- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Domonic Brown is hotter than a "Game of Thrones" message board. He's on such an explosive streak that he needs eight kingdoms to rule. Dragons couldn't stop him right now.
He has nine home runs in his past 10 games, after hitting another one in the Phillies' 7-2 victory over the Marlins on Monday. Two weeks ago he was hitting .243 with a .702 OPS and looking like Domonic Brown, the talented but frustrating young player of the past couple seasons. Now he's Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth rolled into one much thinner 6-foot-5 force of nature, hitting .291 with a .921 OPS and more home runs than any other player in the National League.
OK, OK ... he's not Bonds and he's not Ruth. For one thing, Brown just came off one of the strangest, most improbable months in baseball history. He hit 12 home runs while drawing zero walks (here are all 12 home runs).
Here's the list of players to hit 12 home runs in a calendar month while drawing zero walks: Domonic Brown.
Here the list of players to hit at least 11 home runs in a calendar month while drawing zero walks: Domonic Brown.
Here the list of players to hit at least 10 home runs in a calendar month while drawing zero walks: Domonic Brown.
Here the list of players to hit at least nine home runs in a calendar month while drawing zero walks: Domonic Brown.
Finally, at eight home runs and no walks we run into Miguel Olivo (June 2009), Tony Armas (August 1988) and Ernie Banks (August 1968). Not exactly a positive trio of comparable players, as even the Hall of Famer Banks was past his prime by 1968. The fewest walks by a player with 12 home runs in a month? Ty Wigginton drew one walk while hitting 12 homers in August 2008.
In other words: 12 home runs in a month is a pretty cool achievement, but finding yourself in a group with Miguel Olivo and Ty Wigginton dampens the enthusiasm a bit.
Bill Barnwell of Grantland wrote about Brown's singular month:
In May, Brown struck out 21 times. He did not walk once. Think about that. The guy who was tied for the league lead in homers during the month didn't take a single free trip to first. Brown was being "protected" by the likes of Erik Kratz and John Mayberry Jr. during May, and nary a single pitcher was able to pitch four balls past him. That's not a change in approach. It's a statement of intent.
* * * *
There has been a debate in sabermetric circles recently about the modern approach to hitting, which in a nutshell involves trying to hit more home runs at the expense of more strikeouts. As we all know, this approach has helped lead to historic highs in strikeout rates. Anyway, back in April, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote a piece saying the approach isn't working: Hitters are being too passive (or selective, in analytical circles), striking out too much and thus run scoring is in decline. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs investigated and found swing rates haven't really changed. Verducci had a follow-up column, asking, "What will it take for teams to start admitting that this passive-aggressive, run-up-the-pitch-count philosophy isn't working? Apparently almost a decade of declining results isn't enough." Cameron followed up his piece with a detailed analysis at first-pitch swing rates, arguing, "When you factor in that some of those non-swings should lead to 1-0 counts -- and as you'd expect, hitters do very well after the count goes 1-0 -- and not 0-1 counts, the data suggests that hitters are making a good choice to take more marginal first pitches and look for better pitches to hit later in the at-bat."
In the midst of this, Mariners manager Eric Wedge blamed sabermetrics for the struggles of Dustin Ackley: "It's the new generation. It's all this sabermetrics stuff, for lack of a better term, you know what I mean?" Wedge's comments caused a minor uproar and he later clarified his comment, saying you can't focus on working the count to the detriment of not swinging at good pitches to hit.
To swing or not swing: What is the answer?
* * * *
Back to the man of the hour. Entering this season his career walk rate in 492 plate appearances was 10.1 percent. In April, it was 9.3 percent. He was drawing walks but not doing much of anything else. His patience was praised by sabermetricians, but his production was denounced by all.
Then he started swinging. Through April, he had swung at 46.2 percent of pitches; in May he swung at 55.9 percent of pitches. And drew no walks.
Verducci and Wedge might say Brown was appropriately aggressive, attacking hittable pitches to hit. Sabermetricians might suggest this approach won't work long-term. For example, since 1983, there have been 728 player-seasons when a player hit 30 home runs. The player with the lowest walk rate was Alfonso Soriano in 2002, at 3.1 percent (23 walks in 741 plate appearances). Only 24 of those 728 seasons -- 3 percent -- saw the hitter produce a walk rate of 5 percent or less, with an average of 11.5 percent.
Brown's walk rate for the season: 5.0 percent.
Now, home runs aren't everything, of course. Thirty home runs doesn't necessarily mean you had a valuable offensive season if you have a low on-base percentage. This was just a quick and dirty way to suggest that home run hitters -- and it's home runs that has us excited by Dom Brown right now -- usually have a certain selectivity at the plate. (Slightly higher walk rates than the overall average, which has hovered between 8 to 9 percent, including pitchers.)
Let's finish with this: The pitcher/hitter confrontation is too complicated to suggest there is a "best way" to hit. Maybe passivity did in Ackley and hurt Brown. Maybe, by being more aggressive, Brown is going to live up to the expectations placed on him coming up through the Phillies system.
Plus ... Brown has already drawn two walks in June (although one was intentional).
If Brown keeps hitting home runs, he'll start seeing more pitches out of the strike zone. That in itself could lead to more walks. Sometimes the "sabermetric" approach isn't really about an approach but earning respect from pitchers. Maybe that will happen with Brown; or maybe he just had a Ty Wigginton-like fluke month.
Truth is, we don't know who Domonic Brown IS right now, let alone know who he'll become.
So let's enjoy this. Tomorrow he'll be facing Ricky Nolasco and I can say: Good luck, Ricky.