Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #34 Matt Lawton
MATTHEW LAWTON III | LF/CF/RF | 1995-2001 | CAREER STATS
G PA AVG OBP SLG OPS+ WARP WS
771 3150 .277 .379 .428 106 25.3 87
Taken in the 13th round of the 1991 draft out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
, Matt Lawton
advanced slowly but surely through the Twins' minor-league system. After posting .400 on-base percentages in back-to-back seasons at Single-A and then hitting .269/.361/.434 in 114 games at Double-A in 1995, Lawton made his major-league debut pinch-hitting for Pat Meares
in a loss to the Tigers on September 5, 1995
He struck out in that at-bat against Mike Christopher, but picked up his first hit against submarining southpaw reliever Mike Myers the next day and ended up starting quite a bit down the stretch. Lawton hit an impressive .317/.414/.467 in 21 games as a 23-year-old, and smacked his first career homer against 245-game winner Dennis Martinez and the Indians on September 28, 1995. Martinez also hit Kirby Puckett with a pitch in that game, and it was the last Puckett played.
Lawton began 1996 as the everyday right fielder, but was sent down to Triple-A after hitting just .205 in April. He returned in late June, but was sent back to Salt Lake with a .231 batting average in mid-July. After hitting .297/.377/.481 in 53 total games at Triple-A, Lawton was called up again in early August and this time stayed for the rest of the year. He finished with a .258/.339/.365 hitting line in 79 games, batting .294 in the last two months of the season to earn the team's confidence heading into 1997.
With his days in the minor leagues behind him for good, Lawton split time between all three outfield spots in 1997 and hit .248/.366/.415 in 142 games. It was a modest season even for a 25-year-old, but Lawton was actually one of only three Twins regulars with an adjusted OPS+ above league-average (along with Paul Molitor and Chuck Knoblauch). As you might expect from a team with that little offense, the Twins finished 68-94
The Twins continued to struggle in 1998, going 70-92, but Lawton had his first big year. He played primarily right field and also filled in as the center fielder when Otis Nixon had his jaw broken by Felix Martinez, hitting .278/.387/.478 with 21 homers, 36 doubles, 86 walks, and 16 steals in 152 games. Lawton won the team MVP award and led the Twins in nearly every offensive category, including on-base percentage, slugging percentage, homers, total bases, walks, runs scored, and RBIs.
Lawton got off to a slow start in 1999 and was hitting just .262/.345/.406 when he was hit in the face by a Dennys Reyes pitch on June 8. A fractured right eye socket sent him to the disabled list for over a month. He returned in mid-July and continued to get on base at a good clip through the end of the year, but his power disappeared. Lawton hit five homers with a .406 slugging percentage prior to the injury, but managed just two homers and a pitiful .299 slugging percentage after coming back.
Lawton came back strong in 2000, bouncing back from what could have been a very serious injury to put together arguably his best season. He hit .305/.405/.460 with 13 homers, 44 doubles, 91 walks, and 23 steals in 156 games, making his first All-Star team and winning his second team MVP. The Twins continued to stink, winning just 69 games, but unlike several of the team's "All-Stars" during that period of losing Lawton was actually somewhat deserving with a .330 first-half batting average.
The 2000 season showed Lawton at his very best -- taking a ridiculous number of pitches, working long counts, drawing walks in bunches, lacing singles and doubles all over the Metrodome from that goofy batting stance, and stealing bases at an efficient rate. He did just about everything a hitter could possibly do besides hit for big power, and even batted .294 against lefties and .326 with runners on base.
After eight straight losing seasons the Twins got off to a 14-3 start in 2001 and carried a 55-32 record and five-game division lead over the Indians into the All-Star break. The Twins won the first game of the second half and promptly went in the tank, losing 13 of their next 17 to fall into a tie with Cleveland atop the AL Central. On July 30, with the division slipping away, the Twins traded Lawton to the Mets for Rick Reed.
It was a controversial move at the time, in part because Reed was a 36-year-old former replacement player making $7 million and in part because Lawton was the best hitter on a team that was fairly short on offense to begin with. Lawton was hitting .293/.396/.439 at the time of the trade, while Reed was 8-6 with a 3.48 ERA for New York. After the move, Brian Buchanan and Dustan Mohr replaced Lawton in right field, Reed went 4-6 with a 5.19 ERA in 12 starts, and the Twins went 25-32 to fall out of contention.
It wasn't so much that picking up a good starting pitcher was a bad move (although certainly you could argue about Reed being the right guy), but rather that in order to get Reed the Twins had to take from an area that was far from a strength. That's typically not how contending teams bolster themselves for the stretch run, and there was speculation that Terry Ryan intended to swing a second deal for a hitter to replace Lawton (Dmitri Young, Shannon Stewart) that fell through.
Reed went 15-7 with a 3.78 ERA in 2002 as the Twins made the postseason for the first time since 1991, and then was a complete mess in 2003 because of back problems. Meanwhile, Lawton hit just .246/.352/.366 for the Mets in 2001 and was traded to Cleveland for Roberto Alomar during the offseason. He spent three mediocre seasons with the Indians while struggling through shoulder injuries, split last year between the Cubs, Pirates, and Yankees, and signed with the Mariners as a bench bat for 2006 (after he serves a 10-game suspension for steroid use).
Lawton's strengths as a player (drawing walks, getting on base, efficient baserunning) tend to be overlooked and his Twins career seems to be underrated given how productive he was. He had three very good years in Minnesota and another season that was pretty good, all before his 30th birthday. Here's what I wrote about Lawton back in 2003:
I always had a soft spot for "Matty Law" and I'm not sure why. I guess he was just a very solid all-around player who had a lot of nice moments as a Twin. Lawton and Brad Radke were sort of like the bridge from the Kirby Puckett/Chuck Knoblauch Twins to the current group.
And as any Twins fan can tell you, it was a long bridge.
TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS:
OBP .379 4th
Steals 96 7th
Walks 408 9th
OPS .808 14th
Doubles 163 16th
Runs 423 18th
RBIs 384 18th
XBH 248 18th
Total Bases 1144 20th
Homers 72 22nd
Hits 739 22nd
AVG .277 23rd