Saturday, January 14, 2012

Will Gary Brown's Offense Survive the Move to the Eastern League?

No question about it, outfielder Gary Brown is the Giants' top prospect in the system and it isn't really close. Brown, the Giants' first round pick in the 2010 draft, had a killer year in the California League, as he posted a batting average of .336, an on-base percentage of .407 and an OPS of .925 in 131 games and 638 plate appearances in San Jose. While the home runs were nice for a guy with leadoff potential (14), his speed (his calling card when he was drafted), was on full display in the Cal League as he had 13 triples and stole 53 bases on 72 attempts.

Without a doubt, offensively, it was a banner year for Brown, but as most Giants fans know, High-A tends to be a banner year for most position prospects in the Giants system due to the hitter-friendly environments of the California League. The big question now will be how his bat will transition to the Eastern League where he will not only face better pitching, but hitting environments that favor the pitchers considerably so.

If you don't believe me, let's take a look at two formerly touted outfield prospects who mashed in High-A, but took dips the following years in Richmond: Thomas Neal and Roger Kieschnick.

2009 was a coming out party for Neal, as he posted a solid .242 ISO in San Jose, thanks to 22 home runs and a slugging percentage of .579. Neal, not previously a highly touted prospect in the Giants system (he was a 36th round draft pick out of junior college), climbed up the boards after his monster year, as Fangraphs had him listed as the the third best prospect in the Giants system in 2010 after Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner (quite good company). In addition to the power numbers, a lot of analysts were high on Neal because of his improved approach at the plate in San Jose, as his BB/K ratio went up from 0.47 in 2008 in Augusta to 0.66 in SJ (he posted a BB percentage of 11.6 percent and a K percentage of 17.5 percent). Fangraphs writer Marc Hulet said this about Neal in his 2010 Giants write-up.

"In fairness, his ’09 numbers may have been helped by a good hitting environment. Even so, the 22-year-old outfielder hit .337/.431/.579 in 475 at-bats. His ISO rate jumped from .168 in low-A in ’08 to .242 in high-A in ’09. Neal has also shown solid patience at the plate over the past three seasons, topping out at 11.6 BB% this past year. He did a nice job of trimming his strikeout rate by 4% over ’08′s 24.1%. It will be hard for Neal to improve upon his .444 wOBA from ’09 but he has the talent to be a star corner outfielder for the Giants."

Neal's impressive 2009 performance merited a Spring Training invite in 2010, but the transition to the Eastern league proved to be a challenge for the 23-year-old from Riverside Junior College. Despite having 26 more plate appearances in 2010, his home run total dipped to 12 and his ISO fell to .149 (and consequently his wOBA tumbled almost a 100 points to .359). Also, he seemed to struggle against the better pitching as well, as his BB/K ratio fell to 0.49, with the walk rate taking the biggest hit, as it dropped to 7.9 percent, the lowest percentage since 2006, his first year in pro ball. While the numbers were not bad by any measure on a hitting standpoint, considering he was the third-best prospect in the Giants system, and his calling card was his bat (especially the power), the regression was a bit of a disappointment for Giants fans who envisioned him a future corner outfielder for the Giants in 2012 or 2013.

Things seemed to only get worse for Neal in 2011 (though it started well with him getting put on the 40-man roster), as his power continued to wilt even in the Pacific Coast League, as his ISO and wOBA fell to .114 and .336, respectively. Even worse, he looked even more lost at the plate with the Grizzlies than with the Flying Squirrels, as he had a 0.26 BB/K rate in 239 plate appearances, amplified by a 20.9 strikeout percentage, the second highest percentage in his career. Neal's decline from top-prospect to most likely a utility outfielder made him expendable to the Giants brass, as he was traded in a mid-season deal for middle infielder Orlando Cabrera (any time you get traded for a player like Cabrera, it means that management doesn't think much of you).

