Domonic Brown's approach paying off
Phillies left fielder and NL home run leader views himself as a hitter, not a slugger
PHILADELPHIA -- Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown draws a distinct line in the use of video as a teaching tool. When he has personal experience against a pitcher, he cues up the DVD player to help jog his memory. When it's a first-time encounter, he dispenses with technology and goes straight to the Phillies' human DVD player: second baseman Chase Utley.
"I try not to watch video on guys I haven't seen before," Brown says. "The camera does some tricky things, man. On film the ball might sink a little bit more or look like it's running. Then you get in the box and it's not doing anything. If I haven't seen a guy before, I just go to Chase and ask him. Chase does a lot of studying. He's been here a long time, and he knows the game inside and out."
If collecting hardware is any indication, Brown's approach certainly seems to be working. He picked up a trophy Monday as the National League Player of the Month for May, and joined Andrew McCutchen and Matt Kemp as the third player in the past two seasons to win back-to-back NL Player of the Week honors. The league gave him matching watches for his right and left wrists for that achievement.
Brown leads the National League with 18 homers and ranks fifth with a .588 slugging percentage, and serves as a heartening example for Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Dustin Ackley, Jason Heyward and other former hot prospects who are struggling to navigate baseball's learning curve at the most demanding and highly scrutinized level.
For the Phillies, their fan base, fantasy owners and others with a stake in Domonic Brown's future, the big question is: Where does he go from here?
It's an article of faith that baseball is a game of adjustments, and players either adapt or pay the price over a 162-game season. The process moves a lot more quickly these days, when "inside baseball" secrets and scouting reports are splashed all over the Internet and players are the focus of running commentary and analysis in real time. Factor in advance scouting reports, and opposing teams know everything about Brown except his taste in movies and his favorite color.
When Brown drives another ball into the seats, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and other statistically oriented websites keep a vigil. ESPN.com alone has run three analytical pieces this week (by David Schoenfield, Eric Karabell and Bill Barnwell of Grantland) with various takes on Brown's power binge.
Amid the obsession with stats, it's impossible to ignore the human element and the importance of confidence as a contributing factor in a player's success. Brown, 25, has endured numerous setbacks and demotions in recent years, but he takes comfort in knowing he's going to be in the lineup now regardless of a bad day or a more extended slump. During a recent interview in Philly, he invoked the phrase "I'm having fun" a handful of times.
The Phillies are seeing a more relaxed and focused player who no longer allows his defense to adversely affect his offense. Brown still has some shaky moments in left field, but he's comfortable enough with the glove that he doesn't take his misadventures in the field to the plate with him.
"He came into camp wanting to be a better hitter, a better outfielder and a better player, and that's paying great dividends to him right now," says Wally Joyner, the Phillies' assistant hitting coach. "His mind is clear. He's not worrying about something that happened in the outfield two days ago that he's trying to prevent from happening again. He's just playing the game, smiling and having fun. Who wouldn't with the success he's having?"
Naturally, certain trends have emerged. ESPN Stats & Information points out that Brown's recent power surge has been fueled in large part by greater success on pitches at the upper end of the strike zone. He's slugging .907 and has seven home runs against balls up in the zone -- the second-highest total in the majors to the eight homers launched by Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Brown admittedly has been taking a more aggressive, "turn and burn" approach this season. He's made some minor changes to his swing and is standing a little closer to the plate. It also helps that he's another year removed from the fractured hamate bone that put a crimp in his power in 2011.
Crushing the high ball
Dominic Brown versus pitches "up" in the zone:
|Source: ESPN Stats & Information|
Just because teams haven't adjusted quickly enough to shut him down doesn't mean they aren't trying. It's one thing to target a hitter's weaknesses and another thing to execute with sufficient skill to exploit those holes.
