Phillies Nation


Mother Mayberry I?

So after that Johnny Damon debacle, I concede defeat. As it turns out, it cost $8 million for a year of Johnny Damon, which is waaaaay more than the Tigers ought to have paid. And to the question of whether a Damon-Werth-Ibanez outfield would have been good enough to get by, the response seems to be a resounding, “Hell no!”

Fair enough.

But there was a tangent of the conversation that I found interesting. Could the Phillies get rid of an outfielder and be OK with some combination of the following two players: Ben Francisco and John Mayberry?

Even if no one gets traded, this might wind up being an important question for this coming Phillies season. This very interesting post at Beyond the Box Score ranks the 30 major league teams in terms of how much value they lost to injury in 2009. The Phillies lost the fifth-least, which I can’t help but think contributed to their outstanding 2009 (though it throws into stark relief how bad the Astros were last year).

I shouldn’t have to remind any of you how easily injuries can derail a team’s season (just look at the Mets last year). So if one of the Phillies’ three outfielders goes down, we should know what to expect from their replacements. Francisco, a three-year major league veteran, is a known quantity at 29. Essentially take Shane Victorino, turn the defense, speed, power, throwing arm, and hitting for average tool knobs down about 10-20% each, and turn the hitting for power knob up about 30%. And he’s right-handed. If any Phillies outfielder went down, I’d be OK going into battle with Disco–you can win a World Series if he’s your seventh-best position player.

But the second backup outfielder, John Mayberry, Jr., is the real interesting one.

John Mayberry, as you probably know, is the son of John Mayberry, Sr., who spent 15 years in the majors as a power-hitting first baseman. His first major league hit was a three-run home run against the Yankees in the New Yankee Workshop last May. He’s an impressive specimen of a man, standing at 6-foot-6 and weighing 230 pounds. Even though he’s only had 60 major league at-bats, he’s 26 years old, only three years younger than Vic and Francisco.

The Ryan Howard parallels are obvious, both being huge men whose long swings generate lots of fly balls and lots of strikeouts.  Neither really walks as much as he should. Both are even from Missouri.

The biggest parallel, though, has to do with both Mayberry and Howard being late bloomers. Amateur American ballplayers usually take three roads to the majors. The first is to skip college and get to the majors around age 23, give or take a year or two. The second is to go to college, use that time to develop as one would in the minors, and get to the majors after only a season in the minors and start contributing immediately. Ryan Zimmerman, Justin Verlander, and Tim Lincecum have all done this in recent years. The third is to go to college, stew a little bit in the minors, and show up in the majors around age 26. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard both got to the majors late after spending three years in college. Mayberry did the same, leaving after his junior season at Stanford with a few kinks to work out of his system.

The difference between getting to the majors at 23 and getting there at 26 is huge. Baseball players usually peak at 27 and plateau into their early 30s before slowly declining. According to Bill James, a career total of 300 Win Shares (explanation for the stat here) is the baseline for a hall of fame player. People have gotten in with less, and not gotten in with more, but only one position player has ever totaled 300 win shares for his career and not been a major league regular by 25. That was Washington Senators outfielder Sam Rice (yes, it was that long ago).

Getting to the majors early is a chicken-and-egg argument, admittedly. You total more stats if you get to the majors early, so your historical reputation is greater, but at the same time, a really good player would get to the majors more than a year before his peak.

Of course, no one’s suggesting that John Mayberry will be, or need to be a hall-of-famer. But can he be a productive everyday power hitter, or is he more of a career bench player?

The power’s there. He’s slugged a hair under .500 at every minor league stop. And I’m not sure how instructive those 60 major league plate appearances count for a whole lot, given the sample size and how often he was shuttled in and out of the lineup and, indeed, in and out of the major league squad.

But there are some red flags. I know I said that his 2009 in the majors isn’t a great predictor, but he struck out in 40% of his plate appearances. FORTY PERCENT. In order for him to stick in the majors, that number has to go back to the mid-20s, where it has been in the minors for him.

Second, even though Ryan Howard strikes out more than Mayberry and walks roughly the same percentage of the time, he’s a .279 career hitter. Even in the minors, Mayberry sits around .255. There are plenty of players who have been productive in the majors for a long time with a .255 batting average, including Mayberry’s dad. But that doesn’t take into account the slippage that will almost certainly occur when he’s facing major league pitchers full-time.

Finally, though Mayberry, as I’ve said, hits for a fair turn of power, he doesn’t hit for as much power as does Howard. Howard’s isolated power (a measure of how many hits go for extra bases; slugging percentage minus batting average) is usually around.300, a tremendous number. Mayberry’s minor league total is a hair above .200, which is good, but not great.

One plus for Mayberry? That small sample size suggests that Mayberry hits the curveball well, something that Howard has never figured out how to do and, if the trend holds, bodes well for his chances of sticking.

So to answer the original question: is John Mayberry going to be a good everyday player? He’s not going to be Ryan Howard, but not many people are. Mayberry’s stuck between a pedigree that screams masher and a few nagging minor league stats that might hold him back.

I think the most we could reasonably expect from Mayberry long-term is to be Pat Burrell without the walks or the spectacularly bad defense. I really hope he gets there, even if the stats suggest he might not.

But speculate as we might, Mayberry’s career will be like so many other things: you’ll never know until you stick him in the lineup every day and find out.

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