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We are three games into the Phillies’ 2012 spring training campaign and former top prospect Domonic Brown has already received some criticism. He is 2-for-6 with a triple and one failed stolen base attempt, but it is Brown’s defense that has been the lightning rod thus far. In yesterday’s game against the New York Yankees, Brown misplayed a couple fly balls to left field, so much so that the YES Network broadcast played a blooper reel, including Brown and a few of his teammates.
Many of the stat-minded Phillies fans have made no secret of their support for Brown, urging patience throughout his bumpy ride in the last two years. During the off-season, GM Ruben Amaro said that he would like Brown to start the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley unless the left fielder had an awe-inspiring spring training performance. Although Brown has looked good at the plate — quite good, actually — so far, his defense will be his downfall.
However, that shouldn’t be the case. Raul Ibanez wrapped up a three-year contract with the Phillies after the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals last October. The lefty posted a .344 wOBA in Phillies red with laughable defensive numbers, to say the least. With the obvious caveat about the unreliability of defensive stats, he posted an aggregate -8.6 UZR/150 with the Phillies, meaning that in 150 defensive games, Ibanez made about nine fewer plays than an average left fielder. Prior to Ibanez, Pat Burrell manned left field with a career -6.9 UZR/150.
Offensively, Brown is expected to produce at about the .340 wOBA level, roughly equivalent to Ibanez. In fact, ZiPS has him exactly at .340. Given Brown’s youth, good health, and general athleticism, it is hard to imagine him coming close to being as poor defensively as Ibanez. So, it is a bit reactionary and illogical for fans and media types to say that Brown’s defense should be the deciding factor in his 2012 home, whether in Philadelphia or Lehigh Valley. If Ibanez’s defense wasn’t a cause for alarm, then Brown’s shouldn’t be.
That is not to ignore Brown’s obvious defensive shortcomings. He did not look sharp in left field — his reactions were slow and his routes were circuitous. It could be the case that keeping Brown in Triple-A for the time being could turn him from a below-average defender into an average or even an above-average defender in the future. The key is striking a balance between building Brown’s future value and utilizing his current value, as the Phillies are team positioned to win in the short-term.
ZiPS projects Brown at a 110 OPS+, meaning that Brown’s OPS is expected to be about 10 percent better than the league average. Other Phillies outfielders that would play in Brown’s stead don’t stack up as well: John Mayberry, Jr. (93), Laynce Nix (92), Juan Pierre (78), and Scott Podsednik (77) are all both under Brown’s projections and the league average. None of the players are significantly better than Brown — if at all — to make up for the lost offense.
March is a month where writers and fans alike overreact to small, meaningless samples. You will see many articles suggesting caution with spring training sample sizes, but for Phillies fans, it is especially important in the case of Dom Brown. With very few roster spots up for grabs, the spotlight will shine even brighter on the left field situation. Would that a 24-year-old didn’t have to answer questions about his shortcomings and his future five days into spring training exhibition games.