The rumor on the street is that Domonic Brown had a breakout season in 2013. But can we trust that to be a sign of things to come?
Brown was once (briefly) the top prospect in all of baseball. However, his first three tries against big league competition went poorly. From 2010-2012, Brown revealed poor defense, league average power, and indifferent baserunning skills. Fantasy owners who thought they were drafting a five category stud were disappointed. Most owners cut bait and left him undrafted in 2013. Yahoo! owners drafted him 241st overall.
So what changed in 2013 that allowed him to slash .272/.324/.494 and return $16 of value (according to Spreadsheets by Sanders)? Quite simply, his power spiked. His ISO went from .160 in 2012 to .222 in 2013. Nearly 20 percent of his fly balls left the yard (19.3 HR/FB) compared with a career rate under 10 percent.
His HR/FB rate was the 11th best in the majors among qualified hitters. That might smell a little fluky at first whiff, but Brown has shown impressive batting practice power throughout his career. It’s quite possible that mechanical changes allowed him to tap into his raw power more effectively.
Let’s dig deeper into his home runs, since that is the statistic that drives his value. According to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, 10 were classified as “Just Enough” meaning there wasn’t much margin between a home run and a double. The remaining 17 were easy home runs. The below chart of his home run locations reveals that Brown was a dead pull power hitter.
Seemingly, pitchers could adjust by pitching Brown outside. As his ISO map shows, he displays no power on pitches outside and/or low.
However, a full one-third of his home runs came on pitches thrown to the outer third of the strike zone.
That could signal one of two things. Brown may have the power to pull hittable, outside pitches for home runs with some frequency, or he may have gotten “lucky” on those nine long balls. Opposing ball clubs seem to believe the latter, since they busted him away all season long.
Looking forward to 2014, Steamer projects a healthy .272/.336/.470 line in 600 plate appearances. Steamer also projects regression in his home run total to 23. Analysis of his 2013 home runs is inconclusive, which leads me to estimate anywhere between 20 and 30 home runs in a 600 plate appearance season.
Before parting ways, let’s consider the remainder of his skill set and how it can be leveraged for fantasy gain.
Like many left-handed hitters, Brown shows a distinctive platoon split. Looking at just 2013 since he “broke out,” Brown posted a .366 wOBA (133 wRC+) against right-handers compared with a .315 wOBA (98 wRC+) against left-handers. Just to be clear, those are very small sample sizes. Owners in mid-sized to deep leagues can live with league average production against same-handed pitchers, but those of you in shallow leagues might benefit from platooning him.
Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg will have the unpleasant job of figuring out how to separate Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Brown so that opposing managers can’t attack all three with a lefty specialist. Recent signee Marlon Byrd may be asked to bat in the middle of the lineup in order to split up the lefties. It seems likely that Brown will bat no earlier than fifth, in which case his runs scored totals will take a hit. If Howard is used strategically, then RBI opportunities could be somewhat limited too.
As for the last category of import, Brown should swipe a handful of bases over the season. Early career injuries set him back as a baserunning threat, but he does have the raw speed to swipe 20 bases in a banner season. My advice is to expect around seven steals and hope to be pleasantly surprised.
All told, we have a hitter who shows very slight platoon issues, has been injury prone throughout his career, and experienced a breakout power season in 2013. For keeper owners, this seems like a classic sell-high situation. Re-draft owners may want to be careful targeting Brown. I suspect that he’ll be priced similarly to some better players like Hunter Pence or Jayson Werth. But we’ll have to wait to see if that suspicion is correct.
For more reading on Brown, I recommend Jeff Sullivan’s recent piece on breakout seasons.