The Dramatic Decline of Domonic Brown

Coming into the 2011 season, Domonic Brown ranked as the fourth-best prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America. The Philadelphia Phillies had just watched right fielder Jayson Werth depart for greener pastures in Washington and felt confident that Brown was the long-term answer at the position.

A little more than a year later, we’re all left wondering what went wrong.

At age 23, Brown got his second extended look in the big leagues starting in May of 2011. Though some skill at the plate was evident, he ultimately underwhelmed with a .322 wOBA in 210 plate appearances. The league-average wOBA in right field was .334 in 2011, and the struggles on defense could not justify allowing him to work through his growing pains at the big league level — at least, not for a team with legitimate World Series aspirations.

Philadelphia sent Brown back down to Triple-A in August. The only other big league action he saw last season was a brief call-up in late September once rosters expanded and the Triple-A season had already been completed.

His lack of success was largely attributed to the quickening of the game at the major league level.

“The big leagues moves fast,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “A lot of times when you come up there the game is quick. They catch a lot of balls you hit, things like that. Once you get used to it, if you’ve got the talent and you’ve got the fight and desire and the work ethic and everything. Then you’ll improve.”

In brief, Brown should have been expected to struggle in his transition to baseball at the highest level. Scouts, coaches, and players always talk about making adjustments. Brown simply had not made those adjustments yet at the major league, but very few people doubted the adjustments would happen and success would follow.

Fast forward to this season, and we find the young man hitting a paltry .247/.290/.355 through 26 games with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. That was not supposed to happen. The Phillies wanted Brown to begin the season in Triple-A to build confidence and rediscover the success he enjoyed in Triple-A back in 2010, when he hit .346/.390/.561 in 28 games as a 22-year-old. It was not supposed to be a deepening of the struggles that plagued him last season at the big league level.

His .286 wOBA in Triple-A has fans and scouts absolutely miffed. When asked what caused the precipitous drop-off in production from Domonic Brown, one minor league scout said, “I don’t think anyone knows for sure.” Furthermore, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, who speaks with scouts every day regarding minor league players, said, “I think I’ve passed 100 on the number of theories I’ve heard.”

One possible explanation for his struggles revolves around swing changes that the Phillies organization attempted to employ during spring training back in 2011. The organization wanted Brown to lower his hands at address to help shorten the swing and provide greater stability throughout his swinging motion. This video from early 2011 does a nice job illustrating the specific change and how it related to his timing at the plate.

The swing change, however, did not improve his success. In fact, he felt so uncomfortable with the lowering of his hands that he abandoned the swing change all together. It is conceivable that the differing placement of his hands has ultimately disturbed his timing at the plate, and he is still working to rediscover the comfort he possessed in his swing throughout his minor league career prior to the 2011 season.

Another theory that some have put forward stems from his myriad of hand injuries. Since the 2009 season, Domonic Brown has suffered four injuries to his right hand. He has broken his hamate bone, which required surgery, sprained his thumb twice, and broken his pinkie finger. Perhaps the hand injuries — specifically the three since 2011 spring training — have been a major culprit in his power decline, a decline that has culminated in a 2012 season with no home runs thus far. He would not be the first hitter to experience such issues after multiple hand injuries.

In addition, not only has Brown played with swing changes and suffered multiple injuries in his right hand, he also been bounced around the organization and the playing field. He yo-yoed from Triple-A to the majors in both 2010 and 2011. His Triple-A manager, Ryne Sandberg, said he dealt with a “rollercoaster season” in 2011. He needed stability. This season, the organization switched him to left field. Though that may sound insignificant because it is largely considered to be one of the easiest defensive positions, Domonic Brown struggled to learn routes and jumps in right field. Now, he must start over and learn an entirely new position, while still trying to straighten out his issues at the plate.

It is once again conceivable that the constant change throughout the past couple of years has ultimately fueled his decline.

