The highly anticipated debut of Phillies top prospect Domonic Brown had the Citizen’s Bank Park crowd of over 40,000 brimming with optimism as he stepped into the batter’s box against Diamondbacks pitcher Edwin Jackson for his first Major League at-bat. It was a hot Summer day on July 28th, 2010, and Brown had just been called up to the Big Leagues after a short stint in Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Baseball America had him ranked 14th overall in their annual list of MLB’s top prospects, and the Phillies faithful in attendance that day were well aware of the hype surrounding the young 22-year old outfielder.
Their optimism was quickly rewarded after Brown took a high, inside fastball from Jackson and ripped a screaming line-drive off the right-field wall for an RBI double. The crowd erupted, and thus began the long and arduous baseball journey of Domonic Brown.
He had been invited to Spring Training for the first time prior to the 2010 season, and after hitting two moonshots in a game against the Detroit Tigers; including one off of Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander, his teammates were quite impressed.
“That was legit. Big league stuff,” said shortstop Jimmy Rollins. First baseman Ryan Howard nicknamed Brown the “Total Package”, noting that “I’ve seen him take batting practice, and he’s got pop to all fields.” That day’s game was Brown’s last in Major League camp, as he was sent back down to the Minors after its completion.
Though it was speculated that he would begin the year with the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Brown was assigned to Double-A Reading for the start of the 2010 season, where he batted .333 in his first seven games. He was promoted to the IronPigs on June 25, after he batted .318 with 16 doubles, 3 triples, 15 homers, 47 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 65 games for Reading. Chuck Lamar, the Phillies’ assistant general manager at the time, said that the former 20th-round draft pick “is just now starting to scratch the surface on his ceiling as a potential Major League player,” praising his hand-eye coordination and his power.
Brown batted .405 in his first 12 games at Triple-A, hitting four homers and driving in 11 runs. At midseason, he was selected to represent the United States in the 2010 All-Star Futures Game, an annual exhibition contest hosted by Major League Baseball designed to showcase the top Minor League talent from all 30 teams. He started for the U.S. squad, but left in the first inning after experiencing tightness in his hamstring while running down the first base line on an infield single.
Brown returned to the IronPigs lineup after the All-Star break, and through July 27, he batted .327 with 20 home runs and 68 RBI between Reading and Lehigh Valley, and it appeared as though he was well on his way to eventual Major League stardom.
When Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. traded for Cliff Lee in 2009, Brown wasn’t involved. When he traded for Roy Halladay before the 2010 season, Amaro labeled Brown “untouchable.” When he traded for Roy Oswalt at the 2010 trade deadline to complete his unprecedented quartet of aces, Amaro maintained his stance on Brown, refusing to part with him. That October, the Phillies eventually went on to fall to the San Francisco Giants in six games in the National League Championship Series.
The following season in 2011, with their dominating starting rotation consisting of Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and newcomer Vance Worley, the Phils would go on to win a franchise-record 102 games. Midway through the year, however, the lineup was not living up to expectations, and with what seemed like a surefire shot to win their second World Series in four years, Amaro had to make an upgrade.
With the offense in need of a boost, Amaro went out and acquired right-fielder Hunter Pence from Houston, sending two very highly-regarded prospects to the Astros in Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart, but not Domonic Brown.
Somehow the Phillies managed to acquire four All-Star caliber players in a span of three years without having to trade their top prospect. Was that an astounding display of business savvy on Ruben Amaro Jr.’s part? Or was it putting an insurmountable amount of pressure on a 23-year-old?
Up until this year, Domonic Brown barely eclipsed 50 games and 200 plate appearances in any one year. Hampered by a broken hamate bone in his right hand that he suffered in Spring Training, he hit .245 with 5 home runs and 19 RBI in 2011, and was sent down to Triple-A Lehigh Valley when the team acquired Pence in July.
In 2012, Brown was called up later in the season when the Phillies had fallen below .500, and after Shane Victorino was traded to the Dodgers, and Hunter Pence was dealt to the Giants. Brown put up similar, disappointing numbers with a .235 batting average, 5 home runs and 26 RBI, while often looking out of place defensively in right field. He had opportunities, but it didn’t feel like the Phillies had ever given Brown a vote of confidence as a Major League player despite being labeled “untouchable” several times. Like all Big League players can attest, baseball is a game of failure, and Domonic Brown was experiencing it for the very first time in his career.
Despite his eventual rise to the number one ranking in Baseball America’s list of top prospects, the Phillies faithful, and quite possibly the organization itself, was beginning to lose hope in the supremely talented young outfielder. The dreaded “bust” label was being thrown around during discussions relating to Brown, and thoughts of prior “can’t-miss” prospects throughout the history of the Phillies organization that ended up not panning out such as Jeff Jackson and Tyler Green were beginning to enter the minds of fans.
Then, along came Spring Training of 2013, as well as new assistant hitting coach and former Major League All-Star Wally Joyner.
In February, Domonic Brown dubbed Joyner “an angel,” presumably for the technical improvements to Brown’s swing that the two had worked on together. Joyner, now 50, and new hitting coach Steve Henderson lowered Brown’s hands. Most of the time, his once-hyper lower body now stands as still as a statue, ready to attack the ball once it enters the hitting zone.
“There’s a lot of chemistry between us,” said the Phillies outfielder, referring to Joyner. “It’s not just baseball, either. It’s on the field, off the field. Just making sure that I’m free. Mentally.”
This wasn’t surprising to the duo, considering the fact that both hail from the same hometown of Stone Mountain, Georgia, and went to the same high school. Like Brown, Joyner rose quickly through the Minor Leagues after he was drafted, and like Brown, his production in his rookie season waned as the attention and pressure on him grew.
“Steve Henderson and I, our approach is to be ready every time you step into that batter’s box,” said Joyner. “It could be the first pitch, it could be the seventh pitch. It could be the 15th pitch after you fouled off some pitches and you still have a chance to do some damage. So have confidence to know that you can get the job done in the batter’s box. Some people think that success is getting a base hit. I choose to see it as how hard the ball is hit. That’s all the control we have.”
After finishing the Spring with 90 at-bats, Brown recorded 32 hits for a .356 batting average, scored 24 runs, clubbed 7 homers and drove in 17 runs. He also got on base at a .414 clip, and slugged .633.
Despite the eye-popping numbers, there was still plenty of anxiety regarding whether or not his success at the plate in Spring Training would translate over to the regular season.
“I’ve been going through that my whole career,” Brown said. “I have to put up the same stuff during the regular season. And that’s what I’m still working toward.”
With 2 homers and 6 RBI already through the first 12 games of the 2013 season, along with an 81% contact rate and a 25% line-drive rate, it appears so far that the mechanical adjustments Domonic Brown and Wally Joyner made during the off-season are paying off. Time will tell whether or not Brown can evolve into an All-Star caliber player, but by persevering through all of his struggles and continuing to put in the time, effort and hard work required to be an every-day Major Leaguer, he finally appears to be on the right track.
“My hope is that he’s going to be dangerous the whole year. Righties, lefties, he’s shown that he can handle the strike zone versus both. And I think more than anything, he has the confidence now that he belongs,” said Joyner.
Perhaps confidence was the only thing missing.Tags: Cliff Lee, Domonic Brown, Hunter Pence, Jimmy Rollins, MLB, Philadelphia Phillies, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Ruben Amaro Jr., Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, Vance Worley