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Recalibrating expectations for Lewis Brinson

The Marlins’ former top prospect is struggling more at the plate as a major leaguer than any other 25-and-under outfielder has in generations.

Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

My favorite Lewis Brinson Marlins moment happened on Sept. 11, 2018. Tie game, top of the fourth inning, NL Cy Young award frontrunner Jacob deGrom on the mound. deGrom is ahead in the count 0-2, one strike away from escaping a jam. He tries to throw a 97 mile-per-hour fastball in, but misfires it belt-high and over the plate. Brinson clobbers it.

That’s a three-run homer in many major league ballparks; Citi Field makes him settle for a two-run double instead.

I was encouraged. Brinson was showing adjustments following his midseason hip injury and extended rehab assignment. By reducing his leg kick, he was better equipped to handle high velocity. At least he salvaged something from had been a disappointing rookie campaign...or maybe not.

Brinson was universally regarded as one of Major League Baseball’s top 10 outfield prospects when he “came home” to Miami in the Christian Yelich trade. Less than two years later, he may no longer rank among the top 10 long-term outfield options in the Marlins organization.

As his second season with the Fish winds down, it’s time to recalibrate what we think we know about Lewis Brinson and where his career could go from here.

Twenty-five years old is relatively young by MLB standards. Yelich, for example, had never even been an All-Star at that point. Dan Uggla still hadn’t debuted in The Show. And it is what makes the death of José Fernández at age 24 all the more devastating—history says he would have continued improving.

However, Brinson is closer to peak performance age than you may realize. Also, we’re living in a youth-driven league that makes multiple years of regular season struggles difficult to overlook. “Although the typical player’s peak age hasn’t moved by much relative to the pre-steroid era,” writes Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer, “hitters are arriving much closer to their prime performance level than they used to.”

Graph by Mitchel Lichtman

Entering Friday, Brinson owns a .187/.235/.309 career slash line. Only 13 home runs and four stolen bases from a thrilling athlete who received above-average to plus marks from scouts for both him power and speed tools. Strictly looking at his contributions at the plate, while adjusting for the disadvantages of Marlins Park home games and the current offensive environment around the majors, he has a 46 Weighted Runs Created Plus (100 wRC+ represents the league average).

Going by wRC+, Lewis Brinson is the worst hitting outfielder of the modern era through his age-25 season with a minimum of 600 career plate appearances.

Fish Stripes original GIF

Seriously, here is the FanGraphs leaderboard.

The active player closest to Brinson’s mark while matching these criteria is former Marlins prospect Jake Marisnick (67 wRC+). Marisnick was traded to the Astros midway through the 2014 season, so he received the majority of his 25-and-under reps with them. Now at age 28, Marisnick has settled in as a league-average outfielder—2.2 fWAR per 600 PA—propped up by very good center field defense. I would consider Marisnick a best-case scenario for Brinson at this point.

The Coral Springs native was demoted to Triple-A New Orleans from May through early August. Dealing with inconsistency along the way, he produced nonetheless (.270/.361/.510, 16 HR, 16 SB in 81 G).

The critical question is whether his approach in the batter’s box translates at the highest level.

Brinson has chased 39.0% of pitches outside the strike zone as a major leaguer. The combination of that aggressiveness and his inability to get his bat to those balls (17.0% swinging strike rate) is killing him. Most players with that profile fail so frequently that they don’t even get enough playing time to make it on qualified leaderboards; Javier Báez of the Cubs and Avisaíl García of the Rays are the two notable exceptions.

Brinson returned from his Triple-A stint for an Aug. 5 doubleheader against the Mets. With injuries to César Puello and prospect Monte Harrison, he is the Marlins center fielder by default, starting all 17 games since his call-up.

The early returns are very troubling. Brinson has been chasing even more than usual (42.3 O-Swing%). The .164/.188/.213 August slash line adds up to a 4 wRC+, dead last among all NL qualifiers.

In 2019, Brinson is making hard contact on pitches around the high and outside parts of the strike zone...but that still leaves lots of vulnerabilities.

Baseball Savant

Opponents are exploiting that.

Watch enough of Brinson’s plate appearances and you’ll come away feeling that his true talent is better than his historically bad production, that he’s getting unlucky. Saturday’s 426-foot fly out at Coors Field was just the latest example.

Baseball Savant agrees. In each of his MLB seasons (including his 2017 cup of coffee with the Brewers), Brinson has had an expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) significantly lower than his actual weighted on-base average (wOBA):

  • .225 wOBA, .336 xwOBA in 2017
  • .248 wOBA, .290 xwOBA in 2018
  • .205 wOBA, .228 xwOBA in 2019
  • .235 wOBA, .279 wxOBA from 2017-19

League average is .318. All evidence points to Brinson remaining a bottom-of-the-order hitter even with a boost from the baseball gods.

If Brinson were to erase that gap while continuing with the mostly good defense he’s shown since the call-up, then we may be looking at Marisnick 2.0 (he owns a .286 career wOBA). That is his revised ceiling.

There’s another month-plus to go in Brinson’s age-25 season. But unless he conveniently “flips the switch,” the Marlins should approach 2020 and beyond with the understanding that their former top prospect is at best a complementary piece on a contending team.