The Oakland A’s made an unexpected move on Monday, calling up 1B/OF Seth Brown from Triple-A Las Vegas.
We knew that regular RF Stephen Piscotty was going on the injured list, but there were several other outfielders on the 40-man roster already and the natural assumption was that the replacement would be one of them. But instead of Nick Martini, or Skye Bolt, or Dustin Fowler, or an infielder like Franklin Barreto or Jorge Mateo, the A’s chose to elevate Brown, who wasn’t on the 40-man yet. What’s more, Martini was DFA’d to make room.
So who is Brown? Let’s start with where he comes from, and the unlikeliness of him ever making it to Oakland.
The A’s drafted Brown in 2015, all the way down in the 19th round. That’s getting into the portion of the draft where it’s amazing to find a major leaguer at all. The last time the A’s picked (and signed) someone that low and had them reach the bigs was 2012, with Boog Powell (20th) and Ryan Dull (32nd), though they did find Jaycob Brugman in the 17th round in 2013. The last time they found a serious long-term MLB contributor this low was 2009, with Dan Straily (24th).
One reason for that low draft position is the school Brown played for, Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho (not to be confused with Lewis & Clark College in his native Oregon). They’re not even in the NCAA, but rather the NAIA. That’s not a complete dealbreaker, as some notable big leaguers have come from that school, including Keith Foulke, Brendan Ryan, Marvin Benard, and most recently Blaine Hardy. But the total count is 14 major leaguers over the last four decades. Expanding to look at the whole association, there are nearly 1,100 amateur players drafted every June, and this summer 15 of them came from the NAIA (after 28 in 2018.)
On top of all that, he’s always been on the older side for a prospect. He was already nearly 23 when he was drafted, and since then he’s been old for just about every league he’s played in. He just turned 27 last month, which isn’t completely unheard of for a new call-up (last summer Martini and Beau Taylor were even older), but when a player hasn’t debuted by that age it’s usually a long-shot that he ever will.
Add it all up, and Brown never really had any prospect stock. He never made any of our preseason Community Prospect Lists, and never got particularly close. He didn’t even crack Melissa Lockard’s preseason Top 50 at Oakland Clubhouse until last winter, at No. 41 (he retroactively reached No. 50 in 2018, after several above him were traded). Even when he put up interesting numbers, he tended to be blocked by long lists of higher-profile names.
And yet, here Brown is. All that pedigree stuff goes out the window over time, and you either perform in the pros or you don’t. Same with the age stuff, as 30-year-old Corban Joseph just showed us by hitting his way into his own recent call-up. Brown kept producing in the minors and kept moving up the ladder until he finally reached the top.
Skill set and career arc
The thing that stuck out about Brown’s pro debut for Low-A Vermont in 2015 was his all-around contribution. At the plate, the lefty did a little of everything — hit for some average, drew walks, limited the strikeouts, hit a few homers, and stole some bases. On defense, he played at least 10 games at each outfield position, and also a handful at first base. All of that prompted me to write the following in Sept. 2015, in my review of the new draft class:
If I have to pick a couple of late-round sleepers, I dunno, give me Seth Brown as a hitter and Heath Bowers as a starting pitcher. I put several seconds of thought into those picks, and I mostly chose Brown because he has the best numbers (but also because of his all-around nature, with hitting, base running, and defensive versatility).
(Unfortunately, Bowers was released this March after barely playing above Single-A.)
However, in 2016 his performance dropped off. He still drew walks, but his average dipped and with it his OBP. He only hit eight homers, in the power-friendly Cal League. He stole 13 bases at a high clip, but that wasn’t enough to make up for a subpar wRC+ of 94. Entering his age 24-going-on-25 season, he was starting to look like a tweener, as a corner defender who might not hit enough to play the corners.
