Could Jordan Brown have been the next Mark Grace?
Jordan Brown is a good baseball player.
Good enough to win an International League batting title in 2009.
Good enough to win back-to-back MVP awards in 2006 and 2007.
Good enough to be a third-team All-American at Arizona.
In other words, Brown plays baseball better than 99.9999875 percent of the world's population, give or take a ten-millionth of a percent.
Many fans, I'm sure, disagree with this assessment.
Many of you wonder why the Indians, who finished 12th in the American League in runs scored in 2010, could not find more than 87 at-bats for Brown, who hit .305/.354/.471 over three AAA seasons.
There was a time that I would have agreed with you.
At the end of the 2007 season, Brown looked to me like the resurrection of Mark Grace; compare Brown's 2007 line to Grace's 1987 season with Pittsfield:
Jordan Brown, 2007 at AA Akron (age 23)
.333/.421/.484, 558 PA, 161 H, 36 2B, 2 3B, 11 HR, 63 BB, 56 K
Mark Grace, 1987 at AA Pittsfield (age 23)
.333/.394/.545, 513 PA, 151 H, 29 2B, 8 3B, 17 HR, 48 BB, 24 K
The batting averages are identical, the counting stats are similar and Grace's lead in slugging is somewhat offset by Brown's higher on-base percentage. Each player's numbers were good enough to garner the Eastern League MVP Award.
But the two players' careers diverge from there.
In May 1988, Leon "Bull" Durham—Chicago's 4-year incumbent at first base—was struggling at the plate. His wife had been ill during spring training, which may have been a distraction to him in the season's early going. Grace, with little experience above AA, took over the starting first base job when the Cubs traded Durham to his hometown Cincinnati Reds.
With Grace at first, Chicago won the NL East title in 1989, thus cementing his "favorite son" status among the Cubbie faithful. Despite criticism that the offense he provided was not "good enough" for a first baseman, Grace went on to win four Gold Gloves, appear in three All-Star Games and famously lead the 1990s in hits.
Could Brown, with a little luck and an MVP award in his pocket, have similarly won a big league job with the Tribe in 2008?
At the outset of 2008, the Indians had Ryan Garko at first, Travis Hafner at DH and a platoon of Ben Francisco and David Dellucci in left. Hafner had to play, thanks to his contract, and Victor Martinez spelled Garko at first against tough right-handers.
As the left-handed half of the platoon then, Dellucci posed the biggest obstacle to Brown—except, maybe, for Brown himself.
When Hafner opened a spot in the lineup by going on the DL at the end of May 2008, Brown was hitting .295 at Buffalo with 18 doubles. But he had zero home runs, and his performance tailed off in June and July, guaranteeing that he would not get a shot to replace Pronk or to platoon with Garko—even as Dellucci disappointed the Tribe for the second straight season.
To his credit, Brown rebounded that August, then posted his best power numbers in 2009—35 doubles and 15 homers for a .532 slugging percentage. But in retrospect, his strong numbers in 2007 and 2009 were each buoyed by an unsustainable BABIP of over .360.
Grace's BABIPs stayed consistently in the .320 range, even in the majors, and Grace possessed an uncanny batting eye. He walked more than he struck out in every season of his career, majors or minors.
By comparison, Brown has become less selective at the plate in recent years, perhaps in search of more power. While he still strikes out infrequently, his walk rate has fallen below six percent from a high of 11.3 percent in 2007.
And now, blocked by Matt LaPorta and an Indians lineup heavy with left-handed hitters, Brown's "Grace period" seems to have come to a close. He will return to Columbus and resume being a good baseball player.
I suspect, though, that he just won't be good enough.