Domonic Brown: Turning Lemons into Lemonade

If the Phillies had plans to open the 2013 season with a formidable outfield, those dreams have quickly vanished. As Nick Swisher went off the board just before Christmas, signing a four-year, $56 million deal, so too did the final option for a full-time corner outfielder for the Phillies. Among those remaining are Michael Bourn (whose price is prohibitive), Matt Diaz, Scott Hairston, Ryan Sweeney, and bigot Delmon Young — players best fit in a platoon.

There has been speculation that the Phillies will use four outfielders in the two corners, utilizing John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, Domonic Brown, and Darin Ruf depending on the match-ups. While a platoon involving Nix and Mayberry makes sense, a platoon involving Brown does not.

A team utilizes a platoon when players at a particular position complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. For instance, a Mayberry/Nix platoon works because Mayberry hits LHP well and RHP worse (.371/.301 wOBA), while Nix hits RHP passably well and LHP significantly worse (.317/.235 wOBA). When he was healthy and playing every day, Brown showed an ability to hit left-handed pitching nearly as well as he hit right-handed pitching:

Impressively, the left-handed power hitter has hit left-handed pitching at a .282 clip in his career; his ability to hit southpaws will only accelerate his learning curve in the majors.

The above quote from Bill Root on Sports Illustrated’s website was posted on July 13, 2010. A few weeks later, Matt Gelb noted how well Brown was hitting lefties with Triple-A Lehigh Valley:

Huppert declined to share his opinion on whether he believes Brown is ready for the big leagues, but he was certainly impressed by the rightfielder’s ability to hang in for a two-run triple against sidewinding lefthander R.J. Swindle in the bottom of the eighth inning.

“He doesn’t give in at the plate,” Huppert said.

Brown is hitting .318 against lefthanded pitching.

There is a difference between Major League-quality left-handed pitching and Minor League-quality left-handed pitching, though. In his brief Major League career, Brown has posted a .260 wOBA against LHP and .321 against RHP. That gap has prompted Brown’s suggested use as a platoon player.

With 492 career trips to the plate, Brown has faced right-handers in 383 of them (78 percent); lefties in only 109. 109 plate appearances isn’t nearly enough for us to ascertain a player’s true talent. The standard deviation for his RHP performance is 24 points of wOBA, meaning that we are 95 percent confident his true RHP talent is between .273 and .369. The standard deviation for his LHP performance is 42 points of wOBA, so his 95 percent confidence interval is .176-.344.

Saying that Brown’s true talent against southpaws is .176-.344 is just about worthless, which should tell you that 109 PA is also just about worthless. When you have such scant information, you want to regress towards the league average. Last season, the average non-pitcher posted a .320 wOBA with a standard deviation of .001.

In this post at Athletics Nation back in 2008, Sal Baxamusa illustrated the best estimate of Travis Buck‘s true OBP skill based on the amount of plate appearances in which you observe a .377 OBP.

Notice how much further from the league average (.330) the estimate gets as your sample size increases.

Because we have hardly any information to use, we heavily regress Brown to the league average. As a result, our best estimate of his true LHP skill is a .320 wOBA, virtually identical to his performance against right-handed pitching. We either need to accept this or get some more data before making any conclusions.

Additionally, platooning the 25-year-old would simply further stunt his development. Brown has been in the Majors since 2010, but has accumulated only 492 PA in total, an average of 164 per season. The timeline:

  • 2010 (70 PA): Brown was promoted to the Majors on July 28. He started 13 of 35 games in which he appeared, but 9 of those 13 starts came in his first 11 games. He was a bench bat by mid-August. He suffered from a strained quadriceps in September, forcing him to miss 15 games.
  • 2011 (210 PA): Brown was hit on the hand by a pitch, fracturing his hamate bone. He had surgery to fix it, then was sent to Triple-A. Keith Law estimates that it takes 12-18 months for a player to regain power after such an injury, effectively a timetable of May-October 2012. The Phillies recalled Brown at the end of May and he played regularly through the end of July, when they senthim back to Lehigh Valley. Brown was brought back up in mid-September only to pinch-run and pinch-hit once before the season ended.
  • 2012 (212 PA): Injuries continue to sabotage Brown, as he suffered from a left hamstring injury in May and inflammation in his right knee in June. Matt Gelb noted, “[the injury] comes at an inopportune time for Brown, who was finally finding his stroke at triple-A Lehigh Valley while playing regularly. Brown was hitting .300 in 11 June games with three home runs and a .939 OPS.” Once healed, the Phillies recalled him at the end of July, giving him regular playing time for the final two months.

Brown has never had more than two months of uninterrupted regular playing time at the Major League level. Platooning him in 2013, at age 25 in his fourth season, would only further impede his growth as a player. Brown either is or isn’t going to be a good enough player to be a part of the Phillies’ plans; they are never going to learn this by using him as a part-time player.

If the Phillies don’t intend to give Brown 600 PA this season, they should trade him. As Brown becomes increasingly older and more expensive, both the Phillies and their potential suitors will have little need for a player who hasn’t played a full year at the Major League level. Put another way, when it comes to Brown, the Phillies need to [crap] or get off the pot.