By: Brian Frank
Casey Lawrence is a familiar face to Buffalo baseball fans. Entering this season, he’d pitched in 41 games for the Herd in parts of five seasons. The McSherrytown, Pennsylvania native made his Bisons debut back in 2013, when he came up from High-A Dunedin to make one spot start.
“I just kind of filled in that day,” he said in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “I just remember it being a really good challenge for me at that time. We always heard how nice the Buffalo atmosphere was, so I just thought of it as being a really good opportunity for me.”
Lawrence came up briefly from Double-A New Hampshire to make another spot start for the Herd in 2015. Then in 2016, after starting the year in the year in Double-A, he came up to Buffalo and became a mainstay in Buffalo’s starting rotation – posting a 3.83 ERA in fifteen starts and winning the team’s Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Lawrence was the 2016 Bisons Comeback Player of the Year. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
“That year was a big year for me,” he remembered. “That was really the first year I made any mechanical changes. I had been in that 88 to 90 mph range with my fastball – and with Vince Horseman in Double-A we made some mechanical adjustments and I kind of jumped to 92-94. So that was when I started to change a little bit individually.”
Lawrence has grown a lot as a pitcher in the ensuing years. Looking back, one of the big changes he sees in himself is how he – and the organization as a whole – uses technology.
“In 2016 we were starting to collect a lot of data and technology, but we weren’t really sure what to do with it,” he explained. “Now with it being so integrated in the game, it’s a phenomenal tool into not only scouting what other players can do as far as scouting reports from hitters, but also for pitchers and what works well and kind of overall usage of pitches. So I would say that technology implementation in the game has really been one of the big changes.”
He's also added some new pitches to his arsenal over the years and works in more off-speed pitches to keep hitters off-balance.
“I started throwing a little bit of a cutter,” he said. “Kind of a little bit bigger of a slider. Implemented my curveball a little bit more. My first initial stint with Toronto up until about 2016, I was more of a sinkerball pitcher. It was a lot of sinkers throughout the game. Now I just try to implement more off-speed pitches into my game plan. It’s probably one of the bigger changes I’ve made – especially last year and this year.”
Lawrence pitched briefly for the 2017 Bisons. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
He had a 0.90 ERA in three starts for the Bisons in 2017, the season he made his major-league debut with the Blue Jays. But when Toronto designated him for assignment, he was claimed by the Seattle Mariners. He was stunned to be leaving the organization he’d been with since signing out of high school in 2010 – but he also saw opportunity in joining a new team.
“Maybe I’m a little bit old school in this but my favorite player to watch growing up was Derek Jeter,” he explained. “I really appreciated how he stayed on one team and wore one jersey his whole career. I thought that was really awesome and that was kind of a goal of mine. But there are things you can’t control as a player. So when that happened it was a shock in that it was different – the fear of the unknown.”
“But at the same time it was a really good opportunity for me to go somewhere else and learn a little bit more about me. Learn about some other ways to do things,” he continued. “Seattle did do some things a little bit differently. They were starting to implement some of the technology. We had two phenomenal assistant pitching coaches that helped Mel Stottlemyre in Seattle – Jim Brower who was more of a Trackman and Brian DeLunas kind of concentrated more on the Rapsodo. Those two guys really allowed me to further my knowledge on the technology in the game and how to start using it. It was a really good opportunity to go over there and continue what I was doing here. I was in a starting role in Triple-A and was the long guy out of the bullpen in the big leagues. So it was a really good springboard and I kind of parlayed it into my opportunity to go pitch in Japan.”
Lawrence pitched for the Hiroshima Carp in Japan in 2019 and fully enjoyed the experience of living and playing overseas.
“The food, the culture, and the people were amazing. I couldn’t speak higher about the way I was treated over there. Anytime somebody asks – would you do it again – I the highest recommendation is that I would do it again. It was that enjoyable of a season for me over there. The people, the management, the players, my teammates, the whole entire situation was phenomenal. The food is amazing. You’ve got to be willing to try different things. You’ve got to be willing to do some things different. You’ve got to be very open minded. Because if you go in close minded, I think it’s tough. I tried to go into it as open minded as possible and I think that’s what made it enjoyable for me. My wife was able to travel for most of the year. My parents were able to come over. My in-laws came. We didn’t have kids at the time so it was kind of the perfect opportunity for me to do that and I was really glad I did it.”
He noticed differences in the style of play from the way the game is played in Japan to how it’s played in North America – particularly with hitters.
“Hitters are a little bit different,” he said. “They’re not going to strike out. They’re going to put the ball in play. You can get some weak contact. But the home run is not as high priority as it has become here in major-league baseball. That took a little bit to get used to. But once I kind of got into the flow of everything, it was pretty seamless.”
He came back to North America in 2020 – signing with the Minnesota Twins organization. When the minor-league season was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he ended up spending the summer at the Twins alternate training site in Saint Paul. He tried to make the best of the situation.
