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August 20, 2010
What Did Brown Do for You?
A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article attempting to define the pitchers that best defined the most recent decade. The list certainly started a discussion as to the merits of some pitchers as well as one wondering about the lack of inclusion of others. This was the intended goal of the piece, as baseball memories are not developed in as confined a fashion as a decade, and so it was very possible that my list needed some tweaking. Merely as a way of framing the discussion, I offered that the starting pitchers who best defined the prior era of baseball could be grouped into a neat nonet: Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Kevin Brown. Interestingly enough, in the comments and in personal e-mails, it seemed that many wanted to steer the conversation toward this group, debating the merits of the last pitcher mentioned—Kevin Brown.
Brown doesn’t have the Hall of Fame resume of Maddux, Clemens, Pedro, or Unit. He doesn’t have the pedigree of a Glavine or the playoff mystiques of Schilling and Smoltz, and his win total pales in comparison to Mussina’s high tally. Put together, it is very easy to make a case that these eight, not nine, pitchers were the era’s best. Few produce Jim Halpert double-takes when reading those names, the same of which cannot be said for Brown. For various reasons, Brown just does not pass the smell test of many as far as being considered one of the best pitchers in baseball’s toughest era. While I do not necessarily think of him as worthy of being enshrined in Cooperstown, I did thoroughly enjoy watching him pitch while growing up. With that in mind, don’t think of this as comparable to Rich Lederer’s campaign to get Bert Blyleven into the Hall of Fame, but rather a reminder that Brown was a great pitcher for a long time.
The Early Years
Though Brown made his major-league debut in 1986—a decent start in which he surrendered two runs over five innings—his first full season came in 1989, at the age of 24. He finished sixth in American League Rookie of the Year voting, an award that Orioles closer Gregg Olson took home; notably, Ken Griffey Jr. finished in third place. Brown’s season was not that great. Though he pitched 191 innings and produced a 3.35 ERA, his peripherals were ugly and he wasn’t yet established as a ground-balling force. If Baseball Prospectus had been around back then, our 1990 Annual—probably with Alvin Davis and his .424 OBP on the cover—might have included a comment like this:
Brown might not have exactly lit the world on fire from a controllable skills standpoint, but the fourth overall pick in the 1986 draft did show signs of why he was able to shoot right up through the system. His strikeout and walk rates were as expected, as whiffs were never his strong suit, but a plus-sinker kept the ball on the ground and if his off-speed pitches improve, so too could the peripherals. His skills with inducing wormbeaters helped to prevent more balls from leaving the yard, but Brown will have to show this is more related to skill than luck for us to be big believers, especially if he remains a two-pitch pitcher.
Moving into his sophomore and junior seasons, Brown did show signs of improvement, but his rates from 1989-95 tell the tale of a pitcher who began to spiral downward before figuring something out:
Even in 1995, when he produced a solid 3.60 ERA for the Orioles, it wasn’t as if Brown was viewed as someone that might be included in future lists with Clemens and Maddux. Now, the per-nine inning rates can be a bit misleading, for reasons I discussed in a prior Seidnotes column, so what happens if we produce the same table, but per batters faced?
In this case, the batters faced numbers mirror those on a nine-inning scale. Both sets of data suggest that Brown was a good, not great, pitcher that was durable and becoming more efficient. From ages 23-30, and including his one start as a 21-year old in 1986, Brown’s standard numbers were as follows: 213 G (212 GS), 43 CG, 7 SHO, 1,451.0 IP, 859 K, 476 BB, 95 HR, 1.35 WHIP, 3.78 ERA, 111 ERA+. Removing his 1986 and 1988 numbers—he only made a few appearances in those seasons—how did Brown’s early years compare to his contemporaries? Well, between 1989 and 1995, there are only 12 pitchers that tallied more than 1,400 innings as a starter. Here are their SNLVAR, SNWP, and FRA marks:
Brown finds himself in familiar territory here, as the worst of the best, so to speak. He produced solid numbers in this span and stayed on the mound quite a bit, but he wasn’t spectacular. For reference’s sake, Javier Vazquez produced a .527 SNWP from 2002-09, Derek Lowe came in at .528 in the same span, with Jarrod Washburn at .534. Nobody is going to be writing articles about the three of them five years from now for the same purpose as this piece.
