Few Low-A teams have ever had quite the array of young position-player talent as the 2013 Hickory Crawdads–six of their nine everyday players ranked in Baseball America’s Rangers top 25 prospects coming into the season, and a seventh, Ryan Rua, came out of nowhere to lead the minors in home runs for much of the season…until he was promoted to Double-A and passed by fellow Crawdad Joey Gallo.
While Gallo’s race to the minor league home run championship in his first full season was probably the biggest story of the many intriguing Hickory developments, the heralded slugger wasn’t the highest-drafted member of Hickory’s vaunted group of teenagers, being picked ten selections behind teammate Lewis Brinson in the 2012 draft (39th to 29th). In the fight for attention on such a stacked roster, Brinson’s 2013 campaign got somewhat overshadowed by Gallo’s incredible power output, Jorge Alfaro’s ascension up catching prospect leaderboards, Nick Williams‘ big numbers, C.J. Edwards becoming a force on the mound (and subsequently the key to the Matt Garza deal), Rua’s out-of-nowhere emergence, and other stories. He still won plenty of praise for his tools, hit 21 homers, and posted a solid triple-slash line, but also raised eyebrows by striking out 191 times, one short of Harold Riggins‘ minor league lead.
Having seen Brinson in 17 games this past season, I’m going to use this post to dissect his current skillset and 2013 performance, hopefully lending some clarity to a rather extreme set of numbers.
Lewis Brinson has played 176 career professional games; in those contests, he has a very solid .253/.330/.461 batting line. He has 40 doubles, nine triples, 28 home runs, 69 walks, and 38 steals in 47 attempts. He also has 265 strikeouts, good for a career 34.5% mark. His career 9% walk rate is quite solid in a vacuum, but it’s not enough to support such a massive strikeout habit.
For the sake of comparison, think about the man picked 17 selections before Brinson in the 2012 draft: Chicago’s Courtney Hawkins. Hawkins put together an abysmal strikeout-ridden first full campaign in organized baseball, hitting .178/.249/.384, leading many to proclaim him a bust. However, Hawkins actually posted a better Isolated Power than Brinson (.206 to .190) and struck out slightly less (37.6% to 38%), and he was a level higher. Now, he was also six months older than Brinson, walked less (6.8% to 9.5%) and posted a far worse BABIP (.236 to .362), but it’s hard to call Hawkins a bust without attaching a similar warning label to Brinson. Really, the main reason that it’s far easier to write Hawkins off is that his 2013 triple-slash is far uglier than Brinson’s .237/.322/.427 mark, which looks pretty good for an 19-year-old athletic center fielder in Low-A. Hawkins’ surface numbers are consistent with the issues that lie below the surface while Brinson’s aren’t yet, so the latter gets more of the benefit of the doubt.
Regardless, it’s premature to write either player off when both still have their age-20 campaigns in front of them and they have each flashed ability in a variety of areas that have nothing to do with avoiding strikeouts. Still, there is little precedent for succeeding with such a monstrous contact problem–the one player one can point to is Russell Branyan, who struck out 38.7% of the time as a 19-year-old in Low-A in 1995. Branyan’s skillset is far more analagous to Gallo’s than Brinson’s, though, and it says something that the only player to go from these massive contact problems at age 19 to MLB success had 80-grade power.
With those long odds in mind, perhaps we first need to focus on what makes Brinson remotely interesting in the first place, other than the fact that an organization that generally knows what it’s doing gave him $1.625 million to sign, drafting him higher than Gallo and Williams and paying him more than Alfaro.
The second day I saw Brinson play, I saw him do this:
That pitch is not a strike. It also is 95 mph with big armside life. And Brinson got his bat to it and drove it out to the opposite field. I would see dozens more minor league games over the course of 2013, but I’m not sure I saw another homer that was a more impressive display of bat speed.
As you can see, Brinson is a tall, stringy, high-waisted outfielder who still has plenty of room to fill out his frame. Currently, he’s an easy plus runner who plays a quality center field; it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he ends up putting on a lot of weight and power and slowing down some, though as we can see, he doesn’t necessarily need to bulk up to be a home run threat.
