Much has been written this spring about Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown. As a 22-year-old prospect, Brown was highly touted, thought by all publications, as well as most scouts, to be a future top-tier player who would occupy an outfield spot for the Phillies for years to come. In 2010, Baseball Prospectus published this review of Brown in their annual.
“One of the better outfield prospects in the game, Brown is a long, lean athlete with above-average speed and significant power capabilities that the club believes will continue to blossom as he gets older. Whether or not their expectations are correct will determine whether he turns into a star or simply a nice outfielder to have around. On a pure tools level Brown has it all, but with just three home runs in 147 Double-A at bats, Daryl Strawberry comparisons are more than a little premature.”
That is some high praise, but in 2012, as most Phillies fans know, things changed a bit.
“The contrast from last year’s spring to this year’s couldn’t be starker: once hailed as the golden boy and given the helm of right field, Brown appears now to have lost a starting spot altogether.”
To illustrate Brown’s fall from theoretical grace over the last two seasons, let’s go to the numbers. In 210 plate appearances in 2011, Brown posted a respectable .279 true average, 101 wRC+, 5 home runs, 28 runs scored, and an 11.9 BB%. He posted a .245/.333/.391 slash line, showing that many of his hits were for power, and he had the patience to take a walk. All of these stats point towards a player prime to break out if given the chance to start every day. Unfortunately, due to other circumstances, Brown returned to AAA where his situation darkened. When called up in 2012, Brown posted an pedestrian .235/.316/.396 slash line, with lower walk rate (9.9%), and a less noticeable true average of .254.
Defensively, Brown was never considered a stellar outfielder, but earlier in his career he showed plus arm strength and solid speed. Soon though, Brown would show his faulty routes, sub-par decision-making, and awkward throwing motion leading to missed cutoff men. This defensive description was backed up by the defensive metrics, as Brown has yet to post a positive UZR or DRS, and in 147 games played has posted a combined FRAA of -3.0.
So, what’s changed recently? First, after tinkering with Brown’s stance at the plate, more specifically where he keeps his hands, the Phillies coaching staff and others finally found the best and more comfortable spot for Brown. Brown used to hold his hands high and would fidget with them as the pitcher released he ball. Now, he has little pre-swing movement, holds his hands a more reasonable height, around his cheeks, and seems more relaxed at the plate. Maybe we should thank new hitting coach Wally Joyner, but my guess is that Brown needed to work it out on his own. Charlie Manuel may not be praised as the most technically sound manager, but he knows hitting, and he’s helped numerous hitters in the past, so why adding Joyner to the mix would be the silver bullet is beyond me. On the other hand, pun intended, what ever works.
Back to hitting mechanics, Brown also seems more confident and relaxed at the plate. He doesn’t seem as though he’s trying to guess what pitch is coming, but instead has simplified his mindset, taking what the pitchers give him both with location and pitch type. Then comes the biggest transformation. He has combined his already good eye with an aggressive approach, hacking at fastballs, keeping his hands back on breaking balls, keeping his head down on the pitch, and most importantly, opening up on inside pitches while keeping his hips closed on balls on the outside of the plate.
If you’ve read anything about hitting before, you’ll not that every detail I just mentioned is a characteristic of a good hitting approach. Don’t get me wrong, Brown isn’t perfect. He still tends to take too many pitches that are less on the corner and more in the middle of the plate, although this bad habit comes out more often in his first at bat. It’s all about comfort for Brown, as when Brown gets used to a pitcher, he seems to zone in on finding the best pitch to hit, making very good contact hence. Defensively, Brown’s made some strides, enough to place him in the passable column. His routes to balls have improved, but his awkward windup remains, causing trouble on balls hit to his right. His plus arm remains, and masks some of his continued deficiencies.
So, Brown’s approach at the plate has improved significantly, but has it translated into results. Domonic wouldn’t be the first player to do everything right and still fail. To the right, you’ll see a spray chart of every ball Domonic Brown put in play in 2012. Hits are in green, outs in red. His BABIP or batting average on balls in play, was .260, so he got a hit a little more than 1 in every 4 balls put in play. As you can see, he sprayed the ball all over, but only showed power, sans two warning track shots, to right field. More to the point, he hit only a handful of balls past 350 feet to center field, showing an inability to get good contact and square up the pitch.
To illustrate the continued maturation, take a look at some PITCHf/x data morphed into hot zones for Brown in 2011 and 2012 collected by the good people at Brooksbaseball.net and published by Baseball Prospectus.
Brown 2011 Brown 2012. Click on the links provided to display the charts. As you can see, in 2011, Brown was making lots of contact on pitches in the strike zone, a good thing, but also swinging at a decent number of pitches outside the zone. Whether he makes contact on those pitches is somewhat irrelevant, it’s always better to swing at the juiciest pitches, something, if you look at Brown’s 2012 chart, he improved upon. This illustrates that, while it took some time, Brown showed growth between 2011 and 2012, even though his numbers (small sample size aside) didn’t portray a changed hitter.
I’d love to show you a spray chart of all of Brown’s 2013 Spring Training at bats, but the information isn’t available. On the other hand, I’ve watched most of the Phillies spring games, and I’ve paid particular attention to Brown’s hitting approach. First, a disclaimer, great Spring Training numbers have an extremely weak correlation to regular season productivity. Second, here are Brown’s numbers to date (24 games): .389/.450/.708 slash line, 7 home runs, 16 RBIs, a 5/3 K/BB ratio. He’s absolutely demolished right-handed pitching, and held his own against lefties.
To better illustrate his 2013 hitting, I’ve gone back and watched all 6/7 of his spring training home runs (one game wasn’t
televised and thus there is no video footage of the homer). His 2nd ST home run was off of a righty pitching for the Yankees, who threw Brown a fastball just below the belt in the middle of the plate, and Brown took advantage, hitting a meteoric shot to deep center field, over the batters eye. Brown’s 3rd HR came against Toronto. A With a lefty on the mound, Brown connected on a hanging breaking ball belt high, striking it deep to right field and out. I loved how Brown kept his head down on the ball and didn’t open up his hips too soon, as lefties are prone to do against left-handed pitching.
Home runs number 4 and 5 were fairly identical. Brown took Huroki Kuroda and Kris Medlen change ups that moved towards the middle of the plate to very deep right field. In homer number 6 he also crushed a pitch to right field, but in this case Brown feasted on a curve ball low and in, a no-no zone to a left-handed hitter with power. Brown shortened his swing on this pitch, something I hadn’t seen him do in the Majors previously.
Finally, home run number 7. This shot impressed me the most. Brown faced Orioles closer Jim Johnson who throws hard sinkers, in this case coming in around 92 mph. Instead of hitting a mistake pitch, this time Brown took a knee-high sinker on the outside corner, propelling the pitch into left-center field. While this home run was aided by wind blowing out to left field, the ball landed so far over the way that the TV camera barely picked it up, suggesting Brown didn’t need the assists from the wind.
In retrospect, Domonic Brown’s journey hasn’t been easy or simple, instead proving bumpy and difficult. If Brown, as I think he will, parlays his Spring Training success into the 2013 regular season, Philadelphia fans should champion his maturation. Brown, like many of us, had a time when things came easy, but if the measure of a man is how he reacts when the going gets tough, I think Domonic Brown has shown us he’s a Philadelphia-type player.
He knows realizes that preparation, hard work, and a strong will, can lead to success. While the expectations surrounding Brown have been flying from Broad st. to Market st. for the last few seasons, I think 2013 is the first in which these predictions are well grounded. Go Domonic, take your well-earned spot in the outfield at Citizens Bank Park; show us something great because it seems as though you’re ready.