Fan perspectives on Domonic Brown careered wildly during the course of the six-month 2013 season. By the early days of June, his white-hot streak of home runs had all but the most jaded Dom Brown skeptics ecstatic over the prospect of a new power bat to lift the fortunes of an otherwise aging and fading roster. By the close of the season, many of the doubters and nay-sayers had returned in force, writing off Brown's 2013 as one month of glory within a season of mediocrity, lowlighted by a dying fall into a homerless Fall. Same old Dom Brown, raising, then crushing expectations.
Here's a look at Domonic Brown's 2013 season with an eye to what helped make the great part great, the disappointing part disappointing, and the territory in between a road map for the future. I'm not a scout, a hitting guru, or a seer. I can't explain Brown's season, but I think I can light up a few things on the metaphorical black, that penumbra around the margins of the plate that helps to define a batter's fortunes. Sort of light lite. Imagine Brown's 2013 as three seasons in one, introduced with a bit of traditional song with some baseball spin (Brownian Motion) added for appropriateness.
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In the Merry Month of May
The right field fans are gay;
Even sabermetrics say
That the dingers aren't Balls In Play
Falalalalalala, falalalalalala, falalalala, falalalalalalala.
His "one-month" of home-run glory has already embedded itself so thoroughly in the mythology of Brown's season, let's, if only for the sake of song, call it his Merry Month of May. The streak arguably began as early as the 27th of April and carried over straight into June. Two home runs on May 29 and two more on May 31 were followed with nary a stanza break by another two days later, another the day after that and . . . so on. Between the 2nd of May and the 8th of June, the spirit of Harry intoned "Outta here!" a remarkable sixteen times. That's sixteen home runs in thirty-five games, a pace that over a 162 game season would yield . . . Oh well, that's silly because hot streaks are what they are, and almost nobody stays on one for an entire season. But to find a better streak by a Phillie you'd have to go back to Ryan Howard's 58 home run season in 2006, when he hit 19 between July 24 and August 31, and 20 between August 1 and September 9. Those were the days.
A comparison of Brown's April and May highlights some interesting developments in the latter month. April was one of Brown's weakest months, both for power and for batting average. Some of that weakness may have been fueled by a .254 BABIP, his lowest of the season, but the fact is he broke spring training with a whimper, not a bang. May was his best for power and average, the lowish .276 BABIP, as the introductory ditty reminds us, entirely owing to the fact that taters don't count as balls in play. These are spray charts (courtesy of texasleaguers.com) for those months, plotted on a neutral field.
The distribution of balls to the infield looks very similar in both months. Once you move beyond the infield, two differences stand out. (1) Although success beyond medium-center is entirely lacking in April, center was the busiest field for balls in play. Lack of success beyond medium-center will become a recurring theme throughout the second and third seasons, though the right-field line will never look this empty again. In May, the shift toward both corner outfields is pronounced, particularly toward left field, but the cluster of hits toward the right-field line is also very noticeable. The left-field bias is a bit strange. To the eye, Brown is not a Michael Young-type hitter who takes outside pitches to the opposite field. The closest matches for this pattern are July of 2011 and August of 2012, both months in which he showed little home-run power. Some of the 2013 balls, on the other hand, are pretty well hit. (2) Most obviously, there are a whole lot more balls beyond the outfield wall in May, and as in April, all of them are to the right of an imaginary line extending from home plate to dead center field. In May, however, hits and hits with power extend from right-center all the way to the right-field line.
How to explain the difference? Well, the April guy looks like a straight-away hitter unless he saw the opportunity to jump on a fat pitch. The May guy was pulling the ball more deliberately -- and certainly,with more success. This was particularly so with right-hand pitching, against which Brown was much more right-field oriented. Trial-and-error with various pitches on the spray charts shows that the balls to left field were preeminently off change-ups and sinkers by righthanders, pitches that tend to fade away from a lefthander. Are these the same types of swings as in 2011 and 2012 on the same types of uncongenial pitches, only by a stronger, more confident guy? I think so. Part of Brown's May success was undoubtedly inner-directed. It's not a stretch to imagine that as the month rolled on, he felt some of the joy of discovery that only success can bring and began to pull the ball with greater confidence. Did some private work with newly anointed assistant hitting coach Wally Joyner, whose tutelage Brown had reported being "thrilled" with since spring training, also play a role? Perhaps some adjustments to a spring-training emphasis on hitting the ball where it's pitched?
