Don’t Give Up On Domonic Brown

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the sentiment among some Phillies fans that the club missed on Brandon Moss, who was briefly in the organization at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. I did the same with Jason Grilli last year. It’s tough to see marginal players pass through your fingertips only to go onto major success elsewhere.

Seeing Phillies fans long for Moss and Grilli is humorous, juxtaposed with a loud swath of Phillies fans fed up with Domonic Brown, calling for the organization to demote him to Triple-A, trade him, or just plain release him. I’d be willing to wager there’s a high percentage of crossover between the two groups.

The criticism of Brown has been completely warranted through the first three months of the season. Aside from his 12-homer May last year (now 27 percent of his career home runs), he hasn’t done a whole lot against major league pitching. He has a career wRC+ of 97, which means he’s been slightly below average over 1,338 at-bats.

Oh, and the defense. It has been spectacularly awful. We knew he wasn’t going to be a Gold Glover even when he was still a young prospect, but he has actually regressed with regular playing time. Switching from right to left field likely didn’t help any, nor did the injuries and the Phillies’ jerking him around early in his career. Brown’s poor defense means he has to be even more consistently productive at the plate to justify his continued presence in the everyday lineup.

One can understand the frustration with watching Brown on an everyday basis — the rolling weak ground balls to second base, the easy misses in left field, the memory of the time the Phillies could have traded him for Jose Bautista.

For those of you who’d like to see Brown shipped out of town as quickly as possible, keep in mind that Brown could be the next Moss or Grilli: a former Phillie who slips through the cracks and turns into a superstar. While it’s unlikely he’ll ever do it again and the sample was certainly chock full of outliers, Brown did hit 12 home runs in May last season. Players don’t just luck into 12-homer months. Here’s a list of players to accomplish the feat since the start of the 2010 season:

Player Month G Year PA HR
Edwin Encarnacion May 30 2014 130 16
Nelson Cruz May 30 2014 129 13
Justin Upton Apr/Mar 26 2013 112 12
Chris Davis June 28 2013 116 12
Miguel Cabrera May 28 2013 132 12
Domonic Brown May 28 2013 109 12
Matt Kemp Apr/Mar 23 2012 98 12
Giancarlo Stanton May 29 2012 125 12
Josh Hamilton May 25 2012 111 12
Jose Bautista June 27 2012 120 14
B.J. Upton Sept/Oct 30 2012 129 12
Jay Bruce May 28 2011 122 12
Adrian Beltre Sept/Oct 24 2011 104 12
Jose Bautista May 29 2010 116 12
Jose Bautista August 28 2010 123 12
Troy Tulowitzki Sept/Oct 30 2010 134 15
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/1/2014.

B.J. Upton is the only player on that list who you wouldn’t want on your team right this very moment. Brown’s road back to success in the major leagues is a matter of strategic adjustments and mechanics — certainly within the realm of possibilities, even if it will be the Phillies trying to facilitate those adjustments and mechanical changes.

Consider a pitching example. On Monday night, Chicago Cubs starter Jake Arrieta was four outs away from a no-hitter in Boston against the Red Sox until Stephen Drew broke it up with a single to right field. Arrieta finished with 10 strikeouts, shutting them out over 7 2/3 innings, allowing just the one hit and a walk. His June line includes a Clayton Kershaw-esque 0.92 ERA and a 48/6 K/BB ratio in 39 1/3 innings. He has a 1.81 ERA over 11 starts overall. The ERA retrodictors agree that Arrieta is pitching very well — he has a 1.95 FIP and a 2.48 xFIP.

Arrieta was a top-100 prospect for the Baltimore Orioles going into the 2009 and 2010 seasons, after having been drafted in the 5th round in 2007. He didn’t exactly dominate minor league competition, but he was polished, jumping from A-ball in 2008 all the way up to Triple-A the next season at the age of 23. The Orioles brought him up to the big leagues in June of 2010 and Arrieta struggled, finishing with a 4.66 ERA over 18 starts. While Arrieta would occasionally flash greatness, his time with the Orioles was mostly forgettable. Entering 2013, he had a 5.33 career ERA over 334 1/3 innings.

On July 2 last season, the Orioles decided to end the Jake Arrieta experiment, sending him along with reliever Pedro Strop to the Cubs for starter Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger. While the ERA retrodictors weren’t fond of him, Arrieta pitched well in his three months with the Cubs last season, posting a 3.66 ERA over nine starts.

What has been the change for Arrieta? He has been using his four-seam fastball less and using a cut fastball more. Left-handed hitters, typically his bane, haven’t been a problem for him, as his platoon split has nearly vanished.

While there’s still time for the pendulum to swing the other way, Arrieta is far from the only player who eventually reached his potential after initially struggling in the majors. There’s Carlos Gomez with the Brewers, Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion with the Blue Jays, Josh Donaldson with the Athletics, Phil Hughes with the Twins (though the jury is certainly still out on him), and Kyle Lohse with the Brewers (but it started with the Cardinals), among plenty more.

Here’s the real meat of the matter with Brown: he’ll be eligible for arbitration for the first time after the season. Coming off of his 2014, in which he made a measly $550,000, it will cost the Phillies virtually nothing (around $1 million) to keep him and see if he can turn things around. His value is about as low as it can be right now, so the Phillies aren’t likely to get anything useful in return — certainly not a talented young player who would help the team years down the road. It’s a no-brainer to keep Brown in tow, and to keep giving him regular playing time now that the team is assuredly out of contention. Thus, here are the two possibilities:

  • Brown turns it around — This is excellent, and though his price will rise over the next two years of arbitration eligibility, the Phillies would eventually be able to sign him to a contract extension and make him a part of the future corps of players on a more competitive team.
  • Brown’s struggles continue — Brown’s salary stays relatively low, giving the Phillies roster flexibility. The Phillies won’t be competitive in the immediate future anyway, so his continued presence won’t roadblock anyone or hamstring the team’s ability to get 25 players onto the roster.

So, Phillies fans, learn to love Domonic Brown, or at least tolerate his presence. If you happen to be part of the vocally frustrated calling for his ouster, I certainly don’t want to hear you in a couple years if and when he becomes the next Brandon Moss, hitting dinger after dinger in another uniform for pennies on the dollar.

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