The Major League development of Domonic Brown

 

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.

Jonathon Niese, New York Mets

2011 v. LHB: .258/.324/.339
2011 v. RHB: .280/.353/.433

Career v. LHB: .280/.353/.444
Career v. RHB: .282/.347/.430

Analysis: Niese works with a fastball right around 90, and he doesn’t use a changeup much. His 2nd and 3rd pitches are a curveball and cutter, and this season he’s leaning on the curve more than last season which might be why lefties have had a harder time against him this season. Niese is definitely in a gray area of whether or not Brown should start.

Chris Capuano, New York Mets

2011 v. LHB: .250/.297/.333
2011 v. RHB: .312/.370/.567

Career v. LHB: .233/.294/.331
Career v. RHB: .276/.342/.479

Analysis: Despite not pitching in the majors for two full seasons due to injuries, Capuano’s arsenal really hasn’t changed. He relies on an upper 80’s fastball, a changeup and a slider. The slider is likely the reason he’s been much harder on lefties and his career, and he might be a tough matchup for Brown.

John Lannan, Washington Nationals

2011 v. LHB: .191/.296/.319
2011 v. RHB: .335/.404/.482

Career v. LHB: .271/.338/.452
Career v. RHB: .276/.343/.410

Analysis: Lannan’s stinginess against lefties this year is definitely one I’d attribute to small sample size. He’s using the same four pitches (fastball, slider, curveball and changeup) at roughly the same percentages as previous seasons, so statistically I don’t see a reason for the large improvement he’s shown so far.

Tom Gorzelanny, Washington Nationals

2011 v. LHB: .103/.167/.256
2011 v. RHB: .261/.346/.497

Career v. LHB: .236/.302/.367
Career v. RHB: .272/.354/.436

Analysis: Gorzelanny, like Lannan, is much better than usual against lefties this year, and there really doesn’t seem to be a reason for it. Over the years, he’s all but abandoned his curveball. This season, he’s even using less of his slider and more of his curveball which typically would have the reverse effect on his splits.

Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals

2011 v. LHB: .240/.283/.260
2011 v. RHB: .221/.262/.311

Career v. LHB: .222/.293/.270
Career v. RHB: .241/.307/.341

Analysis: Garcia doesn’t have the arsenal that would suggest that he’s tougher on lefties, but the statistics show that he has been in his career, particularly in hitting for power. Garcia’s cutter is his best pitch, and he frequently throws a changeup too. Perhaps it’s his unorthodox delivery that makes him so hard on left handed batters.

Travis Wood, Cincinnati

2011 v. LHB: .303/.400/.364
2011 v. RHB: .287/.328/.466

Career v. LHB: .192/.283/.273
Career v. RHB: .257/.303/.400

Analysis: There’s probably no reason for it, but lefties are hitting for good contact and displaying patience so far this season. Wood works with five different pitches, fastball, cutter, changeup, curveball and slider in the order he uses them most. We already know Manuel doesn’t think Wood is a good lefty for Brown to face.

Randy Wolf, Milwaukee Brewers

2011 v. LHB: .189/.286/.243
2011 v. RHB: .282/.349/.473

Career v. LHB: .229/.299/.395
Career v. RHB: .259/.330/.427

Analysis: Phillies fans are obviously very familiar with Wolf, but he’s changed his style a bit since he left Philadelphia four seasons ago. He’s throwing his fastball less and less, and in recent years he’s been throwing a slider more than he used to which might be why he’s so effective against lefties. He still throws his slow curve around the same percentage.

Chris Narveson, Milwaukee Brewers

2011 v. LHB: .231/.302/.385
2011 v. RHB: .273/.328/.375

Career v. LHB: .237/.310/.342
Career v. RHB: .267/.329/.443

Analysis: Narveson hasn’t really relied on his fastball since being inserted into the rotation, but this year his arsenal is pretty different from even just last season. He hardly throws his slider anymore, and now he throws his changeup 1/3 of the time. The increased effectiveness and frequency of the pitch might account for changes in his splits.

Paul Maholm, Pittsburgh Pirates

2011 v. LHB: .271/.340/.313
2011 v. RHB: .233/.309/.356

Career v. LHB: .212/.282/.299
Career v. RHB: .299/.360/.452

Analysis: Maholm has been a mediocre mainstay in Pittsburgh’s rotation for years, and he’s pretty much thrown the same pitches in his entire career. His slider has consistently been an above average pitch, and his curveball has been good more often than not too, so he’s pretty tough against left handed batters.