“It was very different,” he said. “But I think it’s one of those things where you just have to make the best of it. Everybody was dealt a short hand that year. Baseball was obviously not as important as the health of the country and the world. Going into that you just try to make the best of it.”
“It was more of an individual development year. You could focus on what you wanted to improve on as a pitcher. That’s kind of where I made my adjustment with my curveball. J.P. Martinez, who’s now the bullpen coach with San Francisco, he was there and I really tried to pick his brain as much as possible. He was a huge help in kind of developing some different tendencies for me to try and do. I’ve carried a lot about what we talked about there into my game now. So just trying to take advantage of that opportunity and get out there and show them what I can do and still staying in the game.”
Shortly after signing with the York Revolution in the Atlantic League in early 2021, the opportunity to return to the Blue Jays organization came about.
“It was a no brainer to come back with how highly I thought of the organization my first time here,” he said. “It was a pretty easy decision to come back.”
Lawrence went 5-0 after the 2021 Bisons returned to Buffalo. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
However, for the second consecutive season, the pandemic would have a big impact on where he would spend his summer. Instead of coming to pitch in Buffalo, he was sent to Trenton, New Jersey, where the Bisons were playing their home games to allow the Blue Jays to play at Sahlen Field while the U.S.-Canadian border was closed due to Covid.
“It was definitely different," he said. "You’re the Buffalo Bisons on the road and you’re the Trenton Thunder at home. But it was a great opportunity. We had to go somewhere, so thank god Trenton was there to house us and allow us to use their field and their facilities and everything else.”
One big factor that excited him about coming back to the Blue Jays organization was the opportunity to continue to use the new pitching technology to improve his on-field performance.
“Last year we had David Howell, who’s going now be traveling with the major-league team, and his knowledge with how to use it, parlayed with the knowledge of Jeff Ware – that’s just a phenomenal combination. When I signed back here last May, I talked to Gil Kim and he was like, ‘You’re going to have a young guy in Buffalo by the name of David Howell, he’s going to be extremely knowledgeable. When you get there, use him.’ So I really made it a focus from day one just to really start picking his brain and kind of challenge him with ‘Okay, well what does this mean? Great, then how can I apply that to myself? Or should I try this pitch more to lefties?’ To this day, I’ve been just absolute back and forth with him and I’m sure that will continue again this year.”
After the Blue Jays were able to return to Toronto, the Bisons were finally able to return to Buffalo in August. Lawrence had watched the Blue Jays play on TV at Sahlen Field and had seen photos of the many improvements the Blue Jays had made at the ballpark – but when he actually came to Buffalo and saw the upgrades in person, he was blown away.
“When we were able to get in here it was like ‘Holy cow!’,” he exclaimed. “Not only the changes, but the upgrades throughout the facility. If there’s a better Triple-A ballpark, I’d love to see it. I think it’s hands down the best facility in Triple-A. And from some of the fields I’ve seen in the big leagues, it challenges a couple of those as well.”
Lawrence had gotten off to a bit of a slow start in Trenton pitching out of the bullpen. In late July, he was sent down to Double-A New Hampshire, where he joined the Fisher Cats starting rotation. His season immediately turned around – he made four starts for New Hampshire and had a 3.00 ERA.
“It was just getting back into the rotation,” he said of his turnaround. “That’s kind of something that I’ve always excelled at was being in the rotation. I’ve been able to come up with a good routine for myself while in the rotation. It was always a challenge for me finding that balance in the bullpen. It was always something a little bit new and foreign to me. I worked on that a little bit this spring. But I started to implement my cutter a little bit more to hitters and really kind of got stretched out. I kind of carried over some of the things that we were working on here out of the bullpen. But it’s a little bit easier with the quantity of pitches that I was able to get in as a starter. I was kind of able to put together a couple good starts in New Hampshire and it carried over when I went back up.”
Casey on the mound. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
He returned to Triple-A on August 11, the day after the Bisons returned to Buffalo, and was dominant for the rest of the season, helping to stabilize the Bisons rotation down the stretch. He went 5-0 with a 3.00 ERA in eight games after returning to Buffalo, and was a big reason the Bisons won their first division championship in sixteen seasons.
“It was an unbelievable group of guys from top to bottom,” he said. “Casey (Candaele) creating the atmosphere in here and guys like CC (Christian Colón), Tyler White, and Juan Graterol, just to name a few of the veteran presences. We had a good combination of young guys and veterans. Just being able to do your job and let everyone else handle themselves – it made it pretty easy. It made it really fun to show up to work every day – if you want to call it work. It was just a great group of guys that really, really enjoyed being together and playing hard for each other. I think the fans probably saw that and appreciated it. It’s always refreshing to be a part of something like that."
"We have another great group of guys," he added, "so hopefully it’s going to be something where we stay healthy and make another strong run this year.”
Lawrence ready to deliver. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.