The ultimate reasoning behind his decline at the plate may puzzle scouts, but the organization desperately hopes that he snaps out of it because he remains a focal point in the Phillies’ future plans for the outfield. Center fielder Shane Victorino is slated to become a free agent following this season, right fielder Hunter Pence will become a free agent following the 2013 season, and left field is currently handled by a committee of fringe players in John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, and Juan Pierre. Opportunities for ample playing time should be numerous for Brown. He simply needs to prove deserving of those opportunities.

Despite the struggles for Domonic Brown, the same scout mentioned earlier offered words of encouragement, “The tools are still there, though. There’s still hope.”

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

47 Responses to “The Dramatic Decline of Domonic Brown”

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  1. yosoyfiesta says:

    Best case for Domonic Brown is he gets thrown into a trade and gets out of the Phillies organization. Trying to have an elite talent change their plate approach entirely after sustained success was foolish, and the results speak to how foolish it was. Tweaks, off-season changes here and there if he didn’t produce may have ultimately been necessary, but he hardly was in the MLB long enough deserve to have his swing and plate approach completely over-hauled after showing so much promise in the minors. Hope he gets traded and then haunts the Phillies for a decade.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      I don’t know the specifics about the changes they made, but is it possible that he had a hole in his swing that ML pitchers can exploit, but AAA pitchers can’t? If so, I don’t see a problem with trying to fix it.

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      • Jon says:

        Sure, it’s possible. But why not give the swing that produced a sub 20% K-rate and .280 ISO in AA/AAA a chance before overhauling it?

        At the end of 2010, he had maybe 200 ABs total above AA, and half of them were as a pinch hitter in the majors.

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      • wespom9 says:

        I don’t think its a matter of “hole-in-the-swing”. I see this term thrown around a lot, but I often think that its not the fault of a hitter. It’s not like big leaguers and AAA or AA guys have a different swing. The good players all rotate well, get the lower body moving and have a level hand path through the ball.

        The real difference is in the stuff that’s coming at them off the mound. It takes a while to adjust to pitches from a #4 AAA guy to Roy Halladay. The ball is moving like he hasn’t seen before. Its not the swing that needs fixing much of the time, its the batter’s eye and plate discipline.

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      • Paul says:

        But we have seen plenty of examples of guys having bad swings who dominated AA and AAA based on talent alone. Alex Gordon is a good comparison. They knew they needed to completely re-work his swing but still promoted him to MLB and tried to change it there. Took him four years and great hitting coach to fix him.

        Personally, I have seen Dom Brown hit once before they tried to change him, and I was shocked that he was so highly rated. Lorenzo Cain, but left handed, just no consistency whatsoever in anything that he did with his swing. Not going to work at the MLB level. So I don’t blame the Phillies for trying to change the swing, I blame for waiting till he was at the big league club’s doorstep.

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      • Will says:

        Brown’s ISO was over .280 for just over 60 games. That’s not at all indicative of his ability, especially when his career in the minors at that point (2010) was well below .150, and from then on it’s remained around .150.

        This is just another example of people taking a small sample size (the best SSS of his career) and expecting Brown to replicate it from then on (including in the majors). Brown just wasn’t that good, and when he didn’t match those 2010 AA stats in the majors, the Phillies jumped ship and started screwing with his mechanics. It wasn’t the mechanics, it was that he was never a .280 ISO-type player, but much closer to that .150 ISO batter that he always was. Pitchers found him out, and when his defense turned out to be below average, all of a sudden he wasn’t so attractive anymore.

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      • Jon says:

        Three years is not a small sample. His slash lines:

        2008: .291 / .382 / .417 (516 PA)
        2009: .299 / .377 / .504 (454 PA)
        2010: .327 .391 / .589 (389 PA)

        This is not a case of “He was never that good.”

        He never had contact problems in the minors. Very good BB/K at every level, and ISO increasing every year. All his struggles began after they tried to change his swing.

