2012 Spring Training

Dom Brown, Left Field: Why it Works

Ian hopes Dom Brown will receive every opportunity to win the left field job.

At age 24, Domonic Brown has already seen just about everything a player can see. Brown produced an awesome year (.299/.377/.504, 14 HRs, 23 SB)  at age 21 in 2009 across three levels while frequently appearing in trade rumors for superstar pitchers, and current teammates, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. In the winter of 2009, the buck stopped at Brown when acquiring Halladay; the young outfielder was off-limits to acquire any player, whether it be a perennial Cy Young contender like Halladay, another All-Star named Roy, or the man with the most violent swing in the entire MLB, Hunter Pence.

It wasn’t just the Phillies who saw the gifted outfielder this way: Baseball America rankEd Brown the 15th best prospect in all of baseball in 2010 and the 4th best in 2011. Many scouts marveled at his athleticism, his developing power, and base-running. Of all the five tools, Baseball America ranked his Arm as his best and his teammates loved his hose, memorably nailing Gaby Sanchez at the plate a month after injuries made Brown’s promotion to the Bigs a necessity rather than a luxury. Now, it seems as the Phillies, and us fans, have forgotten about Dom.

We shouldn’t.

Brown entered Spring Training in 2011 pegged as the favorite to win the then-recently vacated right field job. Instead of seeing the promise seen in Reading and Lehigh Valley, or the glimpses seen in his limited call-up in 2010, Brown went 1-16 with 9 strikeouts before discovering he had fractured his right hamate bone. Misfortune seemed to find Brown again this year as a thumb injury threatened to sideline the slugger for the start of the season. Thankfully, an MRI revealed there was only some swelling and scar tissue. Brown returned to the Spring starting line-up yesterday, going 2-5 with a 10th inning home run.

Brown’s performance thus far in Spring Training has been very good, albeit in a very small sample: .313/.353/.750 with 2 triples and a HR with no strikeouts. Compare that to the fellas expected to compete for left field:

John Mayberry Jr.: .192/.222/.269

Laynce Nix: .211/.400/.211

Juan Pierre: .263/.364/.263

Scott Podsednik: .320/.393/.440

Brown stacks up favorably, no? Since Spring Training stats can be rather deceiving (Lou Montanez is currently hitting .471/.477/.765), here is how Dom Brown wins left field and why it works.

First thing is first: Brown must outplay Mayberry, Nix, Pierre, and Podsednik in Spring Training, even if Mayberry and Nix will see a lot of action at first base. And he is fully capable of doing so.

Pierre and Podsednik are competing for the fifth outfield spot, a spot Brown would not benefit from, as regular at-bats are necessary to keep the Domonator running. Yet, Brown must outplay them in Spring Training regardless. Brown is the better player in almost every regard over these two. The comparison with Mayberry and Nix is closer but Brown gives the Phillies not only the best long term but also the best short term solution in left. Here are the factors that make Brown a great choice.

Arm

I don’t have to tell any Phillies fan that Dom Brown not only has the best outfield arm in the organization but he has one of the best arms in all of organized baseball. If his brief time in the Majors, Brown has shown off his arm, memorably gunning down Sanchez. Brown has the advantage over all his competitors.

Defense

This is the area where Dom detractors say Brown has the most room to grow and I would have to agree. On March 6 against the Yankees, Brown turned a routine single into a triple for Brett Gardner. The day before, Brown dropped a routine pop-up. Charlie Manuel told David Murphy that the only way Brown will get better is with more reps. I again agree with this, to the point where if Dom Brown isn’t the starting left fielder, I would rather him play every day in Triple A until his play and improvement forces the issue. However, left field defense for the greater part of the last decade has been an area where the Phillies have punted. These are UZRs put up by the starting left fielder for the Phils since 2001 courtesy of FanGraphs.

2001: -10

2002: -2.7

2003: 0.1

2004: 2.3

2005: -3.3

2006: -12.3

2007: -20.9

2008: -9.0

2009: 3.8

2010: -5.7

2011: -18.9

Brown put up -7.0 versus Mayberry’s 2.6,  Nix’s -3.6, Pierre’s -9.2, and Podsednik’s -11.9 in 2010. One question I have for Phillies Nation is: If the Phillies were completely fine fielding two of statistically the worst left fielders of the last decade for an entire decade and then some, why is Brown’s defense in particular under such scrutiny when, as a “bad defender” Brown is better than almost anything the Phillies have had and so close to his competitors that it is almost literally the difference between one extra base-runner every two weeks? And if Brown were given extended, consistent playing time, of which he has not been afforded, would not Brown improve and the gap be further narrowed?