And then he broke out, and began resembling the slugger we see today. In 2017, he blasted 30 homers for High-A Stockton. He only hit 14 in Double-A the next year, but that was still enough to lead his Midland team in a park where lefty power often goes to die — for context, remember Matt Olson only hit 17 in the year he spent with the RockHounds. Brown still hit the ball hard, with a career-high in doubles replacing the lost homers, and he actually had the exact same number of extra-base hits in Midland as he had in Stockton.
Now, in 2019, in a Triple-A Pacific Coast League that has gone bonkers at the plate, and in a new Las Vegas ballpark that’s playing like a Coors Lite, he put up this monster line:
Brown, AAA: .297/.352/.634, 126 wRC+, 37 HR, 7.6% BB, 25.4% Ks
Even with all the caveats, like the advanced age and the league/park factors (note the relatively modest wRC+), when a hitter puts up numbers like those then at some point you’ve gotta try him out if you get the chance. The years of consistent thump from an unlikely, late-blooming source earned him the comp of “Brandon Moss 2.0” from A’s assistant GM Billy Owens, via Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle.
Brown has been remarkably consistent these last few years as he’s moved up the system, outside of the understandable dinger dip in Midland. Each of the last three years, his strikeout rate has been in the 25% range, with a swinging-strike rate in the 12% range. In those same years, his walk rate hovered around average, never much better or worse, putting his OBP in the modest-but-acceptable .340-.352 range. His BABIP is always strong but not red-flag-high, even despite a lot of his hard contact being disqualified for clearing the fence, and the one year in Midland when his homers stayed in the park and became doubles his BABIP increased accordingly.
Put it all together, and here’s what we’ve got. He’s a lefty slugger, who has some swing-and-miss but not too much, and when he does make contact it’s worth it. His BB/K isn’t anything special, and he’s not out there drawing walks like crazy, but he’s not a hacker either and he can take a pitch when needed. He’s not an OBP machine, but also not an auto-out. He’s got some sneaky speed, which can show up on the basepaths or in the outfield. And he’s got the defensive versatility to handle several positions, in a way where I wonder if he can be a Mark Canha-style super-sub.
None of this guarantees MLB success, as you never know which prospects will come up and just never translate against big league pitching. But at least Brown isn’t a tweener anymore. He’s a proper corner slugger, and without being a slug. He’s sort of a jack-of-all-trades, but now he has a carrying tool to go with it, which can make all the difference. It’s easy to see how this could go right.
Brown got into the lineup right away, starting in LF on Monday against the Royals, and overall he had a solid day. The A’s put up 10 runs by the end of the 3rd inning and won 19-4, so this wasn’t really a game after the first hour or so, but Brown still showed a thing or two. He ended up with six plate appearances:
- Popup to no-man’s land in shallow left, landed for single
- Sharp liner to left for a clean single (and RBI)
- Strikeout, chasing a slider down/in
- Groundout to second
- Popout to shortstop
- Flyout to deep left, not quite warning track
The KC pitching was complete trash, and the last two at-bats came against position players who took the mound, but at least Brown managed to get the first hit out of the way and collect a second more legit hit.
On defense, he wasn’t challenged in LF, only needing to collect a few singles that came his way and catch one routine flyout. But with the score out of hand, the A’s sat some of their stars for the final couple innings, and Brown got to show off his versatility by moving to first base. There he made a nice stretch to snag a high throw from Marcus Semien to complete a double play (Semien was rushed due to another inexplicably weak feed by 2B Jurickson Profar), and later he fielded a grounder to his right for an unassisted putout. No highlight gems, but no mistakes either, at two completely different positions.
Brown had some family in attendance for his debut, leading to this neat story:
Seth Brown’s mom, Julie, says that was a surreal experience for the family - among other things, she and Seth’s dad changed planes in Salt Lake City and wound up flying to KC... with Seth.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) August 27, 2019
And now, we wait. We know who Brown is, and what he’s done in the minors, but only time will tell whether he can catch on in the majors and become a contributor for Oakland. Stay tuned to find out.
Welcome to the Show, Seth!