Any player who combines over-the-fence power with above-average athleticism at a young age is going to stand out in the lower minors. From an optimist’s standpoint, Brinson’s skillset evokes that of B.J. Upton, who’s posted 21.3 WAR in his career despite a 26% strikeout rate, thanks to a career .161 ISO, nearly three wins on the bases in just over seven full seasons, as well as above-average center field defense. Upton’s strikeout issues have been problematic at times–just ask Braves fans–but he’s often made up for them thanks to all the other things he does well.
What’s up with Brinson’s strikeouts, though? One would think the glaring hole in his skillset would be as easy to spot in person as it is on the statsheet, as with Gallo (whose issues I dissected here) and Hawkins (here). And indeed there is.
Lewis Brinson can’t hit a breaking ball.
Now, we hear “[prospect] can’t hit a breaking ball” statements all the time in prospect analysis, and sometimes it’s difficult to unpack the severity of the issue from such a proclamation. Of course, every position player in organized baseball can hit a breaking pitch, given enough chances; further, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the ability to recognize the pitch from the ability to hit hittable ones. Watching a player swing through a bunch of curves in the dirt and sliders in the opposite batter’s box tells us little about his ability to hit breaking pitches–it instead tells us he can’t recognize them and lay off bad ones (an equally important problem, but a qualitatively different one nonetheless). I talked a lot more about the conflation of these two factors in my analysis of Hawkins linked above.
My observation of Brinson, though, led me to the anecdotal conclusion that while he had great bat speed and could turn around pitches that were high and hard, everything that was low and bendy totally flummoxed him to a degree greater than even a typical dead-red hitter. Up high, the swing stayed level; down low, it got very long and loopy, causing him to miss just about everything.
How extreme are the issues, though? I decided to go back through all of my video of Brinson–248 pitches of it–and chart pitch types, locations, and results, much as I did in this writeup of another of Brinson’s teammates, Nick Williams.
First off, here are some overall stats from the charting:
Four-seam fastball: 37.9%
Two-seam fastball: 20.2%
Called Strike: 17.7%
Swinging Strike: 16.5%
In Play: 12.9% (Eleven line drives, ten ground balls, eight outfield flies, two infield flies, and one bunt)
There are a few things to point out here. First, as much as the breaking ball was (at least to me) a weakness of Brinson’s, he still saw a reasonable amount of fastballs–they made up just shy of 60% of the pitches he saw. That’s a little below-average, showing that perhaps South Atlantic League pitchers did make a conscious effort to incorporate more bendy offerings when facing him, but nothing particularly extreme. One might theorize any number of explanations for this, from pitchers more focused on their own development than tailoring their approach to each hitter, information taking a while to travel around the fourteen-team SAL (it’s not as if they get advance scouting reports), or the fact that Brinson often was hitting in front of even more dangerous bats like Williams, Gallo, and Rua, and so pitchers challenged him more than they might have otherwise.
In the second list, we can see that Brinson’s swinging strike rate is quite high, at 16.5%. No qualified MLB hitter swung and missed so often in 2013–Pedro Alvarez led baseball at 16.4%. Since 2002, only nine players have managed a 2+ WAR season while swinging and missing 16.5% of the time or more, and none of them have turned the trick twice. Interestingly, though, Brinson’s overall swing rate is quite low–if you add up the fouls, swinging strikes, and balls in play, you get just 43.1%, a rate well below the major-league median of 46.1%. This is both good and bad–on one hand, he’s not simply flailing at everything, but on the other hand, to swing and miss so much when you’re not swinging that much raises some real questions. Compare that to my breakdown of his teammate Williams–Williams swung at an astronomical 61.4% of pitches, a rate that would make Pablo Sandoval blush–but actually had fewer swings and misses than Brinson (14.2%) despite offering at nearly 20% more pitches. Forty-one of Brinson’s 107 cuts (38.3%) came up empty, whereas only 18 of Williams’ 78 (23.1%) did, despite the fact that Williams’ aggressiveness would seem to mean that he was likely offering at inferior pitches to the ones Brinson did. And, with all due respect to Williams, who I’ve gone on record as saying could be a potential All-Star, when your contact skills compare very poorly to those of a player who just posted a 110/15 K/BB ratio in Low-A, that’s a major red flag for your future hit tool.
