Domonic Brown has enough of a life that he probably is not sitting at home reading High Cheese and wondering how, exactly, we've reached a point where we don't even mention his name when talking about the Phillies' situation in left field. But just in case he is: "Yo, Dom, We got your back, bud!"
Seriously though, I thought about Brown yesterday as I was looking at the career numbers of Rockies star outfielder (and almost-Cody-Ross of the 2009 postseason). It is amazing how fast fortunes change in the baseball biz. One minute, you are the No. 4 prospect in the game and competing for an Opening Day roster spot. The next, you are listening to your general manager tell reporters he envisions you spending all of 2012 in the minors.
Well, consider this a reminder that baseball is hard, and the jump from the minors to the majors is one that even future All-Stars can struggle with.
The table below features the numbers of five other big leaguers who struggled with the transition from the minors to the majors:
Gonzalez, who started 2008 as a blue-chip prospect with the Athletics and had a strong start to the season before going into a long funk that resulted in his demotion to the minors. He was traded in the offseason along with Huston Street to the Rockies for what ammounted to a half season of Matt Holliday (ah, hindsight) then struggled during the first few months of 2009 before finally catching fire and going on to become one of the most dynamic outfielders in the NL.
Carl Crawford, who did not really break out in Tampa Bay until his third season with the Rays.
Aramis Ramirez, who had a slow start to his career with the Pirates before blossoming into one of the best offensive third basemen in the game.
Ben Zobrist, who was never a Baseball America Top 100 prospect, but who overcame his early struggles to become a key cog in Tampa Bay's remarkably cost-efficient roster.
And, last but not least, Cameron Maybin, an uber-prospect who had a fast start with the Marlins before regressing and remains a work-in-progress, albeit a progressing work-in-progress.
Below are a variety of rate statistics from each player's first half-season (roughly) in the major leagues.
In addition to batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage, we've included their power and contact rates: at-bats-per-strikeout (AB/K), at-bats-per-home-run (AB/HR), the percentage of their plate appearances that resulted in an extra base hit (XBH%), the percentage of their hits that went for extra bases (X/H%), the average number of pitches they saw per plate appearance (P/PA) the percent of swings on which they made contact, either on a ball-in-play or foul ball (CON%), the percent of their strikes that were swings-and-misses (SS%), the percent of their strikes that were called strikes (SL%), and the percentage of their strikes that were foul balls (F/S%).
When you compare Brown's numbers in his first couple of stints in the majors with the other five players on the list, they actually look pretty darn good, particularly considering the type of players that Gonzalez, Crawford, Zobrist and Ramirez went on to become (the jury is still out on Maybin, although he appeared to make some strides at the plate this season).
In fact, while Brown's traditional averages don't look good (BA, OBP, SLG), his rate stats are all surprisingly adequate. In fact, the only category that is worse than the NL average for all players is his at-bats-per-strikeout and his swing-and-miss. His power stats (AB/HR, XBH, X/H) are all slightly above average, while his plate discipline stats are better than those posted by several Phillies in 2011. When you look at his 2011 numbers alone, he made more contact than Hunter Pence, Raul Ibanez, Ryan Howard and John Mayberry. His swing-and-miss rate is better than everybody on the roster except Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Ben Francisco and Wilson Valdez. His pitches-per-plate appearance is higher than Ryan Howard's team-leading 4.13.
Really, the big difference is the situations into which the other four players on the chart spent their early years. They did not play for teams that are expected to advance to the World Series. They did not play for teams with $175+ million payrolls. They did not play for teams that felt the need, or that had the ability, to trade or sign players who had already established themselves.
When the Phillies acquired Pence, their decision to send Brown to the minors was understandable. He was clearly raw in the field and at the plate, regardless of what the numbers say. The Phillies had to choose between giving Brown regular playing time in right field while moving Pence to left, or continuing to give regular playing time to Raul Ibanez in left. From Brown's first game on May 21 to his last on July 29, he hit .246/.335/.393 with 34 strikeouts, 16 XBH and five home runs in 209 plate appearances. During that same timeframe, Ibanez hit .251/.289/.448 with 38 strikeouts, 23 extra base hits and 10 home runs in 239 plate appearances.
Even in hindsight, it is difficult to determine the correct decision. Although Brown struggled mightily in the minors, it had to have been a mental challenge to leave what he thought was a lasting spot on a big league roster while also changing positions from right to left. Ibanez continued to hit for power, but also continued to reach base at a lackluster rate.
On one hand, two other big market contenders have made what turned out to be prescient decisions to cope with the offensive struggles of a young player despite World Series aspirations. In 2008 and 2009, Brett Gardner hit just .223 with a .272 on base percentage in his first 221 plate appearances in the majors. Dustin Pedroia started his career hitting .187 with a .241 on base percentage in his first 170 plate appearances. Today, both the Yankees and the Red Sox are reaping the dividends of cheap young talent at premium positions.
On the other hand, both Gardner and Pedroia played good defense and did not have the funky swing mechanics that Brown had. The Phillies clearly feel that Brown needs to get more consistent with his mechanics at the plate and his mechanics in the outfield before they turn him loose full time in the majors. At the same time, some adjustments need to be made against major league caliber competition.
This irony in all of it is that when the Phillies chose to send Brown to the minors, they chose to stick with a player that epitomized the offensive image they are trying to shed. Again, they had plenty of reason to make that choice. But despite his mediocre numbers, Brown showed the capability of becoming a player who can do the type of things the Phillies want their hitters to do: make contact, work pitchers, reach base, and take whatever home runs come within that context.
When you look at the players mentioned in the above chart, as well as players like Gardner and Pedroia, they all reached a point where their offensive production sky-rocketed. For each player, it happened suddenly. The question is whether the same thing will happen when Brown finally gets his chance, and also if it would have happened had he been given that chance last season.
It's the tricky part of player development. You never really know until you let yourself find out.