Domonic Brown was selected out of high school in the in the 20th round of the 2006 amateur draft. By 2008, Brown had reached the top of the Phillies prospect charts and was ranked 48th overall by Baseball America. Brown’s stock continued to soar following 2010, when he hit 22 homers between AA and the majors. That offseason, Keith Law ranked Brown as the third best prospect in baseball, behind only the generational talents of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.
The snooze button on Brown's career was hit when he suffered a fractured hamate bone in spring training of 2011. Though he returned in late May, the injury may have sapped his power as he hit just five HR in 210 PA his rookie season. He began 2012 in the minors before joining the Phillies at the end of July. That season, he hit another five bombs, this time in 212 PA.
By 2013, Brown was a full blown post-hype sleeper. Baseball fans took notice in May when he crushed 12 home runs, a total that tied him with Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton, and Chris Davis for most in a month that season. Brown was perhaps more famous in sabermetric circles for not drawing a walk that entire month. All told, his power binge lasted from April 27th to June 8th, a six-week span across which he swatted 17 ... uh, swats ... in 156 PA.
Brown was selected to represent the National League as an All-Star that July, and it seemed that Brown had finally arrived on the scene as the power hitter we'd been anticipating. However, Brown cooled off significantly in the second half, hitting just five doubles and four dingers after the break. His power outage continued through 2014 as his HR/FB and ISO dropped like stones despite consistent BB%, K%, and FB%.
To see what happened to Brown’s power let’s first consider his approach. During his 2013 breakout, Brown exhibited average plate discipline. As a lefty who pulled nearly all of his home runs, Brown preferred the ball inside (Swings/Pitch – left). In 2013, this is also where he generated most of his power (Isolated Power - right).
The next season, Brown tweaked his approach at the plate. While he maintained league average plate discipline, he chased more pitches inside than the year before, particularly those high and tight. Brown was less successful hitting inside pitches for power -- and he did absolutely nothing with the pitches up and in for which he'd grown so fond.
So how do pitchers approach Brown? Are there any clues that might help explain his power surge in the first half of 2013? During his first 170 games in the big leagues, pitchers mostly pitched him down and away, likely to avoid the threat of a HR (bottom - left). However, while he was enjoying what were likely his best six weeks of his professional life in 2013 (middle), a greater proportion of pitches were found in his power zone, low and inside. From June 9, 2013 on, pitchers went back to pitching him down and away (right).
Was Brown feasting on mistakes during his power binge, or were pitchers choosing to challenge a fallen prospect? It's difficult to say. Will his power stay down as long as pitchers keep working him low and away? Perhaps, but what of his otherworldly HR/FB% in 2013? Was that just luck, or if he's selective enough at the plate, could he return to his former glory?
That's a lot of questions.
On the surface, he doesn't appear to have been more lucky than the average MLB batter. That season, 10 of his 27 HR (37%) were classified as "just enough" by ESPN Home Run Tracker (league average was 33% that year) and he hit nearly half (13) of his homers away from the friendly Citizen’s Bank Park. To be certain, let’s look a bit deeper at his batted balls, using average fly ball distance*.
* - Minimum 150 ft. to exclude infield fly balls, which Brown hit at a consistent rate in 2013 (11.4%) and 2014 (11.9%).
In 2013, Brown averaged 284 feet on his fly balls. While it was a career best, it’s far shorter than what you would expect for someone posting a 19.3 HR/FB. During his six-week power binge that season, his FB distance rose to just 288 ft. Put simply, it appears that the balls he hit out were crushed, and the ones that stayed in the park were hit softly. That's not the profile of a power hitter breaking out. That looks a lot more like Will Venable than Paul Goldschmidt. In 2014, his FB distance plummeted to 268 ft.
What will Brown's power numbers look like next season? Will they return to his 2013 level or will he wind up a a six-week wonder? My guess is that Brown will likely regress to his career averages (ISO .164; HR/FB 12.7%; FB distance 278 ft.). Unfortunately, when you pair just barely above league-average power with poor defense, you can wind up at -- or below -- replacement level. If there are any MLB teams interested in Dom Brown, the Phillies might be wise to move him as part of the rebuild, while there is still some bloom left on the rose. After all, he still has the chance to be a change-of-scenery bounce-back candidate.
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