Two things seem clearly at work during Brown's power surge. The primary fuel was aggressiveness. In April, Brown had swung at 69% of pitches in the strike zone; in May that figure jumped to 77%. Much was made at the time of the fact that Brown managed to go an entire month without drawing a walk. Certainly that gap had an impact on his on-base percentage, which was an uninspiring .303. Much was not made in retrospect of the fact that Brown's walk-rate was above a career normal 8.7% in April (9.3%) and June (9.9%), and was highest by far when he was doing very little with the bat. (More of that later.) May and June saw Brown's highest strikeout percentages (19.3% and 20.7%, respectively). That's called aggressiveness, folks, and before complaining about the lack of walks or the anemic OBP, the skeptic might consider that Brown's OPS between May 2 and June 8 when his streak ended was 1.10. What some have been known to call "production." Surprising to find is that Brown's highest groundball percentage (51%) came in the month of May and that his infield flyball rate was far higher in May than in April. Some of that could have been explained by the topping or undercutting of pitches being swung at too aggressively, but it's worth remembering that May saw Brown's highest batting average of the season at .303 (.110 of it accounted for by home runs alone). His line-drive rate was his lowest of any month in the season, including his weakest months (April and September) for batting average and power. In other words, being aggressive and hitting line-drives weren't necessarily synonymous with Brown. Finding his pitch and putting his best swing on it was.
The other spur to Brown's power was the seizing of opportunity. Jeff Sullivan, in an early June article for Fangraphs, noted that to that point in 2013, Brown had swung in 16 of 20 3-1 counts. Before the 2013 season he had swung in 29 of 53 of those counts. 3-1 pitches may provide a free pass, but they are also likely to be strikes. Opportunity knocking. A lot of the stars lined up on the black for Dom Brown during his Merry Month of May. He played the entire month in good health, something he hadn't been able to do in April when he injured his back mid-month. He faced starters whose HR/9 was higher (1.12) than in any other month of the season (though to give Dom his due, they also held LHB's to a .248 batting average, which was lowest of any month of the season). He faced only 5 left-handed starters, vs 22 righthanders, a reminder of how good the left-heavy Phillies line-up has it at the start of most games. (But again, lefthanders like Bumgarner and Kazmir that got taken yard are not shlumps.) He saw a higher percentage of fastball strikes than in any other month, which can partially explain his strikeouts, but which you'll live with if you're are also making good contact. Righthanders actually threw Brown more change-ups than 4-seamers in May, but next to home runs on fastballs (12), Brown hit more change-ups (4) out of the park than any other pitch, so they weren't all going to left field. When the stars line up for you, you still have to take advantage of it. In May and early June of 2013 Domonic Brown was In The Zone. Life was good.
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Sumer is icumen in
And loudly chant anew
The anxious fans who now await
The dingers that once flew
Mid-summer was a mixed affair for Domonic Brown. After his home run against Tom Gorzelanny on June 8, Brown entered a mini-drought period. He wouldn't hit another until the 25th. He put up six total home runs for the month of June, and hit four over a two-week period between June 25 and July 7. After that, another mini-drought, with only one for the rest of July. Between June 8 and July 23, his slash line was a disappointing .236/.290/.419, and through the last part of that period the bleacher folk became a bit uneasy. His best run of mid-summer came from August 8 to mid-August, when his slash line was a resurgent .344/.417/.656, including 3 home runs and 11 for 32 at the plate. Between July 23 and August 8 very little happened because on the night of the 23rd Brown suffered concussion-by-face-plant while diving for a sinking liner. Injury #2 on the season, and this one more serious than the first.
So was the mid-summer fall-off regression to a pre-existing mean? Or does the explanation lie in adjustments made by pitchers? Or perhaps in the quality of Brown's at-bats? I'd circle all of the above. Brown is not a Howardesque kind of power bat who, when healthy, should be expected to have 8-10 home-run months. So many home runs in a month when the GB% was 51.1% screams one-off. For perspective, Howard's career GB% is 39.3%. Brown's is 44.1%. All of Brown's batted ball numbers in May are weirdly off career and 2013 averages.
