A Conversation With Philadelphia Phillies Prospect Blake Brown

Blake Brown had an uninspiring transcript when he signed as a non-drafted free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2020. In four collegiate seasons at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, the 23-year-old right-hander had logged a 4.99 ERA and been credited with just six wins and eight saves. He had a psychology degree in his back pocket, but outside of a promising fastball, little in the way of baseball bona fides.

Based on his first professional season, the Phillies may have secured a diamond-in-the-rough. In 34 relief outings — 33 with High-A Jersey City and one with Double-A Reading — Brown fanned 59 batters and allowed just 22 hits over 41 innings of work. Walks were an issue — he issued 36 free passes — but his ERA was a laudable 3.07, and his batting-average-against a Lilliputian .155.

Brown — No. 31 on our newly-released Phillies Top Prospects list — discussed his draft experience and his emergence as an up-and-coming arm in a recent phone interview.


David Laurila: You were a non-drafted senior sign. What were your draft expectations, both in your junior and senior years?

Blake Brown: “My junior year, I thought there was a decent chance that I’d get drafted, but they weren’t especially high expectations. I didn’t have the greatest year. But my senior year, going into the five-round draft, I thought that I was… not guaranteed, but I was more certain that I would at least get a call. And I did get a couple of calls during the draft, with some money on the table. Things just never panned out.”

Laurila: Why didn’t things pan out?

Brown: “So, a couple of the teams called and said, ‘Hey, would you take X amount of money in the next round?’ Before the draft, it was ‘Would you take X amount of money if we were drafting you today?’ I would say ‘yes.’ But when that round came and the team’s name popped up, it was never my name getting called. I think it was a matter of teams having someone on their board that they didn’t expect to be there, and they were like, ‘OK, we’ve got to hop on that.’”

Laurila: Where did the Phillies fit into the equation?

Brown: “They were actually one of the teams that gave me a call. I believe it was in the third round. They offered some money for the fourth and fifth round, solely because some of the other guys were asking for more than was allotted. They didn’t have the money available, but ended up being able to swing some things and get both of the other guys that they wanted in the fourth (Carson Ragsdale) and fifth (Baron Radcliff) rounds.”

Laurila: There was a short interval between the draft and teams being allowed to reach out to non-drafted players. During that period, did you have a pretty good idea of where you’d end up?

Brown: “I did not. My agent and I talked a good bit between the draft ending and a Monday morning 9 AM phone call that I was expecting from one of the teams. But I didn’t exactly know what to expect. I didn’t know how many teams were going to call. I did have a couple of ideas of teams that I wanted to sign with — the Phillies were one of them — but other than that, I went into Monday blind.

“It’s when the phone started to blow up that I realized, ‘OK, I’m actually going to have to make a decision; it’s not going to be just one or two teams making an offer, and then me going to whichever gives me the most money.”

Laurila: What else went into your decision?

Brown: “A lot of it had to do with the way they go about development. It also had to do with how fast I think that I can move through the minor league system in an organization. For example, with the Tampa Bay Rays it would probably be a little bit harder to just run through the system and get to the big leagues, versus signing with a team that had a system that was in, say, the bottom 10. That wasn’t a sole predictor, but it was one of the things I looked at.

“With the Phillies, I also knew a couple of people in the organization, and I knew the direction the organization is trying to go in. I thought that was probably the best fit for me. They were moving towards a very analytical baseball mindset, maybe went a little too far, and now have kind of come back to the middle. With Preston Mattingly being hired as the new farm director, I think we’re in a really good spot right now.”

Laurila: When do you feel you began turning a corner developmentally? Was it after you signed, or was it during your senior season at UNC-Asheville?

Brown: “It was during and after the shortened senior season. My third and fourth starts were much better than my first and second, and then once the season ended, I took some time to figure out what I could do to set myself up to be in the best position when draft time came around.

“I developed into being able to throw the ball a lot harder. My senior season, I was 92-94 [mph], touching a seven or an eight. Over the course of that COVID hiatus — in between the season and the draft — I figured out how to change a few things. I tweaked some stuff in my mechanics, and my fastball bumped up to 96-99. The off-speed took a tick up, as well.”

Laurila: What did you change mechanically that led to the velocity bump?

Brown: “It was really pretty simple. I would land very forward over my front leg, with my torso tilted towards home plate, so I really wasn’t giving my arm enough time to get up. We were in the middle of a bullpen and the guy I was working with said, ‘Hey, what do you think will happen if you stride leaning back, and hold it back a little longer?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, let’s try it.’ I did, and the first pitch was 97. This was sometime between late March and mid April in 2020, and the rest is history.”

Laurila: Is you fastball a two-seamer or a four?

Brown: “I’m a four-seam ride guy. My spin efficiency has always been pretty high. We had a Rapsodo at the time, so it was a little harder to track spin efficiency than it would be with a TrackMan, which is more accurate when it comes to movement profiles. But going through my college career, and throwing on a Rapsodo, Yakkertech, or whatever there was for me to throw on, my spin efficiency has always been high; it’s always been in the upper 90s.

“Getting the tilt actually kind of hurt my spin efficiency a little. I started cutting the ball a tad bit, but it wasn’t enough to really affect lift. I’m still getting 18 to 21 inches of vertical break on it.”

Laurila: What are your secondary pitches?

Brown: “I throw a slider and a curveball. I’ve never really been a big changeup guy, because I’ve been over the top and it’s hard for me to get protonated, and get that thing turned over to where it will take off down. The slider is probably my go-to for a strikeout pitch. I use the curveball mostly as a get-me-over, mostly against lefties, because the slider has a lot of horizontal.”

Laurila: You struck out better than 13 batters per nine innings this year, but you also walked a lot of guys. Why?

Brown: “Getting swings-and-misses is one of my main focuses. But I think that going into season, I was stuck in that training mindset, almost. I hadn’t pitched in a game in almost a year, and had kind of forgotten what it was like to actually compete. It took me a little while to figure that out, and once I did, the walks kind of dwindled down a little bit.

“My offseason initiative isn’t necessarily to make my command better; it’s to be in the zone more often. It’s not that I have a command issue, it’s just that I sometimes tend to get away from what I’m supposed to be doing on the mound. I need to be attacking hitters. That’s when I’m at my best.”

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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