What Changed in Turning Domonic Brown from Prospect Flop to Budding Superstar?

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What Changed in Turning Domonic Brown from Prospect Flop to Budding Superstar?
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There's a lefty slugger in Philadelphia, and his name isn't Ryan Howard—it's Domonic Brown.

By the time you finish reading this sentence, Domonic Brown may have hit two more home runs.

That's how hot the Philadelphia Phillies outfielder is.

Brown, 25, had hit—count 'em—nine homers in his past 10 games entering play Tuesday, a ridiculous streak of power hitting that has helped the former top prospect-turned-bust morph miraculously into the National League's home run leader with 17.

So how'd this happen?

 

Going From the Background...

You may recall that Brown was once one of baseball's elite prospects, ranking as high as No. 4 overall by Baseball America prior to the 2011 season. He was viewed as a raw yet uber-athletic talent with the potential for five plus tools.

Safe to say, though, things didn't come easily or quickly for Brown at the major league level. In his first taste of the bigs, he hit .210/.257/.355 in a mere 70 plate appearances spread out over the final few months of 2010. No biggie—small sample size and all that.

Entering 2011, Brown seemed to be in position to take Philly by storm. Over that winter, starting right fielder Jayson Werth took the $126 million given to him by the Washington Nationals and ran. That opened up a spot for Brown, only March surgery to repair a broken hamate bone in his right hand—an injury that has been known to sap power for months after—came at perhaps the worst possible time.

And so Brown was once again relegated to the minor leagues. After a midseason call-up that lasted about two months—he hit .245/.333/.391—Brown became a spectator after the Phillies traded for Hunter Pence that summer.

Last year was more of the same. Brown split his time between Triple-A and the majors, hitting .235/.316/.396 in 56 games—the exact same number he'd played in 2011—only this time, he was promoted only after the trade deadline once the Phillies had moved Pence to the San Francisco Giants and Shane Victorino to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

All in all, through his first three partial seasons in MLB, Brown's stats looked like this:

Not exactly impressive, especially for a guy who was seen as a can't-miss prospect.

But the numbers also aren't entirely off-putting, either. If you combine all three years, like the table does, Brown hit 24 doubles, knocked 12 homers and approached 60 runs and RBI, all while showing a very good walk rate (10.4 percent) and a perfectly commendable strikeout rate (18.9 percent).

He did this, by the way, in less than one full season's worth of at-bats.

The hole in his game? That .236 batting average, which wasn't good, but it was also driven down by BABIPs (per FanGraphs) that were lower than league average at .282 in 2010, .276 in 2011 and .260 in 2012.

In other words, with a little better luck, Brown's introduction to Major League Baseball would have looked better than it did.

 

...to the Forefront

Two key things have happened for Brown to help him come to the forefront of the sport over the past month or so.

The first is his swing.

Brown's swing, specifically the placement of his hands as he awaits the pitch, has been changed a few times along the way.

At right is a breakdown, from 2011, of Brown's hands and swing by Harold Reynolds on MLB Network.

As you can see, Brown used to hold his hands very high and very far back. The Phillies had Brown drop his hands dramatically in hopes of eliminating some of the movement and what Reynolds calls the "scoop" in his swing.

Two years later, he's maintained that starting point for the most part, but he's also noticeably quieted his pre-pitch load—the movement of the hands just prior to starting the swing—while also shortening and leveling out his swing path.

You can read about this in pieces written this March by Sam Donnellon of the Philadelphia Daily News and Eno Sarris of FanGraphs.

Better yet, you can see this for yourself in the second video, from MLB's Official YouTube channel, of his homer binge against the Red Sox this May.

To sum up the changes: Brown is quieter in his setup and load, allowing him to be quicker to the ball, and his swing is staying in the hitting zone longer.

The second big change is more direct: He's playing.

Fact is, while Brown had accrued nearly 500 plate appearances in his big league career prior to the start of this season, those had come in random, inconsistent fits and starts of action. A couple weeks here, a month or two there. It wasn't conducive to developing a young player at the game's highest level.

Part of the problem on this front was that Brown looked like he was ready to help the Phillies at a time when the club was still in the thick of competing as a World Series contender. That's a very difficult environment for a relatively inexperienced player to join, especially in a city as unforgiving as Philadelphia can be, because if success isn't immediate, it usually means "see ya later, kid."

 

The Caveat

Here's where the "but" comes in.

As fantastic as Brown's month of May was—he hit .303 with 12 homers and 25 RBI—he did something both incredibly unique and somewhat suspicious.

Brown managed his monster month while failing to draw even a single base on balls. In fact, among players who hit the most homers in a month without walking, Brown bashed 12, four more than anyone else ever had in MLB history, according to Baseball Reference.

[Note: Brown actually hit 12, but that's part of the reason we love MLB's Peter Gammons.]

That's simultaneously freakishly good and bad.

On one hand, wow. On the other hand, those sort of results from that kind of approach simply will not last.

The good news? Brown did walk nine times in 97 April plate appearances, and he's already walked twice in 18 PAs in June. It seems that the walk-less May was an outlier, particularly for a player who owns a career 8.7 walk percentage per FanGraphs.

 

The Future

The changes described above have been a big part of Brown's success this year, and they also go hand in hand. The more Brown plays, the more he can work on finding and honing his swing at the major league level. For players like Brown, who had success in the high minors and no longer needed to prove anything down on the farm, it's often about getting the chance and getting reps in the majors.

That didn't happen, really, until this season.

Basically, the pedigree and the talent have always been there for Brown. What's held him back up until now were injury and a lack of PT—neither of which were his fault. With those two obstacles removed from the picture, Brown is free to become the player many thought he was destined to be.

Whether he gets there or not, well, that's up to him. Finally.

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