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  2. MX says:

    Well, maybe he’ll become a successful general manager.

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  3. DC Nats says:

    For a young guy in the MLB in 2011, I don’t think his numbers were horrendous. I was pretty shocked they gave up on him that quickly and signed Pence, but they were competing and couldn’t wait it out. But it likely had a big effect on his psyche.

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    • Slartibartfast says:

      E tu Fangraphs!

      He was a meager 25 point of babip away from having what I’m guessing everyone in baseball would call an acceptable rookie season.

      210 PA Babip .276 .245/.333/.391

      How would .270/.358/.416 look to these old school scouts? Just eyeballing it, his .276 babip was about 60-70 points lower than his Minor league career babip. There’s no way he’s a true talent .276 babip in the majors.

      His BB/K rates were tremendous for a rookie: 11.9 % and 16.7 %.

      In the end, classic jumping to conclusions based on small sample size. I’d have expected more from FG.

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      • Krog says:

        It’s not fangraphs leading this discussion. The author wrote that it is being discussed around baseball by Kevin Goldstein and others. It would have been nice to point out that this might be a big hubbub about nothing, though.

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  4. PiratesHurdles says:

    He and Pedro Alvarez should have a chat. Both have been impacted by teams trying to fix what wasn’t broken and by psychological stresses.

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  5. Jon says:

    It’s important to keep in mind that Brown was a raw prospect who was moving at a level per year until the Phillies started accelerating him in 2009 (A+/AA) and 2010 (AA/AAA/MLB), so he was already ahead of schedule at that point.

    He was originally called up to 2010 as a short-term fill in for Victorino, and he actually hit pretty well initially. But after Victorino returned, they decided to keep him in the majors as a pinch hitter. This is when his struggles really started (remember he had ~120 AB at AAA at this point).

    After witnessing his struggles, they decided that he needed to change his swing, and so they packed him off to winter ball to start learning. His struggles continued in winter ball, and again into Spring Training before he broke his hamate bone.

    Also, reports are that this past Winter he went to Gary Sheffield to retool his swing once again, so it seems he recognizes that this is still not squared away.

    It would be a shame if he doesn’t figure things out. He has a ton of talent.

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  6. Hizouse says:

    Thanks for article, I was wondering what happened to him. Also, “miffed” means “irritated”, not “confused.”

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  7. Will says:

    I think Brown was just severely overhyped. The only true standout season was 2010.

    His stats for 2009 were good, don’t get me wrong, but nowhere deserving of top 10 prospect status. 2007-2008 were hardly notable.

    Is this more of a product of a genuine prospect on a very good team that had just peaked, having had just won their second recent WS, where the enthusiastic fanbase and the media jumping on the opportunity to make Brown into the second coming of Christ? It happens a lot with Yankees and Red Sox prospects (see: Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Jesus Montero, Lars Anderson, etc). It just so happened that Brown was nearing his shot as the Phillies had emerged as the team to beat in MLB. Everyone came to expect a repeat of 2010, but those numbers were the outlier. Then everyone turned on him when he couldn’t repeat it.

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    • Paul says:

      I agree with this. What was not proffered in the article was the possibility that he just wasn’t that good in the first place.

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      • baty says:

        So, does it really just come down to either “being good” or “not being that good”?

        Dominic Brown is obviously good at somethings. It could be the teaching, it could be the learning, or it could be a matter of both, but players can get better or worse for lots of reasons just by being in a particular organization at a particular time.

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      • Paul says:

        baty: You used quotes without actually quoting me. I don’t think it comes down to those two extremes, and that’s not what I wrote.

        I agree with the notion, expressed by a few posters, that Dom Brown was overhyped based in part on his athleticism, which masked serious flaws in his baseball skillset. Super raw athletes do adjust, and you’re right that organization matters.

