A Conversation With Houston Astros Pitching Prospect Hunter Brown

Hunter Brown has helium. Under the radar until recently, the 22-year-old right-hander raised eyebrows during Fall Instructional League, and he continued to do so this spring with the Astros. A power arsenal is the reason why. Houston’s No. 3 prospect according to MLB Pipeline (our own rankings are forthcoming; he was ninth on last year’s list), Brown features a four-pitch mix that includes an explosive mid-90s heater and a hammer curveball.

His background befits the low profile he brought with him to pro ball. A Detroit native, Brown played collegiately at Division II Wayne State University, and he lasted until the penultimate pick of the fifth round of the 2019 draft. That he didn’t hear his name called earlier is yet another part of his underdog story.

Brown — currently at Houston’s alternate site awaiting the start of the minor-league campaign — addressed the path he’s taken, and the plus pitches that promise to take him to the top, shortly before the Astros broke camp to start the major-league season.

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Laurila: You played at Wayne State. How did that come to be?

Hunter Brown: “I had the opportunity to do a little bit of catching, and hopefully pitch, at Eastern Michigan as well. But I was told by coach Ryan Kelley, over at Wayne State, that I’d be able to come in and play as a freshman. I knew I wasn’t going to get that opportunity at Eastern Michigan — I’d probably be catching bullpens and redshirting my freshman year — and I kind of wanted to go somewhere and play right away. I also probably would have gone to Wayne State for academics if I wasn’t going to end up playing college baseball, so it all worked out. I really liked downtown Detroit, so it was a great fit for me.”

Laurila: When did you start realizing you had a legitimate shot to play pro ball?

Brown: “Well, I wanted to play pro ball from as young as I can remember, but probably my sophomore-year summer when I was with the Bethesda Big Train in the Cal Ripken Summer League. That’s when I started really believing, because I played with some guys from the SEC, and power-five schools, and had a pretty good summer. That’s where I thought I made that jump and would be able to play pro ball someday.”

Laurila: What clicked for you?

Brown: “Some of it was my body — I got a little stronger — but it was also being around more of those D-I guys. It was probably the best mashup of talent up to that point in my career — the most talented guys — so I was learning a lot from guys on the team. We had a good coaching staff there, as well. Sal Colangelo, and coach [Bill] Sizemore was the pitching coach… those guys have been around the game for a long time.”

Laurila: What was your draft experience like? You went in the fifth round, but probably should have gone earlier than that.

Brown: “I don’t know that I was really expecting to go at any time in particular. I’d heard some possibilities: early Day Two, or just Day Two at all. I was excited about that.”

Laurila: Did you have anything fall through prior to being taken by the Astros?

Brown: “I found out later that I did. But on the day of, I wasn’t thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ I didn’t feel I was sliding, or anything like that.”

Laurila: What did you come to find out?

Brown: “I think I had a deal with the Reds not go through. Then I heard something about… I don’t know if it was the Orioles or the Phillies, but somebody in the fourth round. The only thing I really heard on draft day from my agent at the time was that I was going to sign with the Giants in the sixth round, so I didn’t even expect to get picked by the Astros. I was sitting in my living room, with my dad and a couple other family members, and I ended up on the TV as the Astros pick. I wasn’t even aware of that.”

Laurila: Your agent was handling everything, taking calls from teams and telling them what you’d sign for…

Brown: “That’s correct. But once I got drafted by the Astros and knew I was signing, it didn’t really matter. I didn’t look into it too much, I just heard a couple things from scouts, or other agents… just stuff through the grapevine. It was pretty much out of my control at that point, I just knew I was signing with the Astros and that I was looking forward to the opportunity.”

Laurila: As a young pitcher, there aren’t many organizations better to sign with than the Astros.

Brown: “Yeah, I was really happy to be picked by Astros, knowing how good they are with pitchers. I wouldn’t say that I was hoping to get picked by any team, but I did know about how the Astros are with pitchers… particularly high-velo, right-handed pitchers.”

Laurila: Where was your velocity compared to what it is now?

Brown: “It’s pretty much the same. I was throwing a two-seam in college, so I know that a couple of reports would be like, ‘He was 92-96 [mph], topping out at 98.’ It was the two-seams that were 92-93. Now I would say I’m pretty much 94-96, and still touching 98 or 99 here and there. That’s with a four-seamer.”

Laurila: What have you learned about your four-seamer since signing?

Brown: “What I learned is that I didn’t have a good one in college. I was throwing it without great spin efficiency. At Wayne State, we didn’t have all the access to Trackman, and stuff like that. We actually got a Rapsodo right before the season started, but we were more so using it as a radar gun, although we would see location as well. So I didn’t really get into that. Once I got here, I was throwing a very-inefficiently-spun fastball, so we cleaned that up. I’ve got a lot better four-seamer since joining the org.”

