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Prospect Retrospective: George Brett

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George Brett in Blue
George Brett in Blue
Rick Stewart, Getty Images

Prospect Retrospective: George Brett

A few weeks ago, a reader requested a Prospect Retrospective for Kansas City Royals great and Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett. So, here it is!

George Brett was drafted in the second round in 1971, out of El Segundo High School in El Segundo, California. He came from a very athletic family: two of his brothers played in the minor leagues. Another brother, Ken Brett, was a first-round pick in 1966 and had a significant career of his own, reaching the major leagues within a year of being drafted and pitching in the 1967 World Series at age 19.

Their family life was not an easy one, driven by a demanding, hyper-perfectionist father. This classic 1981 Sports Illustrated piece about the Brett family makes fascinating reading.

George was a shortstop in high school and was considered a very promising line drive hitter, though it wasn't quite clear how much power he would develop. Ken was considered to be a superior prospect at the same stage of their careers, with George more of a wild card.

George went to Billings in the Pioneer League after being drafted and hit .291/.369/.419 with 32 walks and 38 strikeouts in 258 at-bats. At that time, the Pioneer League wasn't the offensive paradise it is now: his OPS was quite good at +17 percent, and the BB/K ratio was excellent. He was very raw defensively, but the bat looked solid. Nowadays, a guy with that draft status and profile would probably get a Grade B from me, pending higher level information.

Brett moved up to the California League for 1972, hitting .274/.353/.397 with 53 walks and 53 strikeouts in 498 plate appearances for San Jose. Again, the Cal League wasn't what it currently is in terms of high-octane offense. His production was just slightly better than league with a +4 percent OPS, but his BB/K/PA was again excellent, testifying to his ability to make contact and put the bat on the ball. He was also young for the level at age 19. He spent most of the season at third base and was really bad, making 30 errors and having problems with range and footwork. His offensive potential was obvious, though, and a similar player now would likely get a high-ceiling B or perhaps a B+ from me.

The Royals jumped Brett up two levels to Triple-A in 1973, itself a huge compliment, and he responded with a .284/.356/.402 season, with 48 walks and 45 strikeouts in 467 plate appearances. Note again the excellent BB/K/PA ratio. His OPS was exactly league-average in the American Association and his home run power was still largely untapped, but he was very young for Triple-A at age 20. He also showed significant improvement on defense, lowering his error rate and demonstrating better lateral mobility and more confidence.

It's easy to say "oh, he was definitely a Grade A prospect," but in all honesty I would likely hold a similar player at a B+ now. Brett's youth, contact hitting ability, and improved glove would all be positives, but there were still some questions to answer.

Brett opened 1974 as the Royals regular third baseman, struggling initially but later improving enough to hold the job after much-discussed work with Royals hitting coach Charlie Lau. Brett hit just two homers on the season, with an overall line of .282/.313/.363 in 486 plate appearances. The contact hitting was still there, with just 38 whiffs, although he also walked just 21 times. His wRC+ was just 90, his WAR only 0.8 thanks to the lack of power and shaky defense. He was only 21 years old however, and had plenty of time to improve and remedy his deficiencies.

He improved dramatically in 1975 (5.6 WAR, .308/.353/.456), then followed up with his first batting title in 1976 (.333/.377/.462, WAR 7.2), emerging as one of the very best hitters in baseball.

1980 was truly amazing: a run at .400, finishing at .390/.454/.664, 199 wRC+, 8.8 WAR. He even turned himself into a solid defensive player, although he wound up at first base when his range faded in his 30s.

Brett was excellent for more than a decade, remaining an extremely effective and at times completely devastating hitter all the way through 1990, when he won a batting title at age 37 with a .329/.387/.515 line. He faded after that, but his status as one of the best third basemen in history was fully assured. He made 13 All-Star games, led the league in OPS three times, and won three batting titles.

Overall, he finished at .305/.368/.487, 135 OPS+, with 3154 hits. Among major league third basemen, Brett's career 91.5 WAR ranks him sixth all-time, with Wade Boggs (94.7), Brooks Robinson (94.6), and Chipper Jones (90.3) being his immediate neighbors.

And I didn't even mention pine tar.

As a prospect, Brett's most notable attributes were athleticism, ability to make effective contact against older pitching, and simple youth, with his best sabermetric markers being his excellent BB/K/PA ratios and age-relative-to-league.

I hope you enjoyed this one, Susie!