        Let’s make a comparison. Cameron Maybin looked like a raw athlete who could grow into a good player when I first saw him. Dom Brown, Lorenzo Cain, etc., look like great athletes who just don’t have baseball skills. I’m certainly not an expert, but the guy who is replacing Lorenzo Cain right now has been viewed by the scouting community as an athlete only, but what I see watching the two is that Jarrod Dyson has some good baseball skills while Cain does not. Mainly this shows up at the plate. It would not surprise me in the least, however, if Dyson has to go be a good player in another org, while Cain mediocres is up for years in KC until Bubba arrives.

        The Phillies either believe Dom Brown and can eventually be a Cameron Maybin, or they don’t. Either way they should turn him loose, because he clearly doesn’t trust the organization with his future. That they haven’t yet indicates either that they really do believe in him, or that front offices don’t think that highly of him and Goldstein, et al. have a lot of low level scouting contacts who can’t do much more than make the obvious observation that he is athletic for a baseball player.

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      • baty says:

        Sorry, they weren’t meant to specifically quote you… It was just an “open to interpretation response” to a generalization.

        I do agree… when it comes to the toughness of dealing with super athletes and raw baseball skill. I’ve always had issues with the super hype they receive. The reasons behind one succeeding and another failing is really hard to understand. I do think that Brown was mishandled, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was Philly’s fault. He just needed management that was more cognizant, persuasive, and/or deliberate in regard to his weaknesses as he tore apart mediocre pitching as a teenager.

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      • Paul says:

        I think that’s right that it’s terribly difficult to project athletes. Another example: Xavier Avery. Saw a few ABs of him last night and thought he was very, very advanced at the plate. He was tagged even more with the “athlete” tag than Anthony Gose, but I would bet that Avery will stick. So either his baseball skills were overlooked at the time, or he just has incredible aptitude. I think this is a really fascinating question, do some guys have their skills overlooked because they are such athletic, multi-sport guys like Avery? Or do some raw, athletic guys just have the “it” to translate their athleticism to any sport?

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      • baty says:

        Jared Mitchell is another interesting case. People are already whispering about his resurgence, but he’s been consistently carrying a 30% K rate and holds onto some sporadic and at times very high BABIP numbers. His last 13 games he’s been striking out 47% of the time. He’s inexperienced for his age, and he’s all over the place, but that won’t keep scouts from fixating towards the ceiling that is more parallel to his his athleticism.

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  8. baty says:

    People had been talking about that awkward swing for a while. The Phillies having him make a major change at that point in time, is really poor prospect management. Sucks to not be scouted properly by your own organization… It should have been approached when he was 18-19. At the point they were considering a change, they should have let him do his thing for a while longer to see if he could make it work.

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  9. everdiso says:

    When I see a comment from the Manager which includes both “the game is faster up here” and “you need the fight, desire, and work ethic to adjust”……I see a pretty clear statement from the manager that he thinks the player is just playing off his talent, and not working near hard enough to be a MLBer.

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  10. Antonio Bananas says:

    Is it possible that he was overrated? It seems to me that a lot of scouts find like-players and group them. Domonic is an athletic black player in the NL East. Domonc came up with Jason Heyward. I can see his stock being elevated by association. Especially when he is in a large market organization.

    I mean really, he only had about 130 upper level games before 2011. It’s very possible he’s just not as good as he though.

    No, I don’t have empirical evidence of guys being overrated by association. I would like to do a study but it’s finals week. Just a hunch based on what I’ve read since I started trying to follow prospects 5 years ago. So don’t crucify me.

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  11. R M says:

    I can’t believe this article doesn’t mention his low BABIP last year. Other than that, he looked terrific–11% walk rate, 17% K rate, .147 ISO…what more could you want out of a supposedly raw rookie? I honestly think he would produce if they just promoted him. The Phillies organization has already shown that it doesn’t matter how well he hits in AAA–they’re still not going to give him the opportunity. They’ve screwed up, and they need to trade him ASAP.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      to the Cubs for Bryan Lahair if Howard sucks when he comes back?