What of the fastball/breaking ball divide, though? Is the problem all on breaking stuff, or is he missing fastballs too? Let’s take a look at the results of the 144 fastballs he saw on my videos:
Called Strike: 18.8%
Swinging Strike: 15.3%
In Play: 19.4%
If you just focus in on that swinging strike number, you see 15.3%, which is just barely lower than his overall 16.5% rate, and you might think that my eyes were deceiving me when I viewed Brinson as a good fastball hitter who couldn’t hit breaking stuff. Note, though, that his overall swing rate here is much higher than 43.1%–it’s all the way up at 53.5%, meaning that his contact rate against heaters is up at 71.4%, quite a bit above his 61.7% rate overall. He also put more fastballs in play than in foul territory, whereas overall he fouled off slightly more offerings than he put in play.
Still, taking 22 empty cuts against 144 fastballs is worse news than I expected. If you’ve ever delved into Pitch F/X analysis, you know that pitchers who can regularly induce swinging strikes on over ten percent of their fastballs, let alone fifteen percent, are quite rare, so flipping that on its head, batters who cut and miss at those rates on heaters are a small and troubled group. According to Baseball Prospectus, Madison Bumgarner’s fastball induced the lowest contact rate of all MLB starters (min. 1000 fastballs) in 2013 at 72.52%; Brinson essentially gives the average Low-A fastball that sort of bat-missing power.
I mentioned earlier that in addition to his seeming ineptitude against breaking pitches (which we’ll get to in a bit), Brinson also seemed to struggle with stuff significantly below his waist. There didn’t seem to be a huge impact of fastball location on Brinson’s tendency to miss, though–while I identified 68 of the 144 heaters as being below Brinson’s thighs (47.2%), only ten of his 22 whiffs came in those locations. Half of his swinging strikes against fastballs came on chases out of the zone, with half in the zone–about the only notable location aspect is that none of his swinging strikes on fastballs came on pitches that were off the outside corner.
So Brinson isn’t great against fastballs, but he does manage to get them in play a fair amount, and the majority of his contact against heaters was at least moderately solid. Now we’ll turn to the breaking pitches, of which there were 74. The sample is small, obviously, but it’s easy to tell there are profound differences in his approach and result to bendy stuff.
Called Strike: 20.3%
Swinging Strike: 14.9%
In Play: 2.7%
I identified just 23 of the 74 curves (31.1%) that Brinson saw as being in the zone, and all things considered, he did a nice job turning that into a lot of positive outcomes. Only 53 of the 144 fastballs (36.8%) were in the strike zone, just marginally more than the breaking pitches, and yet Brinson’s swing rate dropped from 53.5% against heaters to just 20.3% (!) against breaking stuff.
This tells us a few things. First, Brinson can recognize breaking pitches. Second, he also seems to recognize he can’t hit breaking pitches. Remarkably, eleven of his fifteen swings against them came up empty. He fouled off two, grounded one weakly back to the pitcher, and did this:
It’s pretty incredible that across seventeen games, this was the only reasonable contact Brinson made against a breaking pitch. And this particular pitch–a 78-mph slider from Lakewood’s Geoff Broussard on June 5–is pretty awful as breaking pitches go, with almost no bite, below-average velocity for a slider, and a clear mistake in location.
It’s a good thing that Brinson recognizes breaking stuff and can turn it into positive results–balls–more often than not as a teenager at the Low-A level, but it’s quite troubling that only one of the fifteen pitches he did swing at resulted in anything remotely positive. After all, if his eye for them is so good as to allow him to lay off 43 of the 51 that missed the zone, one would think that a) the few he did swing at would be the meatiest to hit and b) he’d have the hand-eye coordination to hit them. If he’s got the bat speed to turn around the high heater from earlier and the eye to recognize spin, then he should be able to feast on breaking stuff, right?
Neither assumed conclusion is true, though. First off, eight of the fifteen breakers Brinson offered at were outside the zone, all either low (five), away (one), or both (two)–he didn’t touch any of them. Of the 23 curves and sliders he saw in the zone, he offered at just seven. Six times, he got a waist-high breaking pitch on the inner third of the plate, the sort of offering a player with his bat speed should be able to rip (like in the .gif above, which is up and in)–he took all six for strikes. This at-bat says it all:
I only saw Brinson face off against thirty changeups, so it’s tough to say whether they group more with the breaking stuff or the fastballs for the young center fielder. He swung at fifteen of them but missed eight, which isn’t good, but at least there’s this:
Yeah, Gabriel Ynoa–I think the fifth straight offspeed pitch might’ve been overkill. Why Ynoa decided that throwing three changeups to a righthanded hitter, when he’s gifted with a good moving fastball, a decent slider, and a change-of-pace curve, is anyone’s guess, but Brinson was able to sit back on the last one and demolish it.