"To be honest with you, they're giving him lot of pitches to hit," says an American League scout who's seen a lot of the Phillies recently. "And when you're hot like he's been, you're not popping those balls up. A pitcher needs to have a good mix and the ability to throw the fastball inside against him, but there aren't a lot of guys who can do that as consistently as you'd like."
Once opponents get tired of watching Brown turn on first-pitch fastballs above the belt and yank them over the right-field fence, logic says they'll adapt by throwing him more junk down and out of the strike zone early in the count. The AL scout said he expects teams to employ the classic "hard in, soft away" approach as a means of attacking Brown.
As an antidote, Brown can respond in one of two ways: 1) Drive the outside pitch up the middle and the opposite way; or 2) lay off it completely if it's off the edge and force pitchers to throw him something more in his wheelhouse.
Tools for success
For those who think Brown is a bit of a one-trick pony, he has the mindset of a hitter rather than a slugger. That should help in his ability to adjust.
• Brown is a career .250 hitter (36-for-144) with a .723 OPS against left-handed pitching. Those aren't overwhelming numbers, but he's far from an automatic out against lefties.
"I've always hit good against lefties," Brown says. "I don't know why. I just keep my front shoulder in and try to square it up and go the other way."
• Brown is becoming a bit weary of one prevalent storyline -- that his current hack-tastic approach at the plate is unsustainable for continued success. Brown made MLB history when he hit 12 home runs and didn't draw a single walk in May.
But in reality, Brown has always been willing and able to work a count and take a base on balls. He had a .373 on-base percentage in 535 minor league games and averaged 4.46 plate appearances in a 62-at bat rookie cameo with the Phillies in 2010. Jeff Francoeur he's not.
It's also simplistic to suggest Brown isn't walking because of a lack of patience. Most power hitters are going to draw their fair share of walks. It's more an acknowledgement by opposing clubs that they're dangerous and need to be treated with caution than a reflection of their plate discipline -- or lack thereof.
"I'm hearing some negative stuff about how he doesn't walk," Joyner says. "Who cares? The walks didn't happen for a long period of time, but was he swinging at bad pitches? No. He was getting hits early in counts, which prevented him from getting to a 3-1 count where he could walk.
"You have to hit before you walk. His walks are going to happen, and they'll come in a bushel-load because of what he's doing right now. The other team is going to look at him and say, 'We know what you can do. We'll take our chances with the next guy.'"
• Even though all 18 of Brown's home runs this season have come to the pull side, he does not step to the plate with a personal mandate to drive the ball with authority to right field. On balls on the outer half of the plate, he's conditioned to trying to hit the ball up the middle or the opposite way.
The learning curve encompasses more than just four at-bats a night. Brown made some minor waves Monday when he flipped his bat and took an ultra-wide turn around first base after hitting a home run off Tom Koehler, then punctuated his trot with an elaborate celebration that included a couple of forearm bumps with Ryan Howard and a ceremonial bow at the end. As one unnamed Miami coach told the Palm Beach Post's Joe Capozzi, the Marlins took note of Brown's exuberance and said, "We won't forget."
Down deep, Brown is a lot more substance than style. His father, Robert Walker, spent 15 years as a manager of the monorails at Disney World, and constantly reminds him about the importance of hard work. Brown's mother, Rose Jones, is a pastor with Bibleway International in Fort Pierce, Fla., and stresses the importance of staying humble. When he talks to his parents on the phone, they remind him not to get overly enamored with himself.
"I make sure I work my butt off every day, and I respect the game of baseball to the highest level," Brown says. "I know nothing is owed to me, and I make sure I'm prepared and I work every day.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game. Just as [pitchers] are working on me, I'm studying them as well. Whatever they do that night, I have to make the adjustments. And if I do that, I'm going to have success. There are going to be times when you struggle. I've been through it before, so I know how to deal with it."
Brown deals with the challenges by watching, learning, listening to his buddy Chase and realizing that a good month doesn't make a career. If he plans to graduate from struggling former prospect to a long-running sensation in Philly, that's his only choice.