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      Unless Theo and Co believe they can bring him to his high ceiling potential. He’s still young enough, still a great athlete. Plus the Cubs have a decent but not great stable of young players. Adding Brown to Jackson, Castro, and Rizzo would be pretty sweet for them.

      I wasn’t sure LaHair would bring Brown honestly. LaHair seems to be generally accepted as a guy playing out of his mind who is a solid player with a limited window. To me that fits the Phillies perfectly and Brown, at least if they still believe in him, fits the Cubs well.

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  12. jcxy says:

    curious…who was his ML comp while coming through the minos?

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  13. Jimmy Wahl says:

    Through 200 plate appearances, as a 23 year old rookie, his wOBA was marginally below average compared to all starting right fielders in the league. So yeah, it totally makes sense to demote him and retool his swing. While they were at it they should’ve had him change his batting stance and learn to swing from the other side of the plate while wearing an eye patch. Dom should form a support group with all the minor league pitchers the Orioles have ruined in recent years.

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  14. DC says:

    I definitely think it was his defense that was the reason he was sent down last year, and why he started in the minors this year. Quite a few commenters have mentioned how his big league numbers were acceptable at the plate (and I thought during last season he was fine offensively), but he was bad defensively last season. Small sample size, yes, but he was on pace to rate lower in fielding on FG than Ibanez last year. That’s definitely saying something. The Phillies definitely should have stabilized him in AAA or the majors the past couple seasons, but if he can focus on improving his defense maybe he can find his way back to the bigs. Or he’ll get traded. Or he’ll never pan out. Who knows?

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  15. Joebrady says:

    1-Probably over-hyped.
    2-His K/W, even in the minors before this year, wasn’t elite.
    3-Some split issues.
    4-Coming full circle from item 1, he’s probably gone from over-hyped to under-appreciated.

    As a RS fan, it seems that every prospect is over-hyped. Then once they prove that they aren’t Pedroia or Ellsbury, they become bums. Brown had a .725, and more importantly, a 35/25 K/W. These guys don’t develop at an identical pace. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to drop a guy to the bottom of the lineup and wait fr them to develop. I’d still take a shot at him if he were available in a trade.

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  16. JimR says:

    Ive been wondering on other thoughts on Dom since I recently read of his struggles with hammy issues, so thanks for the article.

    As far as fantasy purposes, is he even still worth a hold in a deep dynasty roto league?
    I don’t have any needs for his roster spot but with injuries piling I could use depth for spot starts. I’ve been holding onto him for 2 years & would hate to drop him only to have him come up or be traded and turn it around.

    Let’s say someone like Jerry Sands who is just called up, does Dom have more value than Sands?

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  17. Michael the Magic says:

    Brown for MIddlebrooks, who hangs up first?

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    • Joebrady says:

      As a RS fan, I wouldn’t hang up. The first concern was whether or not Brown was a legit RF. We have CC in LF for the next 15 years, so Brown plays RF or not at all.

      I know that Brooksie is the newest flavor of the month, but I can’t bring myself to believe that he can be successful with his K/W ratios. Add to that the fact that we have two other 3B prospects, and I’d have to listen.

      I’d also listen if you asked for Youk and we picked up half his salary in exchange for Brown. Dont’ knw what we’ll do with another lefty OF, but why worry about that now.

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  18. bliss says:

    Given the aging (and injured) Phillie Infield, how about Seattle’s Kyle Seager (on pace for a 5 WAR season and under team control through 2017) for Domonic Brown?

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  19. Chris says:

    Some advice in a keeper league please. I have dom brown sitting on my bench, in a 20 team h2h keeper league. Do you guy’s think hes worth the stash? Or SHould i try and trade him or cut him lose?

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  20. Big dog says:

    Am I the only person in the world who thinks Dom Brown absolutely stinks? Please someone else help me…he fucking sucks! Wow that feels good…he still sucks!

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  21. Jeff says:

    what about dom brown now

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