What we’re left with is a hitter who has tools and is capable of displaying them in startling fashion, but clearly has massive problems consistently putting the ball in play. He does display more acumen with his plate discipline than his exorbitant whiff rates and 4/1 K/BB might indicate, but there are obviously steep improvements to be made, and he’ll have to adjust as he moves up the ladder. He won’t be able to put up solid triple-slash lines with these sorts of swing-and-miss issues for long–chances are that even one level higher, he’ll run into pitchers who can put breaking stuff in the strike zone more than 32% of the time once they realize he can’t do anything with it.
And that brings up another unusual aspect of Brinson’s 2013 season–his struggles with contact weren’t for a lack of trying to adjust. He altered his batting stance more frequently than any other hitter I saw during the season. Here’s how he opened the year:
Brinson’s slightly open, fairly upright and relaxed, and he starts his hands high with the bat close to vertical in front of his helmet. Here he is just a week later:
Already, he’s closed up his stance. Except, just eight days later…
Well, that’s different. Now Brinson’s opened up significantly, he’s crouched down, he’s choking up, his hands are higher, and the bat is positioned more horizontally. That one didn’t last long either, as I found out twelve days later…
…when all of the above-listed modifications were abandoned, except he’s still a bit more crouched than he was at the start of the year. Now he’s back to closed and looks very relaxed–in a lot of ways, this is about the most standard batting stance one can imagine. The homer off Ynoa earlier came five days after this and, remarkably, his stance changed little in the five-day interlude, except his hands are raised a bit. The next time I saw him was on May 22:
Now, he’s back to something resembling the April 20 stance, except without the choking up and not as open. He’s crouched and a tad open, with his hands above his head and the bat mostly horizontal. He changed only slightly between then and June 5:
He’s reduced his bat waggle a bit, but otherwise is pretty similar. By June 25, he had abandoned all of these and gone back to the normal, relaxed stance of May 22. You’d think he’d stick with that, but from there, things got strange. Here’s Brinson on July 20:
This is almost too relaxed. Brinson’s hands are way down, with the bat out in front of him basically at a standstill. You’d think he would switch it back, but instead, he did the opposite, ending the year like this:
For what it’s worth, as bizarre as that stance is, Brinson hit .279/.361/.477 in August and September, though he still struck out 31 times in 24 games, so it’s not like he was a totally different player. While the late-season changes just don’t look right, it’s likely that they’re a form of Brinson trying to cut down his strike zone and swing load to reduce his called strikes and swinging strikes, respectively. Time will tell what his hitting mechanics look like in 2014 and how much he’ll stick with one setup, as well as what sort of results it produces, and given his near-constant alterations in this regard, it’s tough to make a concrete prediction on his near-term evolution as a hitter. It’s good to see a hitter with clear weaknesses who is keenly aware of his faults and trying to find a way to eradicate or at least minimize them, and it’s likely that if there is a path to good-enough contact numbers for Brinson, he’ll find it. Certainly, if he can manage somewhat-reasonable contact rates, Brinson’s athleticism, power potential, and sound batting eye should make him a solid player, though it’s unlikely he’ll ever make enough contact to be the consistent star that his tools might tease he can be.
Ultimately, with Brinson not turning 20 and possibly set for a repeat of the SAL (at least, I’d recommend one), it’s too early to fall into the “boom” or “bust” camp. The tools are real, and he’s more than just a crazy-raw bundle of tools like, say, fellow Rangers prospect Jordan Akins, and thus, it’s ridiculously early to write Brinson off, no matter how scary the numbers in the “K%” column get. However, the talk of him as a legitimate top prospect reflects a lack of attention given to the very serious and pervasive contact issues, problems that are so pronounced that few have recovered from them. It will be fascinating to watch how much all the things Brinson does well will serve to offset the contact problems going forward. For now, he remains a player with a lot of power and speed upside who may also turn into a high-walk hitter as he refines his pitch selection skills, though he carries higher risk than most of his heralded Hickory teammates and other low-minors hitting prospects. Watch his development throughout 2014 and don’t be afraid to buy in if there are major signs of progress, even if he’s repeating Hickory, but don’t treat him as anything close to a sure thing despite his first-round status and tools.
Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.