Brown just can't lay off bad pitches

Posted: May 30, 2014

Out of a torrid three-week stretch last year, out of an All-Star Game appearance and a 27-home run season, Domonic Brown had promised to develop into the rarest kind of Phillies player during the Ruben Amaro Jr. era: a bona fide, homegrown star.

Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz - those lineup mainstays have been around so long, have been asked to do so much. The Phillies had pinned their hopes on Ryne Sandberg's ability to coax one more superlative season out of those veterans, but Amaro's attempt as general manager to build a team that could still compete for a championship was never going to work without other, younger players replacing them as the foci of the franchise. Brown was their best chance for that - their only chance, really, all because of those 19 games from May 20 to June 8 last season, when he batted .397 with 12 home runs and an ungodly 1.429 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

A year later, even after their dramatic 6-3 victory Wednesday over the Colorado Rockies, the Phillies are 23-27 and tied for last place in the National League East. And over 50 games chocked with disappointments, none has been bigger than Brown.

Three home runs, a .203 batting average, an OPS (.564) that wouldn't be acceptable from a pitcher, let alone a player in a power position such as left field - his has become the deadest spot in the order.That glimpse of greatness he displayed in 2013 recedes deeper into memory with each fruitless, wasted at-bat.

"At times, I think he's been going out of the strike zone, and that's something I mentioned to him," Sandberg said before Wednesday's game. "Last year, when he was going so well, he seemed so relaxed at home plate that they had to throw the ball over the plate, or he wouldn't swing at it. He agreed that was something he needed to get back to."

Sandberg has a pretty sharp eye for the problems with Brown's approach. The biggest difference between the Brown of 2013 and the Brown of 2014, according to the scouting and statistical website Fangraphs.com, is that he's swinging at more bad pitches and, in turn, making poor contact on them.

The percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that Brown swings at has increased to 33.5 this season from 29.8 percent last season. And, more important, he's made contact with those pitches 67.8 percent of the time, a significant jump from 2013 (59.8 percent).

As a result, he's hitting fewer line drives: Of all his batted balls last season, 22.8 percent were line drives. This season, fewer than 16 percent are.

After drawing a four-pitch walk in his first plate appearance Wednesday, he came up twice with runners at first and second and two outs. He struck out in the third inning, unable to check his swing on a down-and-in curveball from the Rockies' Jordan Lyles, then buried himself in another two-strike count in the fifth inning before flicking his bat at an outside fastball, a weak ground ball to third for a force-out.

Sandberg, who kept Brown on the bench Tuesday, thought those at-bats were of such high quality that he promptly removed Brown from the game in the sixth, double-switching him for Tony Gwynn.

The move would seem an obvious wake-up call for Brown. Sandberg hasn't hidden his desire to take a good, long look at Darin Ruf, by platooning him at first base with Howard or by having him play more in left field. (In light of Howard's game-winning three-run homer Wednesday and his recent hot streak, that platoon might be on the back burner.)

Yet, Brown talked before Wednesday's game like someone who believed better days were just ahead for him, once he and his swing slip into the right groove, so, in his mind, there wasn't much reason for worry.

"If I'm playing every day and getting my number of at-bats, everything's going to be all right," said Brown, a 20th-round draft pick in 2006. "You're going to go through ups and downs. I just had a bad month. That's part of baseball, but it definitely makes you a better person and a better player. You definitely see who your real friends and real teammates are when you're going through tough times.

"It's still been fun. I can't lie. I come to the ballpark every day, looking to see if my name's in that lineup, to get here and get a pitch to hit and drive it hard."

His words would have been reassuring if his self-confidence didn't stand in such stark contrast to his performance and production. He's still just 26, so it's not impossible that he could right himself, but the hour's getting late for him.

The Phillies were supposed to win now, and nobody - not Ruben Amaro Jr., not Ryne Sandberg - seems inclined to wait for Domonic Brown to develop into the star he was once supposed to be.


Brown: Hot and Cold

Domonic Brown through May 29 last season:

AB   BA   HR   RBI   OPS   

187    .262    13    32   .817

Through May 28 this season

AB   BA   HR   RBI   OPS

172   .203    3    22    .564

May 20 through June 8 last season:

AB   BA   HR   RBI   OPS

73   .397   12   27   1.429

April 27 through May 27 this season:

AB   BA   HR   RBI   OPS

 83   .133   2   12   .437   


msielski@phillynews.com

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MikeSielski

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