Brandon Wood went 1-3 with a single today, raising his batting average and slugging percentage both to an ironically coequal .102 mark, just as he slipped over the fifty plate appearances threshold on our early 2010 season. The gratitude was evident in the Game Thread, with ALL CAPS jubilation and "Yahoo!s" a-bustin'.
Unfortunately, Mike Napoli would break down the magic with a baserunning miscue, and Brandon himself would follow up on his modest advance with a disappointing fielding boner, failing to glove an eminently fieldable groundball that would lead to three Yankee runs over the course of the rest of that inning. One step forward, three steps back, natch.
Meanwhile, at the border of those hearts a-breaking in the Game Thread, hearts were a-bleeding in the thread of a fanpost by the curiously crafty name of "Brandon Wood Out Pattern" on the RHS of our hallowed Halos Heaven. The best of the content is in the post comments, where one by one they're offered up -- the best that our Brandon Woodsy victimologists have on offer, dishing up every reason but personal onus as to why the princely-crown-entitled prospect has been broken, abused, and mistreated by the Angels organization and its conventional bugbears. Many of the same excuses are warmed-over relics from the McPherson debates of '04-'06, but that can't stop a homegrown Atticus Finch from fingerwagging away a good fan mob lynching.
Though I personally find the assertions by the author of the original post that Wood in his 80-some MLB games "has demonstrated that he is a .250 hitter with good power" inexplicable by the facts themselves, I have no appetite to dispel a good fantasy. The world is dry enough. But some of the excuses in the thread itself are beginning to feel tired, so I thought I'd take a moment to talk back to the young man's attorneys, and take the side of the other man in red once again.
- Point: Mickey Hatcher destroyed Brandon's sweet swing. He's the worst hitting coach in baseball, and the man should never come within fifty feet of a promising hitter.
- Counterpoint: 8/18/2009 -- The first time this happened since 1934....
- Point: So what if hitters have recently hit well under Hatcher? He might have had some success with players like Morales, Mathis and Izturis, but he still lowered Brandon's hands and killed his swing.
- Counterpoint: Actually, Jim Eppard (hitting coach at AAA) had arguably a larger impact.
In 2006, Wood had struck out 149 times in just over 500 plate appearances at Arkansas-- an alarming rate roughly three times higher than his walk rate. His slash line at Arkansas was actually inflated by a fortunate .348 BABIP (well higher than his MiLB average BABIP). He was particularly susceptible to breaking and off-speed stuff due to his accelerated bat speed and the elevated plane of his swing as it passed through the zone. There was no way that this swing would play consistently against Major League pitching. As a result of his work with Eppard, he saw his K/BB ratio improve year over year for four seasons, from 0.36 in '06 to 0.45 in '09. Not elite, by any means, but an advance nonetheless.
Brandon's struggles are not the result of a crippled swing. His swing played well in a Cal League where breakers don't always break and one-pitch prospects often flame out -- it wasn't a swing that was going to translate easily to the Bigs.
- Point: Brandon is a first-year rookie. Give the kid a break!
- Counterpoint: This is 25-yr-old Brandon's fourth season in the Majors, and his tenth call-up to the team.
A player ceases to be rookie the season after he receives 130 plate appearances in the Majors and 45 days on an active 25-man roster. The 23-yr-old Brandon Wood accumulated 157 plate appearances with the 2008 MLB club alone. For comparison, the 23-yr-old Kendry Morales accumulated 126 plate appearances with the 2007 MLB club, and managed to hit .294 with a .479 slugging percentage.
- Point: That's the problem! Brandon's development has been disrupted because he keeps getting shuttled between AAA and the Angels, and just rides the pine while he's here.
- Counterpoint: It's hardly unusual for young players to get inconsistent playing time initially in the Majors -- in fact it's more the rule than the exception.
Morales had seven separate stints with the club, shuttling between AAA and the Angels, and competing with players like Erstad, Kotchman, Quinlan and Teixeira, before he got full attention in 2009. Kendry, however, proved he could hit well-above the Mendoza line even with sporadic play -- even excelling in 2007 (as mentioned above). Meanwhile, Wood actually got in plenty of at-bats in 2008 -- enough to qualify for Rookie of the Year in fact -- appearing in as many as 23 consecutive games at a stretch at one point in the season. He wasn't in a situation where he was just getting one or two at bats a week -- but nonetheless, he barely eked out an OPS+ of 43 while hitting .200 that year.
