Odd Man Out: Where Trevor Brown Fits With The San Francisco Giants
by 2 February 2017, 6:49 PM
Giants’ catcher Trevor Brown is out of a job after the team signed Nick Hundley. Does he still have a future with the team?
On Jan. 25, the San Francisco Giants signed catcher Nick Hundley to a one-year, $2 million contract. Last season Hundley hit .260/.320/.439 with 10 home runs in 317 plate appearances, and now he appears ready to assume the role of Buster Posey’s backup. The move was not strange for a team in need of a catcher to play once every five days. However, the Giants already had a backup: Trevor Brown. So where does the Hundley signing leave Trevor Brown?
By no means extraordinary, Brown served as Posey’s backup in 2016, and in 75 games he put up a .237/.283/.364 slash line and a 5.4% walk rate, which was the lowest of any Giants player with a minimum of 100 plate appearances. Even before the Hundley signing, Brown was expected to have competition for the backup role. On Dec. 13, the Giants signed Tim Federowicz to a minor league deal. The epitome of a glove-first catcher, scouts have been singing Federowicz’ defensive praises for years, but a career wRC+ of 46 has made it challenging for him to see consistent playing time in the Majors. Additionally, prospect Aramis Garcia, 24, is projected to reach San Francisco by either late 2018 or 2019.
Interestingly, Nick Hundley does not match the Giants’ usual defense-first philosophy that in the past has led them to start Brandon Crawford before he was a star and keep Brandon Belt at first base. San Francisco ranked third in Defensive Runs Saved in 2016, and Posey led all catchers in the category with 12 DRS. Hundley ranked 98th out of 104 catchers in DRS with minus six, and has not produced a positive DRS since 2012.
While Trevor Brown is not a skilled defensive player, he was worth 7.3 more defensive Runs Above Average than Hundley was in about half the playing time. Concerning for the incumbent backup, however, is that the Giants like Hundley’s bat, so much so they’re willing to buck their normal trend and look past his poor defense. Hundley had an ISO of .180 in 2016, the seventh-best of all catchers with 300+ AB, and a figure only two Giants players surpassed (Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt). Furthermore, Hundley has proven himself somewhat adept at hitting demi-god Clayton Kershaw, having gone 10-for-40 against him lifetime. For comparison, Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Denard Span have combined to go 13-159 (.082) versus Kershaw.
As such, Brown is now probably the odd man out, stuck somewhere between Triple-A and the Majors.
With GM Bobby Evans confirming that “120 (starts) is a very fair target” for Buster Posey in 2017, and with Hundley coming off a season with 300+ plate appearances, it is unlikely the Giants would find it necessary to limit their roster flexibility by carrying three catchers.
Injuries happen, so Brown might see some time in San Francisco before September call-ups, but for the time being, it appears as though 2016 was a tryout for Brown as Posey’s backup. He failed, and is now on the path to becoming expendable like Andrew Susac before him.
So, what went wrong, and does he have a chance to still find success in the big leagues?
As mentioned earlier, Brown’s 2016 walk rate was both a personal low (minor leagues included) and the lowest of any Giant with 100+ PA. It was also accompanied by a career-high strikeout rate (21.2%), that was 3.5 percentage points higher than the team average.
However, Brown’s plate discipline was far from atrocious, especially considering his age.
Brown chases fewer pitches out of the zone than does the typical MLB player at his age, and he swings at more strikes. So what gives? Why is Trevor Brown failing? A peek at the 10 slowest average exit velocities with a minimum of 120 batted balls reveals the answer.
Of the 10: six are infielders, three are center fielders, two finished in the top 10 in stolen bases…and one is a catcher. Brown runs disproportionately slow for his average exit velocity, and in 2016, his hard contact rate (21.6%) was 9.3 percentage points below the Major League average. Newcomer Nick Hundley, meanwhile, had a hard hit rate of 37.6% with the Rockies last year. As a result, Brown saw the 10th-highest percentage of strikes for batters with 180+ PA since teams were aware of his weak contact tendency. Imaginably, it’s somewhat hard to walk when teams aren’t throwing balls.
Furthermore, Brown hits more fly balls than is advisable considering the Giants’ home field. As documented by Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs, it is difficult to hit a ball out of AT&T Park, which has produced the fewest amount of home runs for two years in a row. Where the Giants as a team hit fly balls 33% of the time on contact, Brown’s contact produces fly balls 36.6% of the time. Combine low exit velocity with fly balls and a home run suppressor like AT&T, and it is hard to find success.
Given Aramis Garcia is still a year or two away from cracking the Major League roster, Trevor Brown will likely have one last chance in 2017 to reestablish his value in the eyes of the Giants. A critical component to Brown’s future success will hinge on his ability to improve bat speed and consequently scare pitchers out of the strike zone. Doing so might not only increase walks, but also raise his batting average a few points. If he fails to make harder contact in Triple-A Sacramento this year, a DFA or a trade could be around the corner. But should he succeed, there is no reason to doubt he could enter 2018 as Buster Posey’s backup.
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