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Complicating the Grady Sizemore/Domonic Brown LF Conundrum

While Domonic Brown may be the preferred left fielder in most internet circles, he's not the obvious choice.

Jim McIsaac

Ryne Sandberg has come under fire in recent days for his decision to consistently play Grady Sizemore over Dom Brown. While there is no doubt that, on purely sock-based merits, Sizemore is Brown's superior, the answer to who is more valuable to the Phillies, both immediately and going forward, is a bit less clear.

On the surface, which player you prefer easily maps onto the overly-simplistic traditional v. sabermetric binary.

It's easy to see how advocating for sticking with Dom Brown for 2014 (and, probably, 2015) fits into the thought process of saber-friendly strawman. Brown hasn't turned 27 years old and is yet to have 1500 PA at the MLB level. Even though he has produced a cumulative -0.9 rWAR in those plate appearances, his most recent full season (2013) saw him post over 2.0 rWAR, while flashing enough power to suggest he might have finally recovered from a hamate bone injury suffered prior to the 2011 season.Consider also that he is a former Top-5 prospect according to Baseball America and isn't arbitration eligible until 2015, and sticking with him is a no-brainer.

On the other hand, the common argument for Grady Sizemore fits easily into the "traditionalist school." Sizemore, a veteran who has battled for three years to return to the majors, is an inspirational figure to his teammates. With the Phillies this season, he's hitting .315 and provides much better defense than Brown, one of the worst outfielders in the game. Simply put, Sizemore has been better, and to respect the integrity of the game is to play your best players toward the end of maximizing your immediate odds of winning.

If you want those arguments about Dom Brown and Grady Sizemore (plus some thinly-veiled racism,probably) stop now and tune into talk radio to hear them rehashed over and over and over and over, etc. If you're already here, though, I suspect you're looking for a little more nuance in your baseball analysis. In the arguments of the talk radio binary, played out above, Dom Brown is the easy choice. Only a troll would argue for Sizemore.

A more nuanced view, however, makes the "Sizemore argument" a bit more tempting. Let me frame the two cases with a little more information.

With more than 2 seasons worth of plate appearances of data, we can start to make some conclusions about Domonic Brown. Over the course of his career, albeit brief,  Brown's K% has gradually increased, while his BB% has decreased each season. Since June 1, 2013 (729 PA), Brown has posted a , .248/.306/.393 line (.699 OPS) with .302 wOBA, and 92wRC+. Not one of those numbers is above league average, which for a corner outfielder is pretty damning. His career rWAR sits at -0.9 WAR. Of 33 position players since expansion who have produced below-replacement level over their first 5 seasons (minimum 1500 PA), only 5 have gone on to produce 10 or more wins for their career--Aramis Ramirez (33.3), Jose Offerman (17.0), JT Snow (11.0), Jose Bautista (26.9), and Ed Brinkman (13.1). Those odds aren't phenomenal, to say the least, and you would probably only lose sleep if you missed out on Bautista or Ramirez.While Domonic Brown may be the preferred left fielder in most internet circles, he's not the obvious choice.

Sizemore's first 6 seasons with the Indians, on the other hand, put him in pretty elite company. Here is a list of players who produced at least as many wins as Sizemore (27.9+ rWAR) in their first 6 major league seasons. Not too many lightweights on that list, eh?. Unlike Brown, Sizemore has shown that he has the ability to provide above-average offensive production against major league pitching. Granted, that was 5 years ago at this point, but let's also keep in mind that Sizemore is still only in his age 31 season, so he's by no means washed-up. It's a small sample, but since joining the Phillies, Sizemore has produced in line with his career averages. In 96 PA with the Phillies, he has a line of .311/.354/.422 compared to a career line of .267/.354/.464. The guy might still have it and, at age 31, it's not unreasonable to think he has 4 or more good seasons left in him

The point of this all is that there is no obvious answer to the Sizemore v. Brown debate. This isn't like the Hunter Pence trade in that there is only one correct opinion on the matter. Playing Grady Sizemore over Domonic Brown isn't obviously the correct decision, but it's not obviously the wrong one either. Even the Oliver projections provided by Fangraphs--an actual model of future player performance-- present an unclear picture. Through 2018, Oliver projects 8.3 fWAR for Sizemore and 9.6 fWAR for Brown. In other words, both figure to be about league average players over the next 4 seasons. (Note: I would expect the Brown projection will be adjusted down this offseason after a miserable 2014, bringing those projections closer to each other)

In writing this post, I guess I'm obligated to come down on one side or the other. If forced to play someone in LF for the rest of the season, I'd probably go with Sizemore. He has shown in his career that he can be a productive player over sustained stretches; Brown has not, although he has shown flashes of brilliance. That said there are very reasonable arguments for playing either Domonic Brown or Grady Sizemore going forward.  Regardless of what the black and white discourse of talk radio might lead you to believe, there is not a knock-down case for preferring one player over the other.