The career of Lewis Brinson hasn’t gone how anyone expected it to go. Originally drafted 29th overall by the Texas Rangers in the 2012 draft, Brinson was highly regarded as a prospect. Ahead of the 2017 season, MLB Pipeline ranked him 13th overall, and despite a forgettable MLB debut, Milwaukee used him as the centerpiece to acquire Christian Yelich. Four seasons after the trade, Brinson has only 950 plate appearances at the big league level and a career .200/.250/.327 slash line. Between 2017 and 2020, Brinson amassed -2.9 fWAR.
Recently, though, Brinson is starting to look more like the player he was supposed to be. His 2021 season began in much the same way as any other season for him. Brinson only slashed .221/.232/.353 in the first half of the year, earning him another demotion to Triple-A. Thanks to a recent hot streak, Brinson’s numbers on the season look much more palatable. In 129 plate appearances, Brinson owns a 111 wRC+ and a 0.5 fWAR. By Defensive Runs Saved, he’s been much better in the outfield the past two seasons. At age 27, the chances of him ever blossoming into a superstar are long gone, but there may be a respectable big leaguer there yet. His performance in the last couple of weeks has been more than enough to inspire hope.
Since getting recalled from the Jacksonville Trogdor Shrimp on July 19, Brinson is hitting .327/.383/.618 for a 170 wRC+. That’s only over a span of 60 plate appearances, so this isn’t a proclamation that Brinson has arrived. Brinson got hot during the tail end of 2020, too, but he fell back into a hole at the beginning of 2021. It’s worth seeing if the former top prospect has turned a corner.
Looking at his expected outcomes, Brinson deserves this success. He has a .371 xwOBA in the second half, and he hasn’t consistently hit the ball this hard since 2018.
Brinson is plenty capable of hitting the ball hard. In every season since 2018, he’s managed a maximum exit velocity of 112 mph or better. He’s struggled to get the ball airborne, however. Brinson has a career 51.6 percent ground ball rate, but in 2021, it’s down to 44.7 percent. Since his last trip to the minors, he’s only put 42.1 percent of balls on the ground. Better yet, he hasn’t popped a ball up over the infield since coming back. This means that more than ever, Brinson’s hitting line drives and fly balls. No wonder his numbers have been good.
One thing that jumps out as evidence that this is all a mirage is that Brinson, who has never had great discipline, is posting his highest chase rate in a single season. Altogether, Brinson has offered at 39.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. Among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances this year, Brinson’s chase rate is the 15th highest. That number has been buoyed by Brinson’s lost first half, however. Before the All-Star break, Brinson swung at an astronomical 47.7 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. This led to an unplayable 1.4 percent walk rate.
Since then, Brinson is chasing at a much-more-manageable 34.4 percent of pitches. That’s still a below-average chase rate, but it’s an improvement for someone who struggles to make contact anyway.
For someone with as much raw power as Brinson, better selection is going to yield better results more often than not. Since coming back, Brinson has been more patient, especially on the first pitch. After swinging at more than a quarter of first offerings throughout his career, Brinson has swung at 16.6 percent of first pitches in the second half. Sometimes, it’s good to pounce on the first pitch, but taking 0-0 leads to more 1-0 counts. Across the board, hitters have better results after getting ahead 1-0. The league has a .357 wOBA when the count gets to 1-0 compared to a .265 wOBA after falling behind 1-0.
Again, these are only 60 plate appearances we’re talking about, so none of this is to say that Brinson is definitely breaking out. But with the way he’s playing, he’s not getting sent to the minors any time soon. For Brinson, that’s worth acknowledging and celebrating.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.