The Curious Case of Emil Brownby Dan Fox
August 26, 2005
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.
- Author and historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)
Before Zack Greinke became mired in what Royal fans pray is a only sophomore slump, before Jose Lima proved that "Lima Time" is over, and yes, before the 19 consecutive losses that drove my friend to consider withdrawing his support for his lifelong team, there was the hope of spring.
On a sunny March morning, my brother and I stood near the left field fence on the second practice field at the Royals and Rangers' beautiful baseball complex in Surpise, Arizona watching Calvin Pickering take some rather lackluster hacks in the cage. And in left field that day shagging balls was a player I didn't recognize. Pick grounded one down the line into the corner and the fielder kindly flipped the ball in our direction, which eventually became a souvenier for my nephew.
By that afternoon, when the left fielder started the game against the Rangers and proceeded to single, double, and homer, we knew who he was. Emil Brown was clearly in contention for a roster spot that he would eventually win by hitting .417 and slugging .719 before the Royals headed north.
Royals taking batting practice in Surprise
I for one was skeptical that Brown, at the age of 30, had much to contribute. After all, his performance prior to this season was, in a word, terrible. In 459 plate appearances from 1997-2001 he had amassed a dismal .200/.289/.302 line playing for the Pirates and the Padres. And even after two solid seasons in AAA, where he hit .295/.343/.463 for Lousiville in 2003 in 410 plate appearances and .315/.358/.456 while spltting time between Memphis and New Orleans in an injury-shortened 2004 season, he seemed to me like a classic "AAAA" player.
Not particularly fast, not much power, doesn't control the strike zone, and not known as a great defender. In short, a player that fills a roster spot at places like Louisville, Memphis, and New Orleans. In fact he was so off the radar that neither Baseball Prospectus nor the Bill James Handbook even gave him so much as a mention.
All that to say that he won the left field job, which I know is not saying much, as in Kansas City corner outfielders are often utility infielders, but overall his numbers are not bad, standing at .273/.330/.423 in around 400 at-bats through August 22. Of course, he has been brutal in the field committing nine errors. Alas, it would seem that the league is catching up with him:
AVG OBP SLUG April .161 .254 .339 May .313 .383 .506 June .366 .406 .527 July .265 .295 .357 August .200 .229 .338While pondering the all of this I wondered if Emil Brown has any kind of future in the majors and whether a history like Brown's can tell us anything about the future.
The Past is the Key to the Present?Following Gibbon's dictum, I decided to use the Lahman database to find some players with comparable career trajectories. The criteria I used included selecting all non-pitchers who began their careers with at least 450 plate appearances and an OPS normalized for league and park of less than 100 (where 100 is league average), not counting players who garnered major league plate appearances in 2004. Quick note: Because I used the Lahman database, my calculations were seasonal and so were not as granular as using play-by-play data like that available on Retrosheet.
I then calculated their number of games played, plate appearances, and years remaining in the majors and grouped them in ranges by normalized OPS (NOPS). The results are shown in the following table:
Start After AVG AVG NOPS/PF Count NOPS PA G NOPS PA G Years 59-70 11 68 538 219 76 545 225 3.8 71-80 121 77 562 207 80 1306 406 5.1 81-85 169 83 600 205 84 1467 456 5.7 86-90 244 88 600 202 88 1878 551 6.1 91-95 283 93 626 199 95 2385 682 7.2 96-100 293 98 641 196 96 2611 730 7.4
So 121 players who began their career with an NOPS in the range of 71 to 80 averaged 562 plate appearances and 207 games played at the start of their careers while posting their average NOPS of 77. After that time they averaged 1,306 plate appearances and 406 games played while remaining in the league an average of 5.1 years with an average NOPS of 80.
Not surprisingly, players who start their careers with a higher NOPS go on to have longer careers, play in more games, get more plate appearances, and post a higher NOPS. So where does Brown fit in here? Well, in his first 459 plate appearances he posted an NOPS of 77, putting him solidly in the second group.