Meanwhile, Brandon has 3300+ plate appearances over seven seasons in one of the strongest player development oriented minor league systems (even if recently depleted of talent by some poor drafts) in baseball. His "development" has hardly been crippled by inconsistent play. He's received a minimum of 450 plate appearances every season since 2004.
- Point: But Mike Schmidt performed terribly when he was given his first "cup of coffee". What if everybody had given up on him?
- Counterpoint: It's simply a terrible analogy, but everyone from Stephen Smith to Earl Bloom thinks it's an apt one. Here's why it sucks.
First, the direness of Schmidt's rookie season is much exaggerated -- he ended the 1973 season with an OPS+ of 92 with 18 HRs and 60 RBIs in 443 plate appearances, roughly what one would expect from Joe Crede given three quarters of a typical season. And while people point to Schmidt's low batting average (.196) that year, his 62 BBs against 367 ABs left him with a .324 OBP, which was two points higher than the league average in 1973.
People forget how much better pitching was in the 70s -- the NL league average ERA in 1973 was 3.67. It's been eighteen years since the NL average ERA was even below four. Moreover, if one looks at the neutralized batting stats, adjusting to a neutral context where a team from (eg) 1999 can be compared to a team from 1955, Schmidt takes on an adjusted .347 obp with a .752 ops. I'm sure any team would take that from a 23-yr-old rookie in his first campaign -- not least an atrocious Phillies team who went 71-91 on the year.
And speaking of that campaign and that Phillies team, consider this: Schmidt was drafted in June of 1971, joined the Phillies' AA club in July and was already debuting on the Major League club in September of the next year. The Phillies won only 59 games in 1972, and the 22-yr-old Schmidt was displacing a rather unimposing 3Bman by the (pornstar-esque) name of Don Money, whose .222 avg, .621 ops (75 OPS+) was a trade invitation if anyone has ever seen one (he'd be with the Brewers in short order).
Long story short, Schmidt was rushed to the show to join an early-Seventies equivalent of the Nationals after roughly one year in the minors, and became the fourth-best player on the 1973 club, regardless of batting average. He was expected to struggle, and he did, but his struggles were remarkably brief. He opened up April of 1973 hitting .269. His slump came later in his rookie year, after a very promising opening.
Before he ever saw a single Major League at bat, Brandon Wood had three times as many minor league plate appearances than Schmidt did in his full MiLB career. Given all this, the Mike Schmidt comparison could hardly be more inappropriate. It's a cop out by writers who should know better. Brandon Wood has 90 Ks against 9 BBs in a half-season worth of plate appearances. To compare that strike zone judgment against a man who had accumulated 270 walks by the same age is to be caught in a mouthdrool moment unworthy of the jury.
All said and done, I think a man should be responsible for his own destiny in the Bigs, but many in the Halosphere are giving Brandon Wood a greater handicap than a developmentally disabled golfer in an after-school special. Breaks that Izturis or Figgins -- or even McPherson -- would have never gotten from the same crowd.
And yet all of these soft focus backpats come even as many fans have adjusted their expectations to mentally anticipate a player who might hit .250 with 15-20 HRs on the season. I've seen that estimation quoted more than once now, and it's moreorless the most optimistic outcome the fancy projection systems like CHONE and Marcel deliver as well. So congrats -- the saberphiles and saberphobics can finally agree on something. It's the new hope -- replacement level performance with a little pop! Can we call it the Hillenbrand Ceiling?
And to what benefit, really? How is a player who hits .250 with 15-20 HRs a greater breadwinner than a player who hits .300 and 10 HRs a season, with a knack for the clutch hit and above-average plate discipline?
Simple answer: there is no benefit. The latter player should be expected to deliver more runs every time.
But let's face it: Brandon Wood is a magic mirror. Every man who looks within him, sees what he wants to see -- and the man who would pull him away is an ungenerous man indeed.
So we'll look a little longer. And we'll dream up better excuses as we wait.