Vaun Brown has easily been the most productive hitter in the SF Giants organization this season. Drafted in the 10th round of last year's draft out of Florida Southern College, Brown has arguably been the biggest breakout prospect in the minor leagues this season. In fact, he achieved one statistical feat this season that has only been matched four other times over the past 16 years.
A fifth-year senior coming out of a Division-II school, Brown was not ranked on any public pre-draft boards last summer. While he was drafted in the 10th round with a slot value of $145,700, he accepted a measly $7,500 signing bonus from the Giants. Brown has quickly proven that bonus was money well spent.
Brown started this season at Single-A San Jose and rapidly made clear that he was the best player in the California League. Nearly three years older than the average player in the league, Brown crushed opposing pitching. He appeared in 59 games before he was promoted and racked up 14 home runs and 23 stolen bases with a .347/.428/.636 triple slash.
When he reached High-A, Brown showed no signs of slowing down. In 43 games with the Eugene Emeralds, Brown added another nine homers and 21 stolen bases to his season tally with an equally impressive .350/.454/.612 line.
Injuries cut Brown's season short after he appeared in just one game at Double-A. However, that did not stop him from having one of the best statistical seasons of any Giants minor leaguer in the 21st century. Between all three levels, Brown recorded 24 doubles, seven triples, 23 home runs, and 44 stolen bases (50 attempts) with a .346/.437/.623 triple-slash.
Just how exceptional was Brown's 2022 season? Well, only four other minor leaguers have eclipsed 20 home runs, 20 stolen bases, a .300 average, .400 on-base percentage, and a .600 slugging percentage in a single season since 2006 (FanGraphs has not indexed minor league statistics prior to 2006). By the way, all four other players have already reached the major leagues.
Here's a look at the four other single-season performances and a look at how they each compared to Brown.
Corbin Carroll (2022)
Minors (Rk, AA, & AAA): 93 G, 24 HR, 31 SB, .307/.425/.611
Majors*: 21 G, 3 HR, 1 SB, .288/.356/.546
Carroll and Brown pulled off this impressive feat in the same year. A far more established prospect than Brown, Carroll was one of the best high school prospects in the 2019 draft and was selected 16th overall by the Diamondbacks.
Since he was drafted, Carroll has emerged as a consensus top-25 (and now probably top-five) prospect in the minor leagues. A speedy center fielder with a sweet left-handed swing, Carroll needed just 93 games in the upper minors as a 21-year-old to earn his big-league promotion this year.
Brown put up comparable numbers to Carroll this year but is three years younger and was at lower levels. Still, it's impressive to see Brown's only statistical peer this year is already thriving in the majors.
Josh Rojas (2019)
Minors (AA & AAA): 105 G, 23 HR, 33 SB, .332/.418/.606
Majors: 41 G, 2 HR, 4 SB, .217/.312/.312
A different player on the Diamondbacks, Josh Rojas might be the closest statistical comp to Brown. Rojas was drafted after his senior year at Hawaii in the 26th round by the Astros in 2017. He had a pair of good minor-league seasons before reaching another level in 2019.
Splitting his time between the Astros Double-A and Triple-A affiliate in his age-25 season, Rojas was one of the most prolific hitters in the minors. He was traded to the Diamondbacks that summer in the Zack Greinke trade and was called up to the big leagues after an incredible eight-game stretch with Arizona's Triple-A affiliate.
While Rojas' age/trajectory is more comparable to Brown than any other prospect on this list, there are two key differences. First off, Brown has far more explosive tools than Rojas. Rojas never flashed the 60-70 grade speed and power combination that Brown showed this season. With that said, Rojas never struggled to make contact like Brown. Brown struck out in 26.0% of his plate appearances this year, a high mark given his advanced age for his level of competition. In contrast, Rojas only struck out 16.2% of the time in his minor-league career.
Brandon Belt (2010)
Minors (A+, AA, & AAA): 136 G, 23 HR, 22 SB, .352/.456/.620
You probably did not expect to see a current member of the SF Giants on this list, especially not someone as slow as Brandon Belt. However, early in his career, Belt was a surprisingly nimble athlete for a power-hitting first baseman.
Like Brown, Belt destroyed the minors as soon as he arrived. As a 22-year-old in 2010, Belt blasted his way to Triple-A and became a consensus top-25 prospect in the minor leagues. Belt showcased a far better strikeout-to-walk rate than Brown, walking nearly as many times (93) as he struck out (99) in 595 plate appearances. However, he also was far from the same force on the basepaths.
Nelson Cruz (2008)
Minors (Rk & AAA): 104 G, 37 HR, 24 SB, .341/.430/.693
Majors: 31 G, 7 HR, 3 SB, .342/.429/.695
Vaun Brown has a long way to go before he's an established big-leaguer, but if there's one late-bloomer he hopes to emulate, Nelson Cruz is far from a bad example. Cruz signed as an international free agent with the Mets but did not earn a promotion stateside until he spent three years in the Dominican Summer League and was traded to the Oakland A's. At that point, Cruz still failed to post a .750 OPS in a season until his age-23 season in 2004.
Cruz had success in the upper minors for the next few years but was unable to carry that performance over to the big leagues. His inability to establish himself in the majors put him in position to have one of the best minor-league seasons of the century in 2008.
Cruz spent the vast majority of 2008 with the Rangers Triple-A affiliate, crushing 37 home runs in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League environment. While he is better known as a DH-only masher now, Cruz, like Belt, was surprisingly agile on the basepaths in his twenties. In fact, he stole 20 bases (24 attempts) in his first full MLB season in 2009.
Cruz turned 28 in July of 2008 and was far from a young prospect. However, he went on to prove that great MLB players can emerge at nearly any age.
Vaun Brown will have to show he can replicate his 2022 success in the upper minor leagues. However, with nearly every minor league season over, that's a question for 2023. For now, the SF Giants can celebrate that Brown finds himself in some impressive company after an incredible year.