Laurila: Do you know what your spin efficiency is?

Brown: “I’m right around 100% spin efficiency. I couldn’t tell you the spin rate, though. I don’t really look at spin rates that much, to be honest with you. It’s more about the shape, and I do get pretty good hop.”

Laurila: The pitch I mostly want to talk to you about is your plus curveball. What is the story behind it?

Brown: “I had a curveball coming out of high school. It was a traditional grip back then, and it wasn’t a good pitch at all. When I got to college, they switched that over to a slider, because it was a little bit firmer. Then, once I got with the Astros, they asked me if I’d thrown a curveball in the past. I said, ‘Yeah,’ and they said, ‘Show us.’ So I threw one, and they asked if I could throw another. I did, and they were like, ‘All right, that’s probably your best pitch, Hunter, and we didn’t even know you had that.’ It’s a low 80s curveball. I’ve got big depth to it. There’s not much sweep — it’s a pretty traditional 12-6 — and my extension is above average, which helps me get it out a little further.”

Laurila: What is the grip now?

Brown: “I have a spiked curve grip, so a knuckle curve, a spiked curve, whatever people call it nowadays. I’m in the back of the horseshoe, spiking the index finger, and then it’s just a grip-and-rip kind of thing.”

Laurila: Is it always the same curveball, or do you vary it in any way?

Brown: “I try to throw the same one all the time. I mean, you might try to land one that’s a little bit slower, but for the most part, the break and velo is the same.”

Laurila: Are you still throwing a slider?

Brown: “I am. I still use it quite a bit. I think I threw one 89 [mph] in camp, although I’m usually 86-87 with it. But while my slider is still a good pitch, I’d say that my curveball has overtaken it as a strikeout pitch for me.”

Laurila: What can you tell me about your changeup?

Brown: “I guess you’d call it a split-change, because of the grip. It’s not a traditional circle-change. And while I couldn’t tell you the spin rate on my other pitches, I do know that I have a really low-spinning change; it’s anywhere between 1,100 and 1,300 rpm.

“I started throwing it probably my junior year of college. I was kind of messing around with grips, because… I was always like a fastball/slider guy, and I knew that getting drafted, having a changeup would be crucial for me. My traditional circle change wasn’t that great — I wasn’t getting much action on it — so I went to a splitter. I wasn’t very consistent with that, so I just kind of took the splitter grip and tightened my fingers up a little bit — my index and middle finger — and then just kind of slapped my ring finger up there on the ball. So it’s kind of a funkily-gripped pitch. It’s like a sideways splitter with a third finger on there.”

Laurila: What is the velocity on it?

Brown: “I throw it pretty hard. It’s mostly 86-88, but I’ve seen it go up to 90, so I guess it’s more of a power changeup. But really, it’s my fourth pitch. I kind of keep it in my back pocket and use it just enough that the hitters have to respect it. I mostly rely on my two breaking balls and my fastball.”

Laurila: Have you heard yourself compared to anyone?

Brown: “I’ve heard that my delivery resembles Justin Verlander’s. I’ve read — and this might have even been on FanGraphs — that I have similar stuff to Walker Buehler’s. I obviously love both of those comparisons — they’re very good pitchers — but I wouldn’t comp myself to either of them. They’re in a class of their own. I’m just trying to be the best best version of me that I can be.”

Laurila: Verlander was obviously in Detroit before going to Houston. Did you grow up a Tigers fan?

Brown: “I did, and I grew up a Verlander fan. I got a chance to tell him that on the phone a few weeks ago. I mean, I tried to do my whole windup like Justin Verlander, and I really haven’t shied away from that. He’s still somebody I look at and try to mimic.”

Laurila: How did you end up on the phone with him?

Brown:Dusty Baker gave me his number, and I just called him. He’s obviously isn’t in camp because he’s rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and one day Dusty called me into his office and gave me his phone number. He said, ‘Hey, you should call him.’ So I did. I told Justin, ‘Hey, you’ve got to forgive me, but you were kind of my idol growing up.’ It was a pretty surreal phone call, and also quite a gesture from Dusty to do that for me. It was awesome.”

Laurila: Was Verlander expecting you to call?

Brown: “I don’t know. I didn’t really ask him. But once I introduced myself, he said he was familiar with me. We kind of just chopped it up from there.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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cnewty
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cnewty

Pretty cool. Seems like a great kid. Interesting that he (and other Astros) pay less attention to spin rate and instead focus on shape.