The Centerpiece in Centerfield – #2 in a 5-part Series
Last time around, we addressed the inevitable end of the Adrian Beltre era, and who might step up to take his place. The conclusion is, much like the Royals, there will be no one star, but a team of complimentary contributors whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Pillar One from inside the organization is the piece that might need the most polish, but also one that holds the potential of titanium under its rough exterior. From SDI’s Minor League professor Emeritus, Brice Paterik, a look at Lewis Brinson.
My favorite part of that piece? Easy:
“Bottom line on Lew is that he’s taken that next step and is ready to be the Rangers center fielder of the future. He’s got all the physical and mental tools to improve this team for years to come. Brinson was extended an invite to big league camp this year, so there’s an outside chance that he makes the team out of spring training. It might be more likely for Brinson to start the season in Round Rock and then force the issue by June.”
If you don’t read any more of Brice’s piece—and you’d be remiss if you did not—at least watch the videos, and note this great piece of analysis:
Notice how in the first video Lewis keeps his hands high pre-swing and when he starts his load. This forces the bat to travel further to get through the zone to the point of contact, decreasing his bat speed and ability to catch up with heat. In the second video Brinson keeps his hands high pre-swing but once he is about to start his load, brings his hands down so that the bat doesn’t have to travel as far and he can get the bat more quickly through the zone. This is an essential tool of successful hitters.
He’s spot on, and it says a lot about Brinson that, in a successful season, he still made adjustments to improve.
Lewis Brinson brings some of the best pure athleticism we’ve seen in a Rangers prospect in a while, especially one with, you know, actual baseball skills. This is no Donald Harris we’re talking about here. Here’s Baseball America’s JJ Cooper on Brinson’s 2015 breakout. While tempering his number due to the launching pad that is High Desert, there’s still a lot to like:
So Brinson hit in a place that’s great to hit. But there’s more to Brinson’s development than that. Over the past three years he’s steadily put together better and better at-bats. Where he once simply assumed that every pitch was going to be a fastball and swung accordingly, he now tracks breaking balls. Once a man of a thousand batting stances (including a baffling crouch that cut off much of his athleticism), Brinson now has a simpler setup with high-set hands, a smaller, simpler toe tap timing mechanism and a swing that better allows his hips and lower-half to get involved. His high-set hands gives him a long way for the bat to travel to the strike zone, but Brinson’s bat speed allows him to get away with it most of the time.
What’s impressive is we still haven’t seen all of what Brinson can do. He’s battled leg injuries in each of the past two seasons with a quad injury hindering him in 2014 and a hamstring injury costing him time in 2015. Defensively he could improve on his routes and reads in center but he’s already a solid center fielder who could end up being well above-average.
Brinson has always had bat speed and power. Now that he’s doing a better job of recognizing pitches, he’s adding a developing hit tool to the power he’s always had. As a righthanded hitting center fielder with speed and power, Brinson is one of the better prospects in baseball. He’s not a .600 slugger in the big leagues, but he can help a big league club in the future in a lot of different ways.
What I like about Brinson is that he’s improved his plate recognition and strikeout rates. Here’s that trend, from his 2012 freshman season to 2015:
His strikeout-to-walk ratio trends are: 3.5, 4.0, 2.9, and 2.2. His strikeout percentage (AB per K) have similarly improved: 3.2, 2.3, 3.6, and 4.1. While those contact rates have improved, his power (as measured by at bats per extra base hit) has trended generally the right way – or at least have shown the bell curve I’d expect from a guy finding his contact button: 6.6, 10.9, 11.2, and finally 6.7. That last number includes the aforementioned aberration that is playing at High Desert, but if we factor out that number, he’s still improved over 2013-2014 despite better contact: 8.2. So even without playing in a band box at altitude, he managed to improve by about three at bats per extra base hit, while cutting strikeouts by between one-third and one-half over the same period. All for a guy entering his age 22 season.
Thanks to the wonderful data collection at MLBfarm.com, we can actually see Brinson’s career spray chart. First, let’s look at his hits:
If only Lucky Charms were this cool, right?
What does this show us? Well, first, as we’ll note in a bit, Brinson benefits from something Nomar Mazara could use: the consistent ability to hit grounders to the left side. His singles are predominately left of center to up the middle. Now, you can basically tell where the fence would be by where home runs show up, so we see that if he singles to the opposite field, it’s in the air fairly consistently. That’s indicative of a player with a fairly consistent uppercut, which Brinson has.
I’m impressed by the number of triples to left. Part of that is the dimension and carry of line drives at High Desert, but he’s still got a good spray there. He almost exclusively doubles to left, which is again a sign of an upper-cut swing (fly balls to right, top-spin liners to left into the corner, which is what you see here. He’s definitely a pull power guy, but there are a couple of very impressive distances on opposite field shots, as well.
What I see here is a guy that’s going to be defended straight away in the OF, but who you can pull against slightly in the infield. At the big league level, pitchers will learn to take advantage of that, so a project might be taking a bit of loft out of the swing and working on a strong inside-out approach (think Edgar Martinez or Manny Ramirez) to stay back and then drive middle away pitches harder on a line to right. He has the natural power to do it, especially behind in the count.
Now let’s take a look at his outs:
Again, you can tell the man has an upper cut without even seeing him play. Fly outs and lineouts are almost perfectly balanced left, center, and right. Ground balls are heavier to the left side, or deep in the hole on the right side (if not dribbled between first and second), and popups are grouped either deep behind short or second, or in foul territory behind first base. The thing you like is, again, enough breadth to limit shifting. I still think the infield shades a bit to left, but he shows good distribution, and a few of those liners and flies to right turned into line drives or hard ground balls with a bit of a leveled out swing may limit the moonshots, but is probably worth a 10% drop in strikeouts and maybe 10-15 points in batting average.
When he puts it all together, the below-linked happens (click the pic) – incredibly fast hands and explosive rotation that leads to big-league level power at barely 21:
Should you expect for him to see significant big league time this season? Not ideally. He needs a full season of AA/AAA ball to really be ready, and then probably some significant bench time.
At the bottom end of his ceiling, Brinson could turn out to be Delmon Young – a replacement level player because his skills never translate to production. At the top end? Adam Jones is a great wish to have.
Why do I say Jones? Well, first because I want a perennial All-Star to finally emerge after 40 years of wishing for one to patrol the Arlington expanse. But there’s numbers to back it up.
Take a look at two players, over the course of their minor league careers:
The first player is Jones; the second is Brinson.
The performance is startlingly close, and actually favors Brinson at all levels except K:BB rates. His power performance is higher (part of that is again attributable to High Desert), but Jones was ages 17-21, Brinson 18-21, and both had one “aberration” power season (Brinson in 2015 at High Desert, Jones in Tacoma (AAA) in 2007.
The fact that Jones had his breakout at AAA portents for his higher ceiling and big league performance, but there was nothing about Brinson’s strong showing at Round Rock last season (.433/.541/.567 in 30-odd plate appearances to end the season) to indicate he can’t have the same breakout this year at Age 22.
But assuming Beltre is (ideally) with this team three more seasons, by 2019, entering Brinson’s Age 25 season, we should be seeing an in-his-prime and ready-to-rock Lewis Brinson in CF to team with our next pillar of Rangers prospects.
And that counterpart in a corner outfield spot is already unique – arguably the second-best Nomar in professional baseball history.