Jul 112012
Phillies OF prospect Domonic Brown

Domonic Brown and Hunter Pence’s tackling dummy.

Now that it seems like the sun is setting on this era of Phillies baseball, it’s going to take some homegrown talent to get them moving in a positive direction again, much like the core that got things started in 2007.  While he’s not a prospect anymore, Domonic Brown should be leading the next wave.  However, that obviously hasn’t worked out as planned.  In 2010, he made his ML debut filling in for Shane Victorino who was placed on the DL.  Quickly, his playing time dried up.  He was relegated to bench duty even before Victorino was healthy, and that doesn’t help a prospect’s development at all.  In August, he received 40 plate appearances in 27 team games.  Players don’t learn to hit major league pitching by watching it; they do it by hitting it.  Once they decided he would no longer start every day, he should have been back in the minors playing every day, where he would’ve received three times as many plate appearances in the month.

After breaking a hamate in spring training the next year, he came back to the majors in late May.  He had his ups and downs, but he certainly showed flashes of his potential.  Of course the Phillies traded for Hunter Pence, and they had a decision to make.  Raul Ibanez or Domonic Brown?  Ibanez was a veteran that they stuck with through some tough times, but on the day Pence was acquired, Brown was having a better season at the plate, and his baserunning and defense, while clumsy, were superior to Ibanez.  We know who they chose.

At this point, a lot of fans were down on Brown.  As the former #4 prospect in baseball who the team refused to trade for Roy Halladay, they were expecting big things and rightfully so.  His performance did not meet expectations, but he’s only 24 years old.  Not only is he still young, being yo-yoed from the majors to the minors and from the lineup to the bench is bad prospect development.  If he doesn’t pan out, the player certainly has to be responsible for part of his struggles, but the front office and coaching staff hopefully learned a valuable lesson: minor leaguers have to play.  If they did not learn this, the rebuilding process could be a slow one.

He’s currently on the DL with a knee sprain, but Brown should be coming back into the picture in a month.  It would surprise me if Juan Pierre was still a Phillie when the calendar flips to August.  He has beaten expectations with his highest OBP since 2009 and a career high in stolen base percentage.  That’s good for the Phillies, but at 34 years old, he is not a part of their future.  If he’s healthy, Brown should be up and playing every day.  Sink or swim.  What is he capable of?

The reality is, plenty of players struggle when they first come up.  Brown has 280 ML plate appearances over two seasons, hardly indicative of what his career could become.  To put his brief career into context so far, I looked at the statistics for every Baseball America top four prospect that’s a position player since they started doing top 100 lists in 1990 (there have been 48.)  I looked at their OPS after roughly 70 PA (what Brown had after 2010) and 280 PA (what he has in his career) to see where he stacked up.  I split them into four groups: players with multiple All-Stars or major awards, players with one All-Star appearance or major award, players that had none of those, and players with less than three years of service time.

Through his first 70 PA, Brown had a .612 OPS.  This is certainly below average compared to other top prospects, but he’s far from alone as a young player struggling.  13 players in this group got off to worse starts than Brown, especially considering that Brown is playing in a tougher era for hitting than players that debuted in the 90’s and early 00’s.  Some of these players never turned it around, like Andujar Cedeno or from more recent times, Corey Patterson and Brandon Wood.  It seems like Cedeno and Patterson were simply not going to develop into quality players, but the Angels seemed to play a role in Wood’s struggles.  Maybe he was just destined to not perform in the majors, but Anaheim jerked him around from the minors to the majors, occasionally going long stretches without playing.

The majority of the players that started off worse than Brown eventually turned it around.  Alex Rodriguez actually had the worst start with a .407 OPS, but he was just 18 when he made his debut and rushed to the majors with about only a season’s worth of action in the minors.  Six other players that started worse than Brown went on to become multiple time All-Stars, and two more made it once each.  Two other players, Mark Teixeira and Giancarlo Stanton, had starts slightly better than Brown before developing into two of the game’s best hitters.  It’s clear that a poor first 70 plate appearances doesn’t mean a player is doomed for failure.  It’s just a learning experience as a player makes adjustments.

Conversely, a hot first 70 PA doesn’t mean a player is on the fast track to success.  Jay Bruce got off to the best start with a 1.096 OPS in his first 70 PA.  He’s settled in as a very good power hitter, but he’s not a generational talent.  Other players near the top with best starts include J.D. Drew, Ryan Klesko, Jeremy Hermida, Delmon Young and Ben Grieve.  Drew and Klesko had solid careers, but the other three quickly cooled off and didn’t reach their potential.  Whether it was just a hot streak or a player that eventually couldn’t make adjustments once pitching figured him out, their hot starts did not reflect what their career ultimately became.

Does 280 PA paint a clearer picture?  It’s about 40% of a season, but it still proves to be inadequate.  11 players had a worse career OPS at the 280 PA mark than Brown, and six of them went on to become All-Stars.  This list still includes A-Rod and perhaps a surprising player in Paul Konerko.  It took Konerko a couple trades and his first serious chance at playing time in the majors with the White Sox before he started developing.  One other player close to Brown and probably the best example of a team staying patient with a highly touted youngster is Alex Gordon with the Royals.  On the flip side, the prospect with the 4th best OPS after 280 PA? Ian Stewart.  Did he go on to become a star?

The thing all of these players have in common is that eventually, their team ran them out their every day to see what they’re capable of.  Except for a two month stretch in 2011, Brown has not had that chance, and even that’s a stretch.  To qualify for a batting title, a player must have 3.1 plate appearances per team game.  From May 21st to July 29th, the Phillies played 60 games, and Brown received 3.43 PA per team game in that span, a pace that nearly 100 players eclipsed.  He still should’ve been able to accumulate 40 more PA in that span, although that’s not a huge deal.

The reason most given for choosing Ibanez over Brown in 2011 was his veteran experience.  Can winning teams develop prospects in big games in playoff hunts? They can and have.  Three of the top prospects I looked at were on World Series winners when they first saw extended action in the majors (or in other words, more than a September call-up.)  Three others reached the World Series.  13 of them just made the playoffs, and there would be a couple more in the playoffs if not for the 1994 strike.

What stood out to me most was that with the exception of Cliff Floyd on the ’94 Expos, Brown’s every day duty in the 2011 season was on the team with the highest winning percentage of any team featuring one of the prospects I looked at.  This suggests one of two things: one, it’s rare for a team that good to have an elite prospect ready to break into the bigs, or two, institutionally, teams in baseball prefer less stressful environments to help young players transition to the majors.  There were certainly plenty of prospects coming up with awful teams, likely attributed to the fact that many of these players were high draft picks earned with a lot of losses.

If there’s one thing to take out of this, it’s that Phillies fans are going to need some patience.  Not just for Domonic Brown, but the roster in general.  The first 70 plate appearances or even 280 plate appearances in a career don’t reflect what a player can ultimately become.  If they go back into a genuine rebuilding mode, there are going to be plenty of frustrating games, even compared to this current season.  A lot of players could come and go, and there will be a lot of trial and error with young players to see if they can stick.  That’s just the life of prospect development and building from within.

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Scott Grauer writes for PSC and Bus Leagues Baseball – check him out! Scott also regularly updates the PSC 2012 Minor League Thread with player stats, game results, and more…