Old Man Brown Dominates
A trip to the National League in 1996 helped Brown’s numbers transform from solid but unspectacular to fantastic. From 1996-2003, Brown produced a 2.60 ERA, 158 ERA+, 1.08 WHIP, and 3.79 K/BB, complete with substantially higher strikeout rates. Oh, and these were his age 31-38 years. Injury problems kept him from being as durable as in his earlier years, but he was still incredibly effective. He was also one of just 13 starters to tally 1,600 or more innings over the eight-year span.
Of that baker’s dozen, Brown produced the third-highest SNWP (.636) behind Pedro (.667) and Unit (.641). His 2.60 ERA and 3.02 FRA ranked second only to Pedro (2.39 and 2.75). And from a counting stat standpoint, even though Brown's innings pitched total was the lowest of the entire group, his 58.99 SNLVAR ranked third behind Pedro and Maddux. He made five All-Star teams and finished in the top six in Cy Young Award voting on four different occasions. He won a World Series in 1997 with the Marlins and guided the Padres to a championship appearance the very next year.
The Forgettable Yankee Years
On the heels of a 211-inning season with a 2.39 ERA in 2003, the Dodgers capitalized on Brown’s stock and traded him to the Yankees for Jeff Weaver, Yhency Brazoban, Brandon Weeden, and cash. His time there, as we know, was short-lived and disappointing. There was the decline in numbers, the supposedly poor attitude, and the whole wall-punching/hand-breaking incident. He retired after an injury-filled 2005 season during which his peripherals were actually pretty solid, but way too many balls in play fell in for hits; his SIERA was a more than respectable 4.18.
These two seasons helped finish the shaping of his reputation and status and are, in my eyes, the main causes of why he doesn’t pass the smell test of many. He didn’t have anything on his resume that would scream awesomeness and he didn’t display any of the intangible qualities that could help lift the value of the numbers he did post. He became baseball’s first $100 million man and proceeded to get hurt every other year. Add in that he was viewed as a massive disappointment in the eyes of the largest fan base in the nation and you end up with a pitcher whose best attributes are long forgotten, especially when one considers how he went out on bottom.
Brown and the Hall of Fame
Brown is now eligible for Cooperstown enshrinement, but it isn’t going to happen. Though he was undoubtedly one of the nine best starters of the most recent era, he is likely to be the only pitcher on that list viewed as undeserving for the Hall of Fame. Since it’s impossible to not discuss the Hall of Fame in an article like this, I turned to colleague Jay Jaffe to see where Brown scored on his JAWS board. Jay’s data was most recently updated in December, but it suggests that the average starting pitcher enshrined amassed 70.3 WARP3, with a peak of 47.7 wins and a JAWS of 59.0.
Brown’s numbers: 65.3 career, 44.8 peak, 55.1 JAWS. Statistically he is right on the cusp of the average, and within two JAWS wins on either side of Schilling and Mussina. Jaffe informed me that Brown is a shade below the Hall starting pitcher standard, but that in previous iterations he has come out above. In all likelihood, Brown will receive some support, enough to remain on the ballot for a few years, but not enough to hold his spot in line when his eight compadres storm the castle in the next couple of years.
The Next Brown?
Who will be the next pitcher to finish his career similarly to Brown, as a forgotten great? We would be looking for pitchers who were viewed as very solid for a very long time—Brown’s career spanned 20 years—but who fell off the radar towards the end and were not ever truly appreciated for their greatness. One name that came to mind was Mark Buehrle, who I even excluded from my list of the best pitchers of the decade. My rationale was that Buehrle has been good for a long time, but never great.
From 2000-09, and amongst those with at least 1,600 innings pitched, Buehrle has the seventh-best SNWP (.553), the 10th-best SNLVAR (47.74), the 11th-best FRA (4.23), and the ninth-best ERA (3.80). He has been good for a while but never really great, however with several more quality seasons his status will end up being reconsidered. Entering this season, Buehrle had 42.1 career WARP, and a seven-year peak worth 29.9 wins; JAWS averages the career total and seven-year peak to arrive at a score. That calculation gave Buehrle a JAWS of 36.0 entering the season, which is certainly far enough behind Brown, but should put him in the same vicinity as Brown relative to his peers by the time his career is over. In other words, Buehrle’s career has not been anywhere near as good as Brown’s, but I can see him ending his career with a very high JAWS score, even though few, if any, will consider him an era-defining great.
So what say the BP faithful? Who will be the next Brown? Am I off base with the Buehrle comparison?