While it's not surprising that those who start better have stronger career trajectories, what's interesting is to look at the 121 members of that group to see where Brown belongs. Within that group, the fifteen players who garnered the most plate appearances in the remainder of their careers were:
Start After NOPS PA G NOPS PA G From To Years Dave Concepcion 80 650 231 98 8990 2257 1972 1988 17 Don Kessinger 80 926 260 89 7603 1818 1967 1979 13 Ed Brinkman 80 712 203 85 5928 1642 1964 1975 12 Mark Belanger 77 756 222 85 5843 1783 1969 1982 14 Bobby Richardson 80 551 186 92 5232 1226 1959 1966 8 Otis Nixon 78 727 380 89 5073 1329 1989 1999 11 Harold Reynolds 73 683 223 93 4715 1151 1987 1994 8 Sandy Alomar Sr. 79 649 277 87 4511 1204 1969 1978 10 Dick Schofield 75 514 161 87 4414 1207 1985 1996 12 Craig Reynolds 80 538 173 94 4325 1318 1978 1989 12 Todd Hundley 80 533 180 108 3772 1045 1993 2003 11 Frank Taveras 80 798 264 89 3601 885 1976 1982 7 Wayne Garrett 80 454 124 103 3459 968 1970 1978 9 Doug Flynn 79 711 308 81 3374 1000 1978 1985 8 Gary DiSarcina 78 678 193 83 3354 891 1993 2000 8
As you might have noticed this list includes exclusively middle infielders and catchers, with the exception of Otis Nixon, and when the group is taken as a whole, 87% of the games played by players on the list were at second base, shortstop, and catcher, with another 8% at third. To me, this is clear illustration of the concept of the "defensive spectrum".
For those who aren't familar with the defensive spectrum, the idea is one that was popularized by Bill James in an early Baseball Abstract, and states that defensive positions can be arranged on a spectrum of least to most demanding, i.e. [ DH - 1B - LF - RF - 3B - CF - 2B - SS - C ]. Players generally move from right to left on this spectrum over the course of their careers. Shifts in the other direction are rare and seldom work. It's also interesting to note that the spectrum has shifted a bit over time, as I've discussed here and here.
And a corallary to that axoim is that players who play more demanding defensive positions can afford to produce less offensively and still stay in the majors, resulting in longer careers at the right end of the spectrum. Players who find themselves on the left end of the defensive spectrum are selected out of the majors earlier when they produce below the league average. This is why some analysts adjust offensive measures for position and why the concept is heavily used in calculations relating to replacement level.
So where does that leave Brown? Well, here are the outfielders in his group that played more than 100 games in the outfield in their careers.
Start After NOPS PA G NOPS PA G From To Years Otis Nixon 78 727 380 89 5073 1329 1989 1999 11 Miguel Dilone 73 463 228 95 1678 510 1980 1985 6 Shawn Abner 79 569 254 95 228 97 1992 1992 1 Eddie Miksis 80 628 169 86 501 235 1956 1958 3 Sandy Valdespino 79 490 259 93 348 123 1968 1971 4 Alex Diaz 80 576 236 67 296 130 1996 1999 4 Billy Bean 79 511 268 17 8 4 1995 1995 1
This is not great company to be in (unless Brown has designs on taking Allard Baird's job as the Royals' general manager) and the two players that garnered the most at-bats were obviously speedy, defensive outfielders, which allowed their value to last. Dilone, of course, also had a monster season with the Indians in 1980, when he hit .341 and stole 61 bases, providing him with more opportunities over the next five years before he retired following the 1985 season.
Of course history is not destiny and Brown may just prove to be the exception to the rule. But there's a lot of history to overcome here, so let's just say I'm not holding my breath.
But most importantly, based on that track record I have to wonder the Royals wouldn't have been better served to give 27 year-old Matt Diaz, who hit .370 in Omaha, or 32 year-old Aaron Guiel, who hit .276 with 30 homeruns and 63 walks in 492 at-bats in Omaha, more of a chance. Time will tell.
Dan is the author of the blog Dan Agonistes and welcomes your comments and suggestions via email.