The Toolshed focuses on some of the more interesting prospect-centered storylines of the 2015 season. Have ideas, feedback or questions for Sam? Email him or tweet him @SamDykstraMiLB. (Note: All stats are through Wednesday's games.)
Self-confidence and a lack of personal pressure have been two of Lewis Brinson's calling cards during his time in the Minor Leagues. Well, there is one other person he's looking to please every night -- his mom, Susie. Between making both himself and his mother happy though, he's done pretty well in both departments this season.
"Oh, she's elated," he said. "She's really happy for me. She finally found a way to use the MiLB app, so she can see all my games now. She tells me every day about how proud she is. She knows the long road I've come from [Class A] Hickory to here, and she's really proud to see me get to Triple-A at 21."
You can probably put the Texas Rangers down under the pleased category also, given the way Brinson's season has gone and the way they've treated their No. 4 prospect.
The 21-year-old center fielder hit .332/.403/.601 with 20 homers, eight triples and 31 doubles in 100 regular-season games this season, setting career highs in each of those categories. His plus speed has led to 18 steals and raves for his defensive work in center field. As a result, he's popped up on numerous end-of-season Minor League All-Star lists, from MLB.com to Yahoo! Sports to Baseball America.
Those gaudy numbers were undoubtedly influenced by his time with extremely hitter-friendly Class A Advanced High Desert (where he hit .337/416/.628 with 13 homers in 64 games), but Brinson proved his performance was more than just a byproduct of his environment. After a July 30 promotion to Double-A Frisco (following the Rangers trade for Cole Hamels), he hit .291 with six homers and an .873 OPS in 28 Texas League contests. The RoughRiders weren't going to make the playoffs, so his impressive 2015 campaign looked like it would end there. Instead, Texas thought the 2012 first-rounder could handle yet another jump, this time to Triple-A Round Rock on Aug. 31 -- just in time to take his stellar form to the Pacific Coast League postseason with the Express.
"It was great because I wasn't expecting it at all," he said. "We were in Midland getting ready for the end of the season, and I got the call that they wanted me to help Round Rock in the playoffs. I was excited. It was just the icing on the cake for the season I've been having, and now hopefully I have the chance to cap it off with a ring."
Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, Brinson has held his own in the top level of the Minors, going 13-for-30 (.433) with a homer, a double and three steals in eight regular-season games and 6-for-20 (.300) in five games thus far in the playoffs for Round Rock, which is tied 1-1 with Fresno in their best-of-5 PCL Finals. (The series picks up in Game 3 Friday night in Fresno.) Brinson's not being coddled at Triple-A either. He's been the Express' leadoff hitter in each game of the postseason despite being the second-youngest player on the roster. (Only No. 2 Rangers prospect and fellow outfielder Nomar Mazara is younger by just less than a year.)
But in order to understand where the 6-foot-3 right-handed-hitting center fielder is now, we have to understand where he's come from.
Brinson was an interesting and desired talent going into the 2012 Draft after his senior season at Coral Springs High School in Florida. MLB.com ranked him as the No. 39 prospect in the Draft pool -- the one in which fellow high schoolers Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton would go in the first two picks -- but the first two words of his Draft profile read, "raw, toolsy."
After the Rangers grabbed him with the 29th overall pick, he showed the tools by hitting .283 with an .868 OPS, seven homers and 14 steals in 54 games in the Rookie-level Arizona League that year, but the rawness came a year later. Playing mostly as a 19-year-old at Class A Hickory, Brinson hit 21 homers and stole 24 bases in his first full season in 2013 but also produced just a .237 average and struck out 191 times in 503 plate appearances, or 38 percent of the time he stepped up to the plate.
Still a teenager with plenty of power, Brinson knew time was on his side, but even he admitted his career didn't entirely get off on the right foot.
"My first full year in 2013 with Hickory, I was coming in trying to impress," said the outfielder, who was ranked as Texas' No. 14 prospect after that season. "Going from Rookie ball to A-ball like that, I was trying to do big things, and I put pressure on myself. Confidence-wise, I knew there was a reason why the Rangers put me there. They trusted I could handle it. And for me, I knew I had the talent. It was just about taking some time to find myself, getting used to coming to the park every single day. That was a big factor.
"I really had to learn that I can still do damage with two strikes and stop being tentative. I had to find that confidence in myself regardless of the count. Even going down 0-2, the at-bat is far from over. Once I took that mindset, I got so much better."
The Rangers allowed him to find that confidence with a return trip to the South Atlantic League in 2014, and indeed the rawness became real when he hit .335/.405/.579 in 43 games at Hickory before a midseason bump to Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach. Even a .656 OPS at the higher level couldn't dampen the spirits heading into 2015.
"No, after the season I've had, even going back to last year, I still don't think I'm really a different player," he said. "I just don't put any pressure on myself. I have expectations for myself and try to put together good at-bats every day, but I don't need that extra pressure. I know what player I am. I just want to please myself and my mom -- that's it."
It's no coincidence either that Brinson has seen his strikeout rate drop from 38 percent in 2013 to 24.9 percent in 2014 to 21.5 percent this season, despite facing tougher competition. Fewer strikeouts mean more balls in play. More balls in play -- for someone like Brinson, who has produced a career batting average of .375 on balls put in play (BABIP) thanks to his plus speed and his ability to hit the ball hard -- means more hits, thus the higher averages across the board since 2013.
All that said, Brinson could not have risen through the Rangers system as he did this year without that Hamels deadline trade. Texas sent prospects Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and (most notably, for these purposes) Nick Williams to Philadelphia for Hamels and Jake Diekman. With fellow outfielder Williams leaving, that opened a hole for Brinson at Double-A -- a hole the Rangers were confident he was ready to fill given the way he produced in California -- and that's something of which he's very aware.
"First of all, Nick is my boy," Brinson said. "We got drafted together, we hit each other up all the time -- I wish him the best of luck. I wish nothing but the best for all those guys. But yeah, that trade obviously was a door for me. He played outfield. I played outfield. It makes sense. I just have to thank the Rangers for the opportunity in moving me up and trusting me and giving me a shot to start in center field for them some day."
Before he can get to that talk, there are a few more hurdles. There's the PCL title still at hand. After that, there's a trip to the Arizona Fall League, an honor Brinson said he was, "hoping to get all year from the beginning of the season." Then, there's Spring Training, where the outfielder hopes to get an invitation to Major League camp and will wait to find out where he's going to start his first season after his big breakout. The Rangers could opt to send him back to Double-A, or they could see how well he's played at the Minors' highest level and start him where he'll finish 2015 back in Triple-A Round Rock.
"I mean, obviously, you want to open a level up from where you started the year before, so that could be Double-A or Triple-A for me," he said. "Hopefully, I get the chance to show what I can do in big league camp, but after that, I'd be perfectly fine with any of them because they're both one step away from the big leagues. Of course, I'd hope it's Triple-A because I want to be challenged, but it's not something I can control, so I'll be happy either way."
And as for Mom?
"She keeps asking, 'When are they going to call you up?' Brinson said, laughing. "I have to remind her I don't control that either."
Sam Dykstra is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.