It’d be premature to take victory laps about any baseball decision on August 11, especially in the case of Lewis Brinson. For much of the first half of the 2021 season, he was blocked on the Marlins depth chart by veteran outfielders. When given opportunities to play on a semi-regular basis, he squandered them. Brinson entered the All-Star break with a .221/.232/.353 slash line and a 59 wRC+, almost identical to his terrible career norms.
The Marlins conceded from contending during their July 16-21 road trip coming out of the break. Contract extension negotiations with Starling Marte fell apart, according to the Miami Herald, and the front office began fielding trade proposals for him. Rock-solid starter Pablo López landed on the injured list with a shoulder strain. A team that had prided itself on playing close games—positive run differential!—suffered its most lopsided defeat on July 19, outscoring 18-1 by the Nationals.
July 19 was also the date that the Marlins recalled Brinson from Triple-A Jacksonville for his fifth major league stint of the year. Expectations were non-existent. He was brought up to fill out the roster—nothing more.
Stunningly, the former top prospect has found a new gear. He’s been the best all-around player on the Marlins in recent weeks, dramatically boosting his 2021 stats to the point that they now compare favorably to...Christian Yelich?!
Myself and many, many others did not understand the Marlins’ loyalty to Brinson. After three-and-a-half years of sub-replacement-level play, why not just designate him for assignment and create space for somebody else? There’s a chance he would’ve cleared waivers anyway!
But Brinson still has allies within the organization, one of those being bench coach and offensive coordinator James Rowson. Coincidentally, Rowson has been Miami’s acting manager during some of this ultra-hot stretch (Don Mattingly will be returning on Friday).
James Rowson on Lewis Brinson: "I would bet anything that that's gonna be a really good player, an above-average player in this league."— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) May 15, 2020
Finally, we have gotten a taste of “really good”/“above-average” Lewis Brinson.
Will it last?
From the beginning of his major league career, Brinson showed the ability to do damage against fastballs. His first two home runs as a neophyte on the 2017 Brewers came off of a Sean Doolittle heater at 94.6 miles per hour and an Enny Romero one at 97.5. Both were no-doubters (projected distances of 461 feet and 441 feet, respectively). His plus raw power has always been there.
Opponents adjusted by throwing Brinson fewer fastballs. Their fastball usage—four-seamers, two-seamers and cutters combined—has dipped every season, as tracked by Statcast.
From 2017-2019, Brinson did practically all of his slugging against fastballs. They accounted for just 52.9% of his total pitches seen but 71.8% of his extra-base hits. His average exit velocity vs. fastballs during that period was 91.2 mph (significantly better than the MLB average) and he whiffed at less than one-quarter of those offerings.
On the other hand, Brinson was overmatched against everything else. He homered only four times on breaking balls and offspeed pitches in 308 combined at-bats with a 84.0 mph average exit velo.
The most appalling stat: Brinson whiffed at nearly half of all non-fastballs that he swung at from 2017-2019. Part of the problem was his tendency to chase pitches in the dirt. But even more worrisome, he couldn’t make contact on soft stuff in the bottom third of the strike zone. There was a hole in his swing and opponents mercilessly exploited it.
I’m referring to Zone 7, Zone 8 and Zone 9 as defined by MLB Gameday (outlined in red below).
Here are the year-by-year weighted on-base averages that Brinson posted early in his career against breaking balls and offspeed pitches in those zones, compared with each year’s league-wide mark in parentheses:
- 2017—.000 wOBA (MLB average .274 wOBA)
- 2018—.094 wOBA (.278 wOBA)
- 2019—.113 wOBA (.295 wOBA)
From August 10, 2019, watch Atlanta’s Mike Soroka bring him down to a knee flailing at a changeup:
Fast-forward two years, Brinson is facing fellow right-hander Nabil Crismatt. Same pitch type, similar velocity, similar location...different result:
Let’s repeat the same query as before (weighted on-base average against breaking balls and offspeed pitches in Zones 7-9), but this time for Brinson’s two most recent seasons:
- 2020—.389 wOBA (MLB average .296 wOBA)
- 2021—.296 wOBA (.282 wOBA)
So much of this improved production is about being able to stay alive on pitches that used to put him away.
Tuesday’s game provided a great example. Brinson was behind in the count 0-2 against Craig Stammen. After back-to-back sinkers, Stammen tried to catch him off balance with a knee-high curveball, but Brinson fouled it off.
Stammen followed that up with a sinker, which Brinson turned into an RBI single.
Spoiling the lone non-fastball in Stammen’s pitch sequence was a critical step in what eventually escalated into a three-run Marlins rally.
For most of his career, Lewis Brinson had been arguably the worst right-handed batter against right-handed pitching among all big leaguers receiving regular playing time. Opponents have continued feeding him a heavy diet of secondary stuff, but now he’s in the proper mindset and mechanical groove to put up a fight. Those once-gaudy platoon splits have disappeared in 2021. There is—and I can’t believe I’m typing this—a universe where he peaks as a viable everyday outfielder.
Rest assured, rival analysts and scouts will take notice of the 27-year-old’s newfound success and adjust their attack plans accordingly.
Even this breakout version of Brinson is flawed. He is undisciplined, chasing outside the zone at a career-high 39.8% rate—you may be able to lure him into making bad swing decisions without needing to challenge him in the area highlighted above. He seldom uses the opposite field, inviting defensive shifts (.177 wOBA this season when the shift is on).
What a privilege it is to be nitpicking Brinson’s game rather than dreading every plate appearance. In an incredible plot twist, his performance down the stretch could impact how the Marlins construct their 2022 major league outfield.
Lewis Brinson’s progress is legitimately encouraging, but let’s hold off on the hot takes until we get a larger sample size to evaluate.