On a team accused of aging quickly — though the space-time continuum has something to say about that — Domonic Brown is the youngest, most exciting offensive piece. But now he’s spent two seasons on the quad-A shuttle and all he has to show for it are some mediocre-looking statistics. Is he still on his way up? Is he a decent keeper?
From the team perspective, there’s a major league job waiting for him next year. Raul Ibanez and his “three-and-thirty” are finally, mercifully, finished in Philly. That leaves Brown, Ben Francisco and John Mayberry, Jr. in place for the final outfield corner spot. Say what you will about Brown’s performance to date, but he’s still the player with the most upside in that trio.
Do we still believe in his upside? He made some strong strides in his peripherals this year that say he’s ever closer to realizing his potential.
Particularly, his plate discipline lurched forward and started to look like the work he did in the minor leagues. After regularly putting up double-digit MiLB walk rates (11% career), his 2011 rate (11.9%) was heartening. He did flirt with worse-than-average minor league strikeout rates from time to time, but with a 7.7% swinging strike rate and a 16.7% strikeout rate this year, he once again produced numbers that made more sense. He got his reach rate below the major league average this year, and his contact rate is also above average.
He still hit .245. Of course, that .276 BABIP had a lot to do with it. His xBABIP, given his batted ball mix, was .317. He hit more ground balls than fly balls and reportedly has great speed. He should have a much better batting average next year.
The speed has not yet fully arrived. He has a below-average speed score for his career (4.6 career, 5.0 is average) and has only stolen five bases in his first 280 plate appearances. Did we over-rate his speed coming up? He stole 22 bases once, in 516 plate appearances, but that was in 2008. He stole 15 across three levels last year. It looks like he’s more of a guy with decent speed that will steal some bases, but he may not be a 30/30 guy ever.
How about that power? It was, perhaps, the most open question about him coming up. As he advanced, his ISOs oscillated from below- to above-average, often from one year to the next. Hitting more ground balls than fly balls is not conducive to great power, but players like Logan Morrison, Matt Holliday, Carlos Gonzalez, Adrian Gonzalez and Robinson Cano all had higher GB/FB ratios. It’s possible to make the combination work, and when it does work, it usually comes with a strong batting average.
Maybe we can find some solace in another ground-ball heavy, toolsy outfielder that took a year or two to really get going: Adam Jones. Their plate discipline doesn’t look similar, but Jones was a minor league star who had good power some years and great power other years. He was labeled as a speedster but stole 13 bases in his best year in the minors. Last year, Jones hit 1.5 grounders for every fly ball, struck out less than the league average, and stole double-digit bases for the third time in the past four years. Of course, it took him until his fourth full year in the league to hit more than 20 home runs, but it was a good year, and the last two weren’t so bad anyway.
The comparison might not be perfect, but the results might be similar. The trick now is deciding whether Brown is ready to be 2009’s Adam Jones (.277, 19 HR, 10 SBs) or if he needs one more year like 2008 Adam Jones (.270, 9 HR, 10 SBs) before he’s ready to tap into all of his potential.
That makes him an iffy keeper and a better mid-to-late round upside pick next year. Even if there’s probably an every-day job waiting for him. After all, when 2010 began, many of us thought that job was waiting for him already. Sometimes it takes some time to bloom fully.