There is also evidence that pitchers made some adjustments in pitch types and locations as the season went on. For one thing, Brown saw more, not fewer, fastballs, although, as previously noted, more of them were for strikes in May than in any other month -- and Brown is not a bad-ball hitter. Every home run he hit for the entire season -- with one possible exception that was either just on or just off the inside corner -- was on a strike. Pitchers also began pitching him farther out and farther down in the strike zone. As someone who has viewed catcher's-view locations of all 27 of Brown's home runs, I can tell you his overwhelming preference is for balls mid-plane in elevation and middle or middle-in, with secondary variations tending to be a bit up or a bit out. (In 3 instances, it was impossible to tell which pitch was the home run pitch, and in several more it could have been either of two pitches.) Some of Brown's titanic tee shots from prior seasons may stick in your mind, but in 2013, not a single one of his home runs until late in the season came on a pitch that could reasonably be described as in the lower portion of the zone. Here are pitch-trackers from May and August of 2013 for pitches Brown swung at.
*Remember that this is catcher's perspective, so what looks inside to a left-handed batter is outside.
Allowing for fewer August at-bats, there is still a noticeable shift in the area of maximum density toward the outer part of the plate, and down and away from the mid-line plane. The shift away from the pitches Brown most likes to bash becomes even clearer when the pitch-trackers for balls not swung at are taken into account. Between the swing and the take boxes for August, there simply aren't many pitches at mid-level on the inner half of the plate, and what there are tend to be low.
Some of his fall-off may be explainable by Brown's own batsmanship. July saw the same pattern of high swing rate on fastballs as May and June, but the whiff rate was significantly higher (8.3% vs 5.9%). The whiff rate on change-ups jumped from 9.1% in May (which is very good) to 19.4% in July. The jump says that aggression may have been undiminished, but something else was.
The progressive rise in flyball rate through the majority of June and all of July (May 31.8%, June 39.3%, July 43.1%) probably points to a certain intoxication with May's results and a desire to jack the ball as opportunity allowed -- and maybe when it didn't. Those June and July rates are well above the career average of 34.6%. The man is only human. In this spray chart from July, the pull tendency is still noticeable, but the extreme left-field bias of May has given way to a left-center bias. Balls that would have left the park if pulled to right field are staying in the park.
Brown either is making a conscious effort to hit balls where they're pitched or is not getting around as well on pitches he wants to pull. Pitch F/X says these balls were hit off fastballs and to a lesser extent sinkers. Dom hit only .257 in July, and his OBP, at .293, was his lowest of the season. On the plus side, his slugging percentage was a respectable .471. Pick your poison because in August it sank to .431, while his batting average rose to an almost-season-high .292. Strikeouts sank to a season low 15.2%, and swings on fastballs also dropped to a season low 41.6% (vs 54.9% in May). Then came the concussion.
Let's keep a sense of perspective. Dom Brown hit three home runs in July and three in August, just as he hit three in April. If that had been his production over the entire course of the season, he would have finished with 18 home runs. Give him a few extra-credit home runs in a few of the months, and he would have been a low-twenties home run hitter. Isn't that what an awful lot of insiders projected him to be? The one aspect of Dom's game that doesn't desert him is the hard grounders and low line drives to right and extreme right field. However, the closing month of Brown's second 2013 season offers a portrait of a hitter who knows he's lost The Zone, has lost some of his aggression as a result, and is feeling about for his game.
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Oh, it's a long, long while from May to December
But the balls fall short when you reach September;
When the autumn weather turns thunder tame
The doubters vi-iiiiiie in plaaaa-ciiiiing blame.
For bleacher folk, Domonic Brown's September Song was a series of muted chords . His line for the month was .255/.356/.314. That's right, his OBP, the lack of which his critics have carped at from the time he came into the League, was 42 points higher than his SLG. No home runs (Bust!), 8 bases on balls, and 9 strikeouts, the best BB/K% of the season. Dom we hardly knew ye. Probably pitched really tough, right? Not on the face of it. Here is Brown's Pitch F/X box on swings taken in September.
Most hitters would say, that's a pretty sight. The plate discipline is damned near impeccable. Save for a few really low breaking pitches (Brown saw a higher percentage of sliders in September than in any other month), he's swinging at what's in the zone. So what's the problem? Well for one thing, the pitches are still shifted decidedly below the horizontal median, as they were in August. For another, fast balls are either up higher or out farther than Brown wants them. Balls put in play against fast balls from righthanders (13 of the 17 starters he faced) were a miserable 11.6%, down from the 20's in May. Of Brown's last four home runs of the season (in August), three were on pitches down in the zone (the pitch that yielded the fourth is indeterminate), the only time the entire season he hit home runs down in the zone. Pitching has adjusted.
