May 272011

With Shane Victorino’s hamstring injury and a stagnant offense, the Phillies were struggling to win games and support their great starting staff for a couple weeks. Injuries played a role in the offense’s struggles with Chase Utley missing the entire season until recently, and Carlos Ruiz missing some time with a back injury (and slumping when healthy,) but Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard haven’t been very good in May, and Ben Francisco has proven to not be an everyday player. Initially after Victorino was placed on the DL, Ruben Amaro said he would not call up Domonic Brown, but the next day, he changed his mind.

Brown has battled his own injuries this year, missing most of spring training and April with a broken hammate bone and also missing a few games recently with a thumb sprain. Between Clearwater and Lehigh Valley, he had 60 at bats, probably about as many as he would’ve received in spring training. Much has been made of Brown’s struggles since his first call up last season. He posted just a .612 OPS in 62 AB with the Phillies last season, left his winter league team early and was hitless in his first 15 spring training at bats this season. Some fans are concerned about the slow start, but there’s nothing to be discouraged about.

Of course it would be nice for Brown to get off to a smoking hot start and immediately prove to be the great players analysts think he can be, but the reality is it hardly ever happens easy for new major league players. People often compare him to Jason Heyward and Mike Stanton not because of the type of player they are, but the convenience of two other teams in the division also having young right fielders. They say those players got off to great starts, and while that’s true for Heyward, it’s not for Stanton. In Stanton’s first 58 AB, a similar small sample size to Brown’s, Stanton struck out 26 times and only had a .624 OPS. Stanton struggled for a couple more weeks, but then he made adjustments and settled in.

Stanton is just one case of a young player struggling when he first came up, but there are plenty of other ones in baseball history. It’s a game of adjustments, and Brown certainly has to make them. He has to adjust to major league pitching and his preparation for the long season, and that can take time. His first 60 at bats didn’t determine that he won’t be a good player, and if he dominated in his first 60 at bats, they wouldn’t have determined he would be great either. Pitchers will attack him differently, and what will determine if he reaches his potential is if he can always find a way to counter how teams are trying to get him out.

How do the Phillies balance player development and winning? They’re not mutually exclusive like some seem to think. It’s true that Brown could struggle as he’s learning to be a major leaguer, but that likely won’t hurt the playoff chances of a team this good. The only way for a player to learn how to hit major league pitching is to go up there and do it, and sitting on the bench or hitting like a man among boys in the minors won’t help with that. It’s quite possible that he’s one of the two best corner outfield options the team has right now too, and that would mean he gives them the best chance to win. Raul Ibanez is incredibly streaky, and Ben Francisco, John Mayberry Jr. and Ross Gload simply aren’t everyday Major League starters.

The more interesting question might be how to work him in against left handed pitchers. It’s obvious that a lot of lefty batters can’t hit lefty pitchers whether it’s due to tough breaking balls, unique arm angles or just a lack of experience against them. In the minors, Brown really didn’t struggle against lefties. His statistics were clearly diminished against lefties, but nothing suggested that he wouldn’t be able to handle them in the majors. Sometimes in the minors it’s obvious that a player will have to settle for a platoon role in the majors, but Brown likely won’t have to be limited to starting against righties.

His struggles against lefties may be magnified at the beginning of his career because it is harder for lefties to adjust to facing lefties, but he shouldn’t be reduced to a strict platoon player until he becomes a veteran. It is possible for lefties to improve against lefties as Chase Utley’s career shows. I agree that when he gets days off, it should be against tough lefty starters, but it can’t be against every single one. He won’t get better against lefties unless he gets experience against them, so the Phillies need to have a plan to break him in against them.

The Tampa Bay Rays face a similar dilemma with a right fielder of their own in Matt Joyce. Joyce doesn’t have nearly the potential as Brown, and it’s likely he ends up as a platoon player in the end. However, he’s still a good young player, and they need to find out if he can be an everyday guy. Before the season started, manager Joe Maddon had a plan to make that happen, and it caught my eye. He said that he would start Joyce against lefties with reverse splits, that is lefty pitchers who are tougher against right handed batters than left handed batters. This tends to be pitchers that lean on a cutter or changeup, but there are always exceptions. Joyce is having a great season, but it’s fair to say that Maddon either ditched the plan or hasn’t been able to execute it since he only has 20 AB against lefties.

I wanted to take a look at some of the lefty starters the Phillies could face the rest of the season and see if this plan was feasible for the Phillies and Domonic Brown. I’ll share their AVG/OBP/SLG splits against both sides of the plate for an easy comparison not only for this season but their careers, and also some information on the pitches they throw to see if Brown can start against them to build up his confidence against lefty pitchers. The 2011 numbers are undoubtedly a small sample size, but it’s worth noting anyway.

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Scott Grauer writes for PSC and Bus Leagues Baseball – check him out!  Scott also regularly updates the PSC Minor League Thread with player stats, game results, and more…

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