PHILADELPHIA — This may come as a surprise if you’ve watched him play lately, but Domonic Brown — Phillies outfielder and current team leader in home runs with 13 — was having trouble hitting a single ball out of the park during batting practice Thursday afternoon before a game against the Red Sox.
Make no mistake: The ball was carrying in the late-day heat, teammates were reaching the small pockets of early gatherers at Citizens Bank Park with regularity. But Brown, who certainly looked like he was replicating that leaner lefty stroke that had the Phillies hoping their seemingly eternal prospect, now 25, had figured out how to regularly punish major league pitching, kept coming up short.
There are plenty of theories as to why the young outfielder, who wasn’t even a slugger by trade in the minor leagues (58 home runs in 2,274 plate appearances, and a season high of 20) now has 13 home runs in 202 major league plate appearances in 2013.
Probably the most convincing answer is his rate of home runs on fly balls. Heading into Thursday, Brown was producing a fly ball on 32.7 percent of his balls in play, right around his career rate. But 26 percent of his fly balls end up over the wall, which is roughly double his career rate, and fifth in all of baseball. Chances are most of these rates are outliers: Only Adam Dunn topped 26 percent last season.
So it was surprising to see Brown driving the ball in batting practice, prior to the final game of a series in which he’d already hit four home runs, and consistently hit the warning track.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel explains Brown’s surge differently.
“He’s been doing good, he’s been getting good balls to hit, and that’s the whole logic of the game,” Manuel, his white hair running off in every direction, said while he sat in the home dugout, surrounded by reporters.
What is interesting about Brown’s power surge is that it hasn’t corresponded with another way to evaluate if he’s better at recognizing pitches: walks. Brown’s walk rate of 4.5 percent of his plate appearances is 19th worst among qualifiers so far this season. And that’s actually down significantly from his 2012 rate of 9.9 percent, and his career rate of 8.7 percent.
Or here, simpler, season totals: 13 home runs. Nine walks.
Manuel didn’t want to talk to Brown, let alone convince him to try and alter his approach if teams begin responding to Brown’s hot streak by throwing him a procession of balls in the dirt, especially, as Manuel insisted, because Brown is being selective.
“Well, if he stays patient, he’ll be all right,” Manuel said. Then, as if giving the talk he insisted he wouldn’t give to Brown: “Don’t overthink. One of the worst things you can do is overthink. Once you start overthinking, when you start thinking, [you're] too good a hitter, they won’t throw me fastballs, you’ll be standing there and take.”
The reporters covering Brown see a player with a better idea of what he’s doing, though. One mentioned to me that Brown’s postgame interviews had a degree of detail about what each pitcher threw him that dwarfed his at-bat analysis from last season. That doesn’t necessarily conflict with Manuel’s point, since Brown could simply be approaching at-bats naturally, but more capably describe what he’s done when it’s over.
Manuel doesn’t think this version of Brown is going anywhere, even though until recently, he hasn’t hesitated to express his frustration with Brown.
“I think he can be better,” Manuel expressed animatedly. “I’ve always said he had a chance to be a good hitter. Didn’t I say that?” he asked, gesturing at a Phillies beat reporter, who nodded. “From Day One. I see talent in him. He’s got good talent. He’s got a chance to be a high-average hitter, a .300 hitter, and also hit homers.”
Another round of fly balls in batting practice. Some line drives, one that caromed off the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field. A ballboy caught one at the 374 mark in the left field power alley.
Earlier, Brown had slipped into the clubhouse to grab some equipment, clearly not intending to stay. A television reporter asked for a minute of his time, but Brown demurred politely. I asked him if he had any time pregame, but Brown hesitantly replied, “I kind of have my routine, we’re close to stretch …”
Jimmy Rollins, running past him, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “It’s okay to say no, Dom.” Rollins, of all people, knows a hot streak.
Brown apologized again, and went out to do exactly what he’d done Monday, when he’d homered, Tuesday, when he’d homered, and Wednesday, when he’d homered twice.
The television reporter said to me, “That’s OK. I didn’t really want to bother him right now, the way he’s going.”
Brown’s last batting practice shot of the day easily cleared the 401 mark in center field, disappearing into the shrubs. Brown nodded once, picked up his bat, and headed back toward the tunnel.