The Curious Case of Emil Brown

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.

image
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  .338

While 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

image

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.

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