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In case you haven’t noticed, and there’s a reasonable chance you haven’t, Dominic Brown has 18 home runs, which leads the Senior Circuit. This is especially relevant at this time of year because Brown was a 20th round draft pick, and while the first and second rounds of the draft got MLB Network coverage and the always entertaining presence of Bud Selig, rounds 11-40 get nothing more than a conference call with a stream of picks. During that stream in 2006, it was probably very easy to lose Brown’s name among the myriad of aspiring major leaguers, but now he’s got everyone’s attention.
Earlier in his major league career, that wasn’t so true. In a brief late-season callup in 2010, he triple-slashed .210/.257/.355, certainly not numbers that would inspire confidence. Alright, though, that was 70 plate appearances after a long season and he only just turned 23. But after being heralded as the Phillies’ replacement for Jayson Werth, Brown spent a third of a season in the bigs in 2011 and hit only .245/.333/.391. His BABIP was a little low at .276, and the 11.9% walk rate was nice, especially when coupled with a 16.7% strikeout rate, but he just didn’t hit for the same power as he displayed in the minors. After ISOs upwards of .200 in separate half-seasons in both Double A and Triple A, a .147 in the Phillies’ homer-friendly Citizens Bank Park was disappointing.
2012 was arguably worse. The power was a little better with a .160 ISO, but came at the cost of walks (9.9% BB%). A .260 BABIP drove a concerning .235/.316/.396 line, and Phillies fans had to wonder if this guy was a bust.
No more. Brown has exploded to hit .290/.331/.588 in 2013, cementing his position as an everyday outfielder. His 18 home runs are approaching a single-season career best despite being just over a third of the way through the year. A .299 ISO is much more reflective of the power displaying in the minors, and the Phillies have to be very happy with the improvements their young outfielder has made.
Or appears to have made. Examining that line a little closer brings up a curious fact: his OBP is actually two points lower despite a 45 point gain in average compared to 2011. That’s because he’s cut his walk rate in half to just 5.5%, and the strikeouts are up a tick to 18.6%. He’s not getting particularly lucky with a .288 BABIP – 18 home runs means you don’t need that to hit for average even with strikeouts – but the direction these numbers are trending could be cause for concern.
It’s long been known that strikeouts correlate strongly with power – power hitters tend to swing big and long to generate the drive and loft necessary to hit homers, and when the ball is coming in horizontally and the bat is moving vertically, that decreases the size of the hitting plane where the ball can impact the bat. Simply put, contact decreases as bat meets ball at a less opportune angle.
Brown’s strikeouts are actually fairly low for the type of power he’s displaying, then, and his batted-ball data backs that up.
Brown’s actually upped his line drive rate to an excellent 22.5%, and has seen no noticeable increase in fly balls, which power hitters typically generate in an effort to increase home runs. This usually comes at the cost of not only strikeouts but BABIP – fly balls are much easier to generate outs with, so power hitters often take the double-whammy of strikeouts and low BABIP to generate very low averages. Adam Dunn, Carlos Pena, and Mark Reynolds are all strong examples of this.
Brown, on the other hand, is not only displaying a low fly ball rate for a power hitter, but a generally high-BABIP profile, and is using an incredibly high 30% HR/FB to generate homers. As mentioned earlier, his BABIP is a pedestrian .288, but his xBABIP – the BABIP one would expected based on batted-ball data – is 50 points higher at .338. So Brown is not only hitting for great power, and a strong average, he’s might be getting unlucky as hits don’t seem to be falling in for him as much as they should.
That walk rate is still concerning, but now mostly for the drop and not so much for its impact on his offensive performance. If he were putting up an OBP near .400, that would obviously do a lot to improve his output, but I’m sure any team will take mediocre on-base skills if they come with strong power and high averages. The fact that he’s shown strong plate discipline earlier in his career – especially in the minors where he walked 10.6% of the time – is at this point more of a bonus than a hindrance, because it gives hope that he can combine his newly displayed power with out avoidance. Unless he’s changed something about his approach to unlock that power.
There’s a little something here, but it’s just small enough that one can overlook it or ignore it at will. The Swing% increases a bit each year, moving Brown from a player who usually takes pitches and swings less than average to one who usually swings and takes less than average. He’s also lost a little zone contact ability and is making up for it on contact outside the zone to even out the numbers – that’s usually a bad trade, as pitches outside the strike zone tend to have lower BABIPs for understandable reasons: they produce weak contact. So his “low” BABIP might not be so low after all.
Pitchers haven’t let this change go unnoticed, either. Brown’s receiving fewer pitches than ever in the strike zone, but he’s swinging at more of them to make up for it. Of course, he’s swinging at more pitches in general, so it’s difficult to separate a better ability to swing at pitches in the zone from just more swings and therefore a higher zone swing rate.
The numbers here suggest a more aggressive hitter than the one who appeared in 2011. Given the power Brown has shown, that could be a very good thing; it’s entirely possible he isn’t able to be the type of hitter he is now without that approach, and no one would argue he hasn’t been a better hitter than in years past. And of course we’re dealing with small changes in a young season.
Regardless of whether it’s visible in the underlying stats, it’s pretty clear Brown is a better hitter. The fact that there are no major changes probably means he’s not this much better, but his earlier numbers and minor league track record suggest a player that was far superior to the one suggested to Phillies fans in 2011 and 2012. It looks like that player has finally shown up.