As for Kieschnick, his tumble in the Eastern League is much more evident, though to be honest, injuries have had a part in the hindering of his development. Much like Neal, Kieschnick went bonkers in the Cal League in 2009, as he hit 23 home runs and posted an ISO of .236 and an OPS of .876 in 563 plate appearances. Considering it was his first year of professional ball, there was a lot of hopes that the third round pick out of Texas Tech could be a better-hitting Nate Schierholtz in the future (his calling card was his rocket arm). Hulet of Fangraphs ranked him as the Giants' 5th best prospect in 2010, and remarked this in his report:

"The left-handed hitter did a nice job of handling southpaws by posting a .933 OPS on the heels of a .400 BABIP. His OPS against right-handers was .832. Kieschnick is a hustler on the base paths and in the field despite average speed. He also has the arm strength for right field."

However, Kieschnick's tumble in Double-A was even more dramatic than Neal's. Due to injury, he only had 246 plate appearances and posted a measly .251 average, .298 wOBA and .673 OPS. His home run total fell to four and he had only 15 extra base hits during the injury-shortened campaign. Consequently, he tumbled out of the rankings in 2011 and earned himself a second tour of duty in the Eastern League in 2011. Unfortunately, things did not get better despite a healthier year (he had 501 plate appearances). He hit only .255 and posted a OPS of .737 in his second season with the Flying Squirrles and his ISO remained pedestrian at .174. He did hit 16 home runs and had 22 doubles and five triples, but for the most part, the achillies heel of his game, his plate approach, still did not improve, as he posted a 0.28 BB/K ratio (amplified by a 24.2 percent strikeout rate, a career high) in 2011.

Granted, Kieschnick's flaw as a player has been his inability to make consistent contact (his strikeout percentage in his three pro seasons have been 23.1, 22.4, and 24.2 percent), while not drawing walks to make up for it (his career walk percentage is 6.83). So, in many ways, the Eastern League struggles were probably more predictable than Neal's. That being said, Kieschnick is a prime example of a guy who probably got lifted a little too high in the rankings for a one year sample in a league that obviously hides a lot of hitter's flaws.

As for Brown, is he going to have a similar tumble to Neal and Kieschnick? It's hard to say (because you never know about injuries), but I would say Brown has a lot more going for him than both guys. For starters, Brown is and always was a top prospect, as he was drafted in the first round. He was a top-5 guy in the Giants system last year before his season in San Jose, while Neal and Kieschnick were relatively under-the-radar prospects whose profiles got boosted thanks to impressive (though obviously inflated) Cal League campaigns.

Secondly, Brown's calling card isn't "home-run" power like Neal and Kieschnick. Rather, the strongest part of his game is his speed, and that should be able to transition to the Eastern League, even despite the pitcher friendly confines around the league. Last year, Brown hit 34 doubles and an insane 13 triples in 638 plate appearances. Neal and Kieschnick may have hit more home runs (22 and 23 respectively compared to Brown's 14), but their extra base hits minus home runs don't compare to Brown (Neal had 45 and Kieschnick 27 to Brown's 47; and it must be noted that Neal had 41 doubles, so if you look at it, Brown had more triples than Kieschnick and Neal did combined in 2009). Without question, I would be surprised if Brown launched 14 home runs in Richmond, but while that total will go down, I think he will still manage to post good slugging percentages, because his speed is such a plus-tool.

Of course, the plate approach has people a little worried about Brown and his transition to Double-A. While his BB/K ratio was solid (0.60 in 2011), his walk rates leave a little to be desired. He only posted a 7.2 percent walk rate in San Jose, and in a short stint in the Arizona Fall League before the 2011 campaign, he only drew one (that's right ONE) walk in 55 plate appearances. That being said, he doesn't strikeout a lot either (12.7 percent strikeout rate a year ago), so he's a guy that can make contact consistently, something you couldn't say of Neal and Kieschnick in their tenures in High-A.

Another sneaky factor that could work in Brown's favor is his toughness, as evidenced by his HBP count, which was 23 last year. Add that to his walk total and BB+HBP/K ratio jumps to 0.90. Granted, I don't know if that is a sustainable number, especially as he moves up and faces better and better pitching, but it shows that Brown has an aggressive approach at the plate and that he is willing to get on base any way necessary, which is definitely a plus in his favor.

