The Vindication of Brooks Conrad

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The Vindication of Brooks Conrad
(Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Yesterday night, I turned on the TV to watch The Late Late Show, only to find that it was starting 20 minutes late.

Just for this week, I think they should've renamed it The Late Late Late Show.

Anyway, I decided to pass the time by watching Baseball Tonight, which I don't normally watch because I can't stand the analysts. But it was something to do.

After about ten minutes, the Braves-Nationals highlights came on. I wasn't really paying attention; I was checking minor league scores on my computer.

I looked up to see a nice catch by Nyjer Morgan and an upper-deck homer by Adam Dunn, but didn't catch anything in between.

Then I heard "Now, to the seventh inning. Jesus Colome in to pitch for the Nationals..."

I looked up. I've always been a fan of Colome's. No real reason I guess—it's just cool when someone can throw 100 mph sidearm. Plus, the Rays are my second-favorite team, so I like a lot of guys who came up with them.

I hoped to hear that Colome did something good. Instead, I heard:

"And this is Brooks...Conrad..."

Next thing I know, I'm watching Conrad line a 97-mph fastball from Colome into the bullpen in right field.

Upon seeing this, I let out a long "Ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!"

Ten seconds later, my mom called my cellphone from two floors away. Apparently I had been so loud, I had woken her up and she thought the house was being broken into.

My response was a rather sheepish, "Uh...no...my second-favorite player hit a home run."

"Why are you making this noise! It's 12:45!"

"...You don't understand. Never mind."

I don't know how many of you were on Bleacher Report last April/May, when I first started writing here. If you're familiar with my work then, you probably know why I would do that.

If you don't, let's get you caught up on why I was so excited.

Brooks Conrad is a second baseman who was drafted way back in 2001. An eighth-round pick of the Astros, the gritty switch-hitter had an excellent college career at Arizona State.

Conrad's advanced skillset is the sort that typically allows a player to move quickly through the low minors.

However, while he hit well in the low minors, the Astros made him spend two and a half years just to get through High-A. He didn't even make it to Double-A until 2004, despite putting up consistent .280/.370/.460-ish numbers, excellent for a second baseman.

The then-24-year-old Conrad hit .290/.365/.475 in Double-A, but not only was he not promoted, the Astros made him start 2005 at Double-A again. Finally getting the call to Triple-A at the end of April 2005, Conrad blasted 21 homers in just 113 games there, hitting .263/.347/.481.

Let's stop for a second.

Now, here's a switch-hitting second baseman who just hit .263 with 21 homers in his first crack at Triple-A. He also has speed (20 steals in 2005) and the ability to play everywhere but short and catcher (and he can play short, he's just a bit stretched rangewise).

Wouldn't you want him on your team? Maybe not to start, but at least as a utilityman, right? Or a pinch-hitter/defensive replacement?

Apparently, the Astros didn't. They sent Conrad back to Triple-A to begin 2006.

He responded by leading the minors in extra-base hits, with 40 doubles, 15 triples, and 24 homers. He also stole 15 bases. He hit .267/.334/.534.

He didn't even get a September callup.

Now, being someone who thinks the Quad-A stereotype is screwing baseball up, I was outraged at this. 

But I was also confused.

See, most Quad-A guys are guys like Jack Cust, who hit a ton of homers but strike out a lot and can't play defense. That's the stereotype. But here's Conrad, who can play six or seven positions, switch-hit, hit for a decent average, draw some walks, steal some bases, and hit a ton of doubles and homers.

That's not the Quad-A stereotype at all. That's the five-tool stereotype.

So why didn't the Astros ever give Conrad a look? I have no idea. I can't comprehend it to this day. 

The best I can figure is that he was old for his levels, but it's not like Conrad took awhile to figure out each level--he basically got stuck at each level for at least a year and a half because the Astros, for whatever reason, didn't feel like promoting him.

He never struggled to hit, aside from a 38-game stretch at Low-A in 2003, so it certainly wasn't for lack of production.

Now, I was extremely disheartened by the Astros' treatment of Conrad, but I can only imagine how he felt about it.

I usually discount things like "heart" and "intangibles" in sports, because they're so often thrown around as ways to explain things, when there's really an obvious more concrete reason.

However, I have noticed that when a player is repeatedly and (usually) undeservedly overlooked, their Triple-A production eventually starts to slide. You can see it with Heath Phillips, John-Ford Griffin, Jon Knott, Mike Hessman, and a number of other guys.

