Friday, May 27, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #19: Kevin Brown

I don't have nearly a large enough readership for anything I write here to generate controversy, but if I did, and if one thing from this countdown were going to cause a stir, I'm certain it would be this entry. Kevin Brown simply doesn't strike most baseball followers as having been excellent, and every one of the pitchers I've already written about in this countdown would beat Brown in a landslide if they were pitted against him in a head-to-head voting amongst baseball fans. If there was some sort of crowdsourced ranking of players from the last thirty years, I don't believe Brown would finish anywhere in the top 50. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I'm going to say the crowd is wrong on this one. Kevin Brown was outstanding.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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The biggest obstacle to Brown being appreciated is something I mentioned when writing about Roy Halladay, but it's far more applicable to Brown, given the timing of his career: He pitched at the same time as Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez, four of the dozen best pitchers in baseball history. Clemens was an All-Star the year Brown made his first MLB appearance, and the year Brown made his final MLB appearance. Maddux debuted before Brown and was still an above average pitcher, still winning Gold Gloves after Brown retired. Johnson and Brown each had their first full season in the same year, and Johnson was still very good after Brown retired. Martinez didn't arrive until a little later than Brown, but just as Brown was putting together his best stretch of baseball, Pedro was putting up arguably any pitcher ever's best stretch of baseball.

Pitchers with the best five-year spans during the last thirty years, by Wins Above Average (WAA):

1) Randy Johnson 33.8 (1998-2002)
2) Pedro Martinez 33.5 (1997-2001)
3) Greg Maddux 31.2 (1992-1996)
4) Roger Clemens 30.3 (1986-1990)
5) Kevin Brown 27.4 (1996-2000)

Brown wasn't as good as those other four, but no one in the last three decades was as good as those four; their excellence is a completely unreasonable standard to hold anyone else to.

(If Clayton Kershaw posts the same WAA this season that he did last season, his five-year stretch would total 27.5. Not being a contemporary of those top four though, he's spared the injustice of being so overlooked by the baseball community.)

During my three decades as a baseball fan, Brown is one of just seven pitchers who had 7+ WAR in four or more seasons. Six of those pitchers won multiple Cy Youngs, while Brown never won one, despite deserving a couple of them. He led the NL with a 1.89 ERA in 233 innings in 1996, but finished second to John Smoltz, whose ERA was more than a full run higher, but who won 24 games (to Brown's 17). He had a 2.38 ERA in 1998, but finished second to Tom Glavine, who pitched fewer innings, had a higher ERA and 100 fewer strikeouts, but won 20 games (to Brown's 18). Even in the age of Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, and Pedro, Kevin Brown managed to be the best pitcher in his league twice, but the power of 20 wins was simply too great for him to overcome.

Front offices understood how good Brown was though, leading the Dodgers to sign him to a then-record seven-year, $105 million deal before the 1999 season. The contract was widely criticized at the time, in part because fans have the tendency of taking sides against millionaire players, instead aligning themselves with billionaire owners, and in part because Brown had made enemies in the media by then. Brown was an intense player, and had an adversarial relationship with many in the media. That could be what cost him those two Cy Youngs he deserved, and to some degree probably dictated how his eventual decline was written and talked about. Brown's name was among those in the Mitchell Report, and while PED connections have done far more damage to the reputation of star hitters, an already unpopular pitcher was going to pay a heavy price too. Brown's career ended with a pair of disappointing seasons with the Yankees, and his failure (even at the age of 39 and 40) to live up to expectations in the media capital of the world was probably the final nail in his coffin.

In addition to a lack of media support, I'm not sure any great from the last three decades is so lacking in fan devotion. Brown spent more time with the Rangers than with any other team, but less than 40% of his career games came with them, and none of his best seasons happened in that uniform. He spent one good year in Baltimore, two great years with Florida (helping them win a World Series), one excellent year with San Diego (helping them reach a World Series), then signed that contract with the Dodgers. While he pitched very well for most of his five seasons there, the team never reached the postseason, and on a franchise with such storied pitching history, Brown didn't make a big impression. Then came those two seasons in the Bronx. I doubt any fan base would look back at the last three decades and consider Brown one of their team's ten best players. There's no Major League stadium where the sight of someone wearing Brown's jersey wouldn't be surprising.

When Brown became eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame following the 2010 season, he failed to garner even 5% of the vote, and for that he was permanently dropped from the ballot. Other excellent players have suffered that fate, but I think Brown's case is the worse.

We need not feel too bad for a guy who made over $100 million, has a wife and three kids, and brought some of his problems upon himself. Still, to accomplish as much as Brown did, but receive so little recognition for it, has to sting. Perhaps someday Brown's case will get another look from a group holding fewer things against him, perhaps he won't.

Surliness, possible late-career PED use, and bouncing from team to team during his prime all hurt his cause, but it seems to me that Brown's greatest sin was bad timing. Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, and Pedro are the Mount Rushmore of recent baseball arms, they tower over the landscape and cast a huge shadow. Brown was just too close to all that for much light to reach him.

2 comments:

  1. I love the controversy! I agree with everything you wrote and have long thought that Kevin Brown is underappreciated. Glad that you have him higher than most would, but if we're nitpicking, I don't think he is superior to Smoltz, Glavine or Halladay. They are all comparable and you have them all very close in your rankings for good reason. For me, the deciding factor would be postseason success. I don't think Brown was equal to the aforementioned three in the postseason, therefore I'd give them the nod. But I do agree it is a travesty that he dropped off the Hall of Fame ballot so quickly when his peers sailed into the Hall.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. It's nice to know there's someone else who recognizes that Brown was excellent! I think putting those other three pitchers ahead of Brown is entirely reasonable. As we get to the top of the list, there begin to be larger gaps between some of the players, but at this stage all the players within 4 or 5 spots of one another are close enough that I wouldn't argue with someone who had them a bit different than I do. Unfortunately for Brown, most people wouldn't have him in the top 50 (much less 30) at all.

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