But that's not the whole story. Brown himself is approaching at bats more cautiously, less aggressively. Power, such as it is, is almost exclusively to left center and center. Brown isn't pulling the ball and may not even be trying to. A good portion of the reason, I think, is that on August 26, after one at bat, he was removed from the game with soreness in the lower achilles, the heel area, an injury that had him pinch-hitting only in the two previous games. He returned (unwisely, no doubt, considering the team's record) for two games, pinch-hit for four more, then came back "well" in mid-September to finish out the season as a starter.
Below is a video of a Dom Brown home-run swing. Watch the lead (right) foot.
Notice how just after the point of contact it begins to roll on its outside corner, so that the left foot has to step toward the plate to maintain balance. Now imagine taking that swing yourself with a sore achilles. I don't know exactly when Brown's achilles began to bother him, and I don't know how "healed' his heel was when he resumed unbroken full-time play. I do remember Chase Utley in 2011 when he persistently explained that his lead knee "felt fine." Except that he was pretty hopeless reaching for pitches, and his pull power just wasn't there. But he got his walks! Think Ryan Howard as well, while you're at it. I don't know, maybe Brown's heel "felt fine" too. But if I were he and found myself more concerned than usual with staying on balance and not turning hard on pitches, if I found myself trying to be smart, and selective, and cautious instead of aggressive and ambitious, I probably shouldn't be surprised by the September I ended up having, especially when the loss of timing from lack of regular play is added to the equation.
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With every hot stove wannabe ready to trade Domonic Brown for the next frontline ace or the right-handed masher who will save us all, it's fair to ask what 2013 told us about the top Phillies' prospect of the last half-dozen years, the guy who once was untradeable even for Roy Halladay. Once again, Brown's problems staying healthy and on the field are concerning. Ultimately,though, they're a wild card, particularly in light of Brown's youth. There's a lot to feel good about in Dominic Brown's 2013 season taken as a whole, and that obviously includes the home-run power. Twenty-seven home runs in a player's first full season as a full-time player aren't common. If Brown had been healthy for the entire season and played all the games you would expect of a healthy, full-time player, I have no doubt he'd have joined the thirty club. Yes, the distribution was uneven, but dammit, hot streaks can't be routinely written off as aberrations. They are a normal part of many hitters' seasons. Is Brown a thirty-a-season guy going forward? I'm not sure, but I wouldn't bet on it -- at least not on current evidence. Pitchers adjusted to Brown during the course of his three 2013 "seasons." It's up to Brown to show that he can adjust to them. He has the advantage that naturally accrues to a lefthander in a game where right-hand pitchers dominate, and he's shown an ability to hit a wide range of pitches out of the park. The log of pitches launched to the gallery in 2013 reads four-seamers (9), two-seamers (2), cutters (2), sinkers (2) sliders (4) curves (2) change-ups (4) and splitter (1). But it's not going to be easy to pull 30 out of 30 home runs next year when pitchers and pitching coaches around the league have already taken careful note of what he did and what it took for him to do it. Brown is going to have to find a way to get some balls to center, left-center, and even left out of the park.
Home runs aside, Dom's swing may still be a work in progress. He's already improved it once by dropping his hands and a second time, under the tutelage of Joyner, by changing his grip. "We straightened his hands out a little bit, allowing his wrists to cock," Joyner was quoted as saying back in February. "We want to take advantage of that size and leverage." Clearly he did. Brown generates plenty of bat speed and turns on inside pitches with the quickness that Shane Victorino could show us to such good effect. It's not always the prettiest swing around, though; his feet are sometimes too busy and his weight-shift can be stumbley. Despite his athleticism, Brown's instincts as a fielder have not been good. An improving baserunner, Brown ought to be stealing a few more bases than he has. Perhaps most tellingly, he has yet to bring together the elements of his offensive game. Apart from this year's hot streak, it's somewhat frustrating that his best periods for power over the last three years have so far -- and the sample size is still not large -- been his weakest for hitting and on-base percentage, and vice versa. Hitting with power and, for instance, getting walks aren't mutually exclusive. Once pitchers know you need to be respected, they should be mutually inclusive. A realistic look at Dom says that he should be a guy you can depend on for twenty-some home runs and a .280 something batting average, twelve to fifteen steals (he did it in the minors), and at least a league average glove. He probably doesn't project to be exceptional in any of those categories long-term, but his value could and should come from getting the most from the "five tools" and great eye at the plate that led him to be ranked as a top league prospect. Maybe for the Phils. Maybe for someone else.