk to the other guys too because I’m different than (fellow Rocker starter Craig) Stem. Stem is a hard-throwing righty. I’m different from (Bryce) Hensley because Hensley is a lefty. Listening to how Frank helps others will help me later when I’m coaching because not every pitcher is the same. It has opened up my eyes to that and he’s helped me with my changeup. I’ve never had a changeup. I threw one in college, it got hit off the wall. Now I’ve been able to throw my changeup more often and it’s been consistent.”
Despite the early difficulties with the ABS system, also known as Trackman, Lawrence has flourished as a Rocker. He leads the team with a 10-2 record and has 4.39 ERA. As of September 3 Lawrence has won his last six starts and helped the Rockers with their second half resurgence which has them holding a 2.5 game lead over West Virginia for first place in the Atlantic League’s South Division.
Since leaving West Haven High School, Tommy Lawrence is 40-16. His 10 wins this season are the second-most of any pitcher in the Atlantic League. He is second in the league with a 1.17 WHIP (walks+hits per inning) and his .248 opponent’s batting average is tied for the best in the league.
But Lawrence still isn’t a fan of Trackman.
“What stinks is that Trackman doesn’t pick up my four-seam fastball as a fastball, it’s all change-ups,” laughed Lawrence. “(Craig) Stem was joking around and said ‘Hey, did you throw any fastballs tonight?’ I looked at the data and it said I didn’t throw one fastball. I did throw some fastballs, it just didn’t pick it up.”
If 30-year old Pirates scout Tommy Lawrence had to file a scouting report on the Rockers’ Tommy Lawrence, what would it say?
“Soft-tossing righty. Very crafty but knows what he’s doing. Taking what I know now, I wish I knew when I was 21 years old. It would have made pitching much easier and life much easier,” said Lawrence.
But there’s one part of any scouting report that is not quantifiable like height or velocity. It is an intangible and impossible to measure but any scout will tell you it’s at the heart of any successful player.
The will to win.
“I love to win,” said Lawrence. “I hate losing. If we score 11 runs and I gave up 10, I don’t really care. We won. As long as we get a W, that’s all that matters.
“When I was with the Rays, I told the pitching coach I wanted to start. I was a starter in college and I wanted to start. He said the first five innings are about development and the last four innings are about winning.
“If winning isn’t everything, then why do they keep score?”
About that will to win? Tommy Lawrence’s is off the charts.