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.”
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).