Hitting For Average and Getting on Base

As stated before, Brown has already had quite a remarkable minor league career (.294/.375/.459). Last year, at 23 years old, Brown posted a .245/.333/.391 line in 210 PAs, out hitting and fielding Raul Ibanez at the time of Brown’s demotion and, even when combined with his poorly rated defense, played at exactly replacement level despite not receiving guaranteed playing time. Brown turned 24 last September and can do it all with the bat; one of the most exciting and impressive aspects of his game is his ability to hit the gaps in both fields and use his legs to get extra bases or two move two bases on a hit. One thing to keep an eye on is Brown’s improved patience at the plate: Brown as a minor leaguer struck out 19.8% of the time; in the Majors last year in 210 PAs, Brown struck out only 16.7% while walking 11.9% v. 10.9% in the minors. He has yet to strike out this Spring.

Hitting for Power

Just for fun, here are the ZiPS projections for Brown and the four others expected to have some sort of shot at left field with the names removed. Can you guess who each player is?

.273/.330/.465, 19 HR, 24 SB

.246/.313/.427, 17 HR, 11 SB

.241/.296/.430, 12 HR, 1 SB

.279/.331/.329, 1 HR, 35 SB

.264/.311/.352, 3 HR, 17 SB

Stumped?

If you guessed “They’re in alphabetical order: Brown, Mayberry, Nix, Pierre, Podsednik”, you were absolutely correct. It isn’t just ZiPS projecting Brown to be a major player, either. SABR-metric legend Bill James has Brown pegged for a big year as well, .275/.355/.455, far and away the favorite between the five players. What may be surprising is the power output. While Brown may not be able to swat home runs at a rate of Hunter Pence, yet, it probably isn’t too far far out of his future.

Brown’s power has gradually and then very rapidly increased as he has progressed through the minors and there is literally not indication that it will drop any time soon. Brown worked out with Pence in the off-season and reportedly added 20 lbs of muscle. He has gone from tall, lanky prospect who hits the gaps with enough speed to turn dinkers into doubles into a Skynet-like being with the potential to slam balls into those same gaps and turn doubles into triples. What I just described may sound like a lottery ticket, but when your other options are a 29 year old trying to capture lightning in a bottle for the second year in a row, left-handed bat who only hits righties well and sometimes he struggles with that, and two aging former speedsters who nobody is sure what either has left in the tank, that lottery ticket becomes one of the most sure things.

Speed

For what feels like years, Phillies Nation has been posting in our Gameday threads on both our blog here and on Facebook looking for more small ball, more station-to-station play. Brown gives the Phillies this immediately. There has yet to be a season where Brown has not reached double digits in steals across the levels he has played in. In 2009, Brown hit 9 triples across 3 levels. In 2010, Brown hit 4 more. Brown’s wheels add an immediate threat to score from second on a hard hit ball from the outfield or from first on a soft gapper. D-Bo has the skills we have been shouting for, he just hasn’t really had the chance to use them.

Opportunity

The Phils do not have a starting left fielder set in stone. With Mayberry receiving a bulk of the innings at first base in the spring, it appears that Mayberry may begin the year as the Opening Day first baseman, effectively taking his top competition out of the running for left field. With Nix’s underwhelming offense, Pierre’s offensive inconsistencies, and Podsednik’s own defensive struggles, Brown has something right now that that he was denied last year when he broke his hamate bone: opportunity.

This past week, Philadelphia fans have seen a complete 180 take place on public perception of very high profile players. Listening to sports radio on Monday and Tuesday, you would have thought the Sixers passed on Michael Jordan in 1984 or Shaq in 1992 to select Evan Turner. Turner has averaged 22 pts and 11 rebounds a game since being inserted into the starting line-up, playing great on both ends of the floor. He was a player who did not receive consistent playing time but stepped up when complete faith and confidence was shown in him. Last night, Ilya Bryzgalov collected yet another shutout. It wasn’t that long ago that the Bryz was the most groan-inducing player in recent Philadelphia sports memory.

It really made me feel good to see Brown went 2-5 with a home run today. D-Bo has spent this off-season working incredibly hard on improving his defense and staying in great shape. There are instances in life where no matter how hard we work, we will still fail and knowingly make the same mistake. Not only do I have full confidence that Brown’s defense will improve, but I know those mistakes will fade away, too. Brown could join the rare club of changing Philadelphia fans’ perception. He just needs a shot – and he has all the tools to earn it.

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