It makes sense that these players get frustrated by their lack of a callup and discouraged by their situation. Therefore, they get distracted from the task at hand.

That's exactly what seemed to happen with Conrad in 2007. Everything that made him so good was still there—it just wasn't there quite as much. Some of the difference is probably in BABIP, but he hit fewer doubles, fewer triples, and fewer homers, he stole fewer bases, and he struck out more.

His .218/.305/.420 line, while it still showed good power and discipline, simply was too weighed down by his 144 strikeouts to look very good.

Given that they didn't value him much through all his good hitting, it made sense that the Astros let Conrad become a free agent. 

I was very excited when he caught on with the A's. Showing seemingly renewed vigor, Conrad tore up spring training, hitting nearly .400 and being one of the final 28 players on the A's roster (they were allowed to keep three extra guys to go to Japan).

I was particularly excited that Farhan Zaidi, A's Director of Player Personnel, said "We definitely see (Conrad) helping us at some point this season."

He didn't break camp with the A's, but Conrad went down to Triple-A and rebounded some. He hit for more average and power but drew fewer walks. 

The A's, scuffling on offense, turned to some other options first (including the punchless Gregorio Petit), but they finally decided to give the then-28-year-old Conrad a big league look on July 21, 2008.

He went 3-for-19 with no walks and nine strikeouts in six games.

Sent back down to the minors, Conrad finished up his season with a career-high 28 homers and a decent .243/.313/.508 batting line.

Baseball Prospectus 2009 wrote, "At 29, his window is closing."

I was compelled to agree. I was still a fan, and still hoped Conrad would catch on somewhere, but that big 2006 was now two years past, and he had a .230 average and .311 OBP since then.

I would've liked to see Conrad stay in Oakland (he certainly would've gotten a longer look this year), but I couldn't blame the guy for looking elsewhere and signing with Atlanta.

In spring training, I kept track of his performance.

He was terrible.

Conrad played in most games, and didn't crack the .100 mark until the last one or two games of the spring.

Since he wasn't in the A's organization anymore, and had dropped off some in 2007-08, I stopped vigorously promoting Conrad to baseball fans everywhere and moved my focus to A's 1B/3B Tommy Everidge (who, seriously, needs to get called up. Now.).

I'd still check in every few games to see how Conrad was doing. He was still the same low-average, low-OBP, high-power bat in April (.250/.308/.472), but then in May, Conrad walked 20 times and hit .291/.422/.488. That was nice, but given his horrible spring, I figured Atlanta had written Conrad off as a guy who couldn't hit big league pitching. 

In June, Conrad didn't hit well at all. He hit .238/.328/.307, with an uncharateristic .069 ISO. At least he walked some.

Overall, Conrad was hitting .259/.356/.413 at Triple-A Gwinnett, which is nice, but I had no idea that anyone other than myself (and presumably Conrad, his family, and his friends) cared.

Well, apparently the Braves did. With Kelly Johnson injured, they called the 29-year-old up today and pinch-hit him against Jesus Colome in the seventh inning.

You know the rest. Conrad's three-run homer propelled the Braves to a 9-8 victory.

That's a hell of a first impression. Now Conrad has to show that his skill set is good enough to send someone else down.

Can he do it? He's capable of it, but he probably doesn't have very long. Just like last year, he may only have 10 or 20 at-bats to show what he can do. These next two weeks will be vital for Conrad. He has the ability to be a good everyday player in the majors, but it's now or never to show that to someone besides me.

But no matter what, Brooks Conrad will always have the night of July 3, 2009 to remember. He got a 97-mph fastball with good movement, down and in, and yanked a no-doubt homer to right field.

For this one night, Brooks Conrad is vindicated. After five years in Triple-A, when people said he couldn't hit big-league pitching, he hit one of the best fastballs in the majors out of the ballpark. 

For this one night, I am vindicated. I am vindicated for pointing at his stats and yelling that he should be a starter in the majors. I am vindicated for ranking him 44th on my top 102 prospects last year, despite the fact that nobody even thought of him as a prospect.

So no, Mom, nobody's breaking into our house. I've just been having a metaphorical argument with all baseball insiders for four years, and for this one night, I won.

So congratulations, Brooks Conrad. Congratulations for proving me (and, I would guess, yourself, if you have any self-confidence) right. I wish you the best of luck for the next two weeks and beyond. Go out there and put together a 10-year big-league career.

Hopefully, tonight will not be the only vindication.

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