CLEARWATER, Fla. - The narrative might be the greatest hazard facing today's professional athlete. It is an unyielding, indiscriminate beast, devouring objectivity and skewing even the most empirical measures of performance. On Wednesday, the beast cornered Domonic Brown in the back of the Phillies' clubhouse at Bright House Field. The questions and their followups flew at him like he needed an alibi. How do you feel? Are you healthy? Do they think your defense is a problem? Do you think your defense is a problem?
Two years is all it took for one of the hottest prospects in the game to turn into another piece of conventional wisdom: Domonic Brown can't stay healthy, Dominic Brown has not made the most of his opportunities, Domonic Brown just isn't ready.
We in the media are not the only culprits. Research suggests that the human brain, or some part of it, organizes information in a narrative fashion. Each one of us is storyteller. It is how we make make sense of the world around us, out of a life that would otherwise unfold as a never-ending series of random events. Except, sometimes our brains attempt to identify a narrative where there isn't one. We attempt to define an individual based on a small sample of evidence. We allow preconceived notions to skew our judgments. Nate Silver might call it observation bias. We mold the facts to fit the narrative instead of vice versa.
Me? I don't think the facts support the narrative that has emerged regarding Domonic Brown. I think we know as much about his future as a major leaguer as we did 2 years ago, when Baseball America ranked him as the No. 4 prospect in the game. And I think that the Phillies would be wise to put aside whatever it is they think a major league baseball player should look like and instead put Brown in a position to prove whether he is or isn't one.
Let's go back to the point where all of this began. It was July 30, 2011. Brown was playing regularly in rightfield, and he was playing well. In his previous 24 games, he was hitting .301 with a .402 OBP and a .410 slugging percentage while scoring 17 runs and driving in eight. Overall, he was hitting .245/.333/.391 with five homers, 19 RBI and 28 runs in 210 plate appearances, numbers that compared favorably to those posted by leftfielder Raul Ibanez, who was hitting .245/.291/.418 at that point in time. Then, the Phillies traded for Hunter Pence, and instead of keeping Brown in the majors to partner with him, they sent him back to Triple A.
There is no dispute about what happened next. Brown finished 2011 in an epic slump at Lehigh Valley, then missed significant time in spring training with thumb and neck injuries. In the seven Grapefruit League games he played, he hit well but was brutal in the field. During the minor league season, he missed 16 games with a strained hamstring, and a month with a strained knee, the latter of which continued to hamper him after his late-July promotion to the majors.
On Thursday, a reporter asked Charlie Manuel whether he thought Brown was "injury-prone." The manager swatted it away as a no-win question, as he should have. But after a season in which Manuel and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. cited Brown's inability to "stay on the field" as a factor in his development, it was a question that needed to be asked.
Fact is, last year was the first time Brown struggled with injuries in his career. He broke the hamate bone in his right thumb during spring training in 2011, but the injury is one that plenty of players experience, and it is not one that somebody can prevent or play through. In each of the previous four seasons, he had logged at least 400 plate appearances.
Maybe Brown just wasn't able to get healthy last year. It happens. Look at half of the Phillies' major league roster. Maybe the knee was the problem the whole time, and the knee led to the hamstring. This year?
"I'm ready to go," Brown said Thursday.
Another knock on Brown has been his defense. Clearly, he lacks polish. But in the absence of a reliable way to quantify defense, can we at least surmise that if a player's ability in that department is a fatal flaw, his presence on the field will end up costing his team wins? And that since the Phillies went 30-21 in Brown's starts last year (a 95-win pace over 162 games) and 33-16 in 2011 (a 109-win pace), we can at least say that his defense was not a glaring liability? Or that, at the very least, the team can afford to take a long look at whether his ability at the plate justifies the gamble in the field? Because in that department, Brown has shown potential.
Maybe you think 492 plate appearances is enough time to render judgment, even though all of them have come after a surprise promotion, none of them with the assurance that comes with knowing you will be afforded a certain degree of leeway. I don't think it is. I think there is a big difference between a young player who is looking over his shoulder and a young player who starts a season with the confidence that comes with knowing he is The Man.
"I've been waiting for that for a long time," he said Thursday.
The best argument for Brown is the lack of options besides him. His numbers over the last couple of years are similar to, and arguably better than, those posted by supposed rightfielder Delmon Young. Young won't be on the field at the start of spring training, and is a question mark for Opening Day, because of offseason ankle surgery. And he is regarded as a below-average defender.
Even if you don't think Domonic Brown looks like a polished ballplayer, even if you think he should have done a better job of staying healthy last year, even if you are troubled by his drop in minor league production after that 2011 demotion, what are you costing yourself by giving him the job and finding out?
Let's see what happens when Brown is given a chance to write his own story.