James Russell, Chicago Cubs

2011 v. LHB: .231/.250/.410
2011 v. RHB: .328/.422/.689

Career v. LHB: .235/.268/.437
Career v. RHB: .335/.382/.592

Analysis: The Cubs have been hit hard by injuries, and that’s why a guy like Russell who should probably be a LOOGY is getting starts. Out of the bullpen, he can rely on just his fastball and slider to get lefties out, but obviously he needs more in the rotation against right handed batters too. He probably just can’t throw a good third pitch.

Wandy Rodriguez, Houston Astros

2011 v. LHB: .228/.279/.333
2011 v. RHB: .286/.332/.471

Career v. LHB: .249/.308/.382
Career v. RHB: .265/.333/.428

Analysis: Rodriguez has settled in as a nice middle of the rotation starter the last few years with a three pitch mix. He’s completely abandoned a slider and cutter he used sparingly at the start of his career, and now he leans heavily on his fastball and curveball. He features a change that he’s been using a little more lately.

J.A. Happ, Houston Astros

2011 v. LHB: .371/.446/.686
2011 v. RHB: .233/.317/.394

Career v. LHB: .226/.311/.378
Career v. RHB: .249/.325/.405

Analysis: This season, Happ has obviously really struggled against lefties despite an increase in use of his curveball. It was a good pitch for him in the minors, but he got away from using it when he was first called up. He still uses his slider as his second pitch, and his stats against lefties will likely normalize over the rest of the season.

Jonathan Sanchez, San Francisco Giants

2011 v. LHB: .176/.200/.235
2011 v. RHB: .228/.354/.386

Career v. LHB: .211/.298/.346
Career v. RHB: .237/.340/.387

Analysis: The Phillies have seen plenty of Sanchez over the last couple years, both good and bad. He has great stuff, led by a low 90’s fastball and a very good slider. That’s what makes him so tough on lefties, and in the last couple years, he’s started using a changeup which allowed him to make the jump from fringe starter with good stuff to a mainstay in the Giants’ rotation.

Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants

2011 v. LHB: .208/.224/.250
2011 v. RHB: .278/.350/.351

Career v. LHB: .223/.267/.320
Career v. RHB: .282/.334/.419

Analysis: Bumgarner doesn’t have the fastball velocity he did as an amateur, but he’s still on his way to becoming a very good ML starter. He’s barely using his changeup so far this season, but he’s still been more effective against righties than usual. His hard slider makes him a tough matchup for Brown and other left handed batters.

Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants

2011 v. LHB: .250/.357/.417
2011 v. RHB: .243/.349/.459

Career v. LHB: .243/.334/.376
Career v. RHB: .239/.316/.378

Analysis: Over his career, Zito has been just about even against righties and lefties. He’s obviously not the same pitcher he once was with Oakland, and due to his injuries this year, it’s possible the Phillies never see him make a start against them. He doesn’t throw his big, slow curveball as much as he used to.

Joe Saunders, Arizona Diamondbacks

2011 v. LHB: .246/.274/.368
2011 v. RHB: .309/.396/.527

Career v. LHB: .259/.316/.357
Career v. RHB: .284/.342/.458

Analysis: Saunders is known for pitching to contact, much of it being extremely hard. This season, he’s throwing his slider much more than any other season in his career, and so far he’s improved against lefties a little bit. He’s used his changeup as his second best pitch his entire career, but he’s still bad against righties.

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

2011 v. LHB: .155/.258/.207
2011 v. RHB: .256/.305/.369

Career v. LHB: .195/.272/.341
Career v. RHB: .231/.319/.325

Analysis: Kershaw is one of the league’s best young pitchers, and he’s a potential Cy Young winner. He’s nasty against all batters, but particularly against lefties due to a slider he’s developed over the last couple seasons. He’s primarily a fastball/slider pitcher now with a few curves and changeups mixed in.

Ted Lilly, Los Angeles Dodgers

2011 v. LHB: .273/.317/.473
2011 v. RHB: .291/.328/.471

Career v. LHB: .253/.316/.407
Career v. RHB: .242/.307/.431

Analysis: Lilly has been around a while, and his arsenal has largely been the same his entire career. The use of his curveball has declined a bit in favor of his slider and changeup, but he’s a solid pitcher despite his sluggish start to this season. His splits are just about even this year and his career.

Clayton Richard, San Diego Padres

2011 v. LHB: .244/.295/.317
2011 v. RHB: .291/.362/.448

Career v. LHB: .237/.291/.319
Career v. RHB: .285/.360/.433

Analysis: Richard has been a bit of a different pitcher this season, all of a sudden throwing a cutter more than any other non-fastball pitch he has. He cut down on his slider, but it hasn’t really affected his splits at all. His cutter hasn’t been very effective despite more use, and his splits are pretty much the same despite the change in pitches.

Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox

2011 v. LHB: .200/.238/.267
2011 v. RHB: .255/.349/.435

Career v. LHB: .242/.300/.373
Career v. RHB: .248/.326/.368

Analysis: Thinking back to the Rays’ plan for Matt Joyce, Jon Lester was a pitcher Joe Maddon singled out as a lefty to get Joyce in against.  The stats this year indicate maybe that’s not a good idea.  However, it is true that his cutter and changeup are very effective pitches, and he also utilizes a fastball and curve.

Ricky Romero, Toronto Blue Jays

2011 v. LHB: .250/.344/.417
2011 v. RHB: .205/.262/.346

Career v. LHB: .280/.348/.466
Career v. RHB: .246/.329/.351

Analysis: Romero is a rare lefty whose 2011 and career splits match in terms of being worse against lefties.  Romero is primarily a two-pitch pitcher with his fastball and changeup, and that probably explains his effectiveness against righties.  After mixing in a slider, cutter and curveball last year, he’s using all three pitches significantly less in 2011.

Jo-Jo Reyes, Toronto Blue Jays

2011 v. LHB: .318/.423/.423
2011 v. RHB: .304/.350/.470

Career v. LHB: .237/.328/.386
Career v. RHB: .316/.389/.532

Analysis: Reyes has somehow survived in Toronto’s rotation for the entire season despite his much-publicized struggles over recent seasons.  He’s been bad against righties and lefties this season, and a reason from that aside from not being very good might be a decrease in use of his slider and curveball (a combined 15% which is a career low.)

Jason Vargas, Seattle Mariners

2011 v. LHB: .318/.357/.485
2011 v. RHB: .239/.297/.341

Career v. LHB: .240/.297/.384
Career v. RHB: .272/.333/.443

Analysis: This former Marlin and Met may have made a change in his arsenal that would cause a change in splits.  This year, all of a sudden he’s throwing a lot of cutters, and it’s been an effective pitch.  That allows him to use his regular fastball a lot less, and he still mixes in a lot of changeups and some curves.

Erik Bedard, Seattle Mariners

2011 v. LHB: .220/.316/.360
2011 v. RHB: .245/.302/.429

Career v. LHB: .237/.340/.345
Career v. RHB: .245/.312/.375

Analysis: For a change, Erik Bedard is healthy (for now).  He’s still generally throwing the same pitches, and he’s not throwing his fastball as much as he used to.  In recent seasons, he’s fallen in love with his curveball, and it’s been an effective pitch.  He’s gotten back to his changeup which he had previously abandoned in recent years.

Brett Anderson, Oakland A’s

2011 v. LHB: .273/.297/.273
2011 v. RHB: .247/.326/.386

Career v. LHB: .300/.332/.377
Career v. RHB: .246/.301/.374

Analysis: Despite some injuries last season, Anderson is one of the best young pitchers in baseball.  He relies on his fastball and slider almost exclusively, and it’s his slider that makes him so hard on lefties.  This season, he’s throwing it over 40% of the time, and he’s almost like a reliever the way he’s relying on two pitches.

Gio Gonzalez, Oakland A’s

2011 v. LHB: .236/.311/.364
2011 v. RHB: .213/.303/.316

Career v. LHB: .246/.333/.414
Career v. RHB: .244/.336/.375

Analysis: After being involved in numerous trades, Gonzalez has settled in with Oakland and become a good ML starter.  He’s last on this last, and he’s a bit of an oddity.  In the minors, scouts believed he needed to improve his changeup, and as he’s gotten better in the majors, he’s throwing it less.  He loves his low 90’s fastball and curveball.

That’s a lot of information and probably a lot of fluff too, so I’ll do my best to summarize.  Of the 26 pitchers on this list, only five have career numbers worse against lefties.  That’s a pretty small amount, and only one or two have been worse against lefties just this year.  It’s easy to see why this plan hasn’t worked out with the Rays and Matt Joyce.  There just aren’t enough lefty starters out there that meet the conditions for this plan to break Brown in against lefties, but the Phillies need to find a way to start him against lefties to get him comfortable.  Pitchers with good sliders should probably be avoided, but the more at bats, the better for his development.

Overall, I think patience should be stressed for fans.  He obviously has the athleticism and talent to be a great player, but it’s going to take time.  He needs to adjust to big league pitching, and the only way he can do it is by facing it.  It may be frustrating when he swings at a pitch he can’t reach or pops up to the catcher, but frustrating at bats in May and June could pay off later in the year when he’s more comfortable in the majors and on his way to reaching his potential.

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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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