Overall, I like Brown a lot, and if he can continue to progress in Double-A at the plate like he did in High-A, then it is very likely to think that he could push for a starting job in the Giants outfield in 2013 (he's probably blocked this year due to Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera). In my opinion, the home run power most likely will take a dip, but he's probably an 8-15 home run guy at the majors anyways, so that shouldn't be too much of an alarm. His speed on the basepaths, his ability to stretch hits and make consistent contact should bode him well at the plate in Richmond, and I don't think Giants fans will see the dramatic drop off from Brown in 2012 like former outfield prospects Neal and Kieschnick in 2010.


  1. I like Brown a lot too. Nobody gives him credit for this, but when he wasn't capable of hitting in a league, his walk percentage rose enough that his hits, walks, and HBP together equals a high OBP. That was true in his freshman year in college baseball and in Cape Cod too. Once he started hitting better, he walked less but still had a high OBP.

    HBP has been a key part of his repertoire during college as well as pro ball. He probably did it when he was in high school too, I would bet. So, yes, this should be a repeatable skill, just look at players in history who took a lot of HBP, Ron Hunt, Frank Robinson, there are players who seek to be hit or is unafraid to be hit if it gives them good plate coverage.

    Nobody gives him credit for this either but he also tries to hit for power. Not just HR power, but doubles and triples, where his speed gives him a boost there. In his final college season, his ISO in the Big West Conference was not only the high for the league, but was the high for the prior 7 seasons too (that was as far as the data I could find), which included Evan Longoria's final college season as well, he played in that conference.

    The big key why he will rise where those failed is that he can avoid strikeouts pretty well so far in his college and pro years. That will help him out a lot in adjusting to the Eastern League, which is much more of a pitcher's league, and where stats are damped down a lot. I would not expect him to hit that great in the EL, my hope is for a good BA, great OBP via BA, BB, HBP, plus a modicum of power to go with greatly improved SB%, which the thing I really want to see, improved technique in stealing. Anything more is a bonus.

    I wouldn't rush him even if Pagan and Cabrera weren't here. He (like Belt) could be special talents in the majors, I would rather they learn what they need to learn in the minors first, then stay up in the majors for good, instead of bouncing up and down, like Matt Williams, or even Belt in 2011. But 2013, I think, is realistic if he has another good season in Richmond and can get promoted to Fresno by mid-season.

    In any case, I agree that I don't think Giants fans will see the dramatic drop off from Brown like the other prospects. I think it will be more like Belt when he rose from SJ to Richmond.

  2. I think the HBP stats were pretty ignored for the most part by a lot of analysts, and it's a shame because it shows that he can get on base, which is very important. For a guy with his speed, any time he gets on base is a good thing. I don't care if its hits or getting hit. The more times Brown is on base, the better he is going to be and the more value he is going to give teams as a player.

    I agree with you on his skills transitioning to the Eastern League better than a lot of Cal League standouts (specifically Kieschnick and Neal). Brown has gap power and is able to stretch out hits, which is something Kieschnick and in some ways Neal didn't really do. Those guys pretty much relied on the big fly to boost their power numbers, and as stated before, that isn't Brown's MO by any means. Not now and certainly not when he was drafted. But I think Brown makes consistent enough contact to be a good player in the EL, and though the pitching will be much better, I am more confident that he will be able to handle it than other prospects who made the jump from the CL to the EL.

    In many ways, the Pagan and Cabrera trades were good, but I agree as well that rushing him isn't the best idea. The Mets organization is a prime case study why you don't rush prospects to the outfield before they are ready (Carlos Gomez, Lastings Milledge, Fernando Martinez). Again, I think Belt got rushed due to necessity more than anything, but that isn't the case with Brown, which allows him to develop naturally and get consistent at-bats, which is more important at his stage in development.

    Overall, I see good things in store for Brown with the Giants, and I hope he continues to develop as a hitter and base runner for the Giants. He could be a real impact player in 2013 and beyond.