Of Mice and Men: Domonic Brown’s fall from grace
I have to accept the fact that I’m going to be wrong quite a bit in this business. The world of prospecting has a higher rate of failure than any profession this side of meteorology, and learning to deal with my own misevaluations, as well as the vitriol generated therefrom, is a process I’m becoming more familiar with as both the kids I scout and I age. I’m not alone.
Go crack open any Baseball America Prospect Handbook from the past half-decade and see just how wrong everyone (the pundits and the scouts, which they use as a supplement to their own opinions) is all the time. The 2008 BA Handbook has names like Joba Chamberlain, Travis Snider, Franklin Morales and Brandon Wood scattered about the entire sport’s top-15 prospects. From elite to extinct, such is the fate of far too many talented young ballplayers. Prospects fail all the time. I’ve known this since I started pursuing the art of scouting while I was in college, and for the most part, I’ve made peace with it. So, why do I feel nauseous when I even entertain the idea that it might be happening to Domonic Brown? Because he might not just become a mistake, he might become my mistake.
If any outsider should know what has gone wrong with Brown, it should be me. I was there, after all, for most of the roller-coaster ride that has been Brownie’s career during the past few years. A lowly intern/usher for the Phillies triple-A affiliate during my college summers, I was the guy who would show up early on work days to watch BP, bug the scouts sitting there in their awful polo shirts and scribble in my notebook during games as I fumbled with my stopwatch, which I constantly dropped. I was a terrible employee, but I was becoming a damn fine scout.
I’ll never forget the humid afternoon Brown came up from double-A and proceeded to litter the parking lot beyond the Philly Pretzel stand in right field with batting practice missiles. It didn’t take long to see that everything was there. Above-average speed, an above-average arm, advanced approach and pitch recognition for his age, average present power with projection left in the body and dreams of above-average defense in an outfield corner as he grew into his lanky, 6’-5” frame and became more coordinated. Gracing magazine covers and webpage headlines, Brown was on top of the prospect world.
Between then and now, something has gone horribly awry. Brown hasn’t homered since August 2 last year. His swing, especially the lower half, is a mess. He’s constantly late on good velocity. His misadventures in the outfield are excruciatingly awkward, and not the sort of “Hunter Pence/Larry David, I’m weird but I don’t give a shit and I make it work” awkward, but more of a “Michael Cera, self aware, it’s so bad I need to divert my eyes” awkward. He sports a sub-.300 OBP to this point and has just three steals at a paltry 50 percent success rate. People, possibly including the Phillies front office, are giving up.
The causes of this tragic collapse are difficult to nail down. Scouts are perplexed. I asked Baseball Prospectus writer, Kevin Goldstein, to comment on Brown:
“I’m confused, too … everyone is.”
The response’s simplicity juxtaposes how complicated the problems probably are. I have my theories, of course. In my opinion, this shit sandwich was spawned from some combination of the tinkering Phillies instructors did with Brown’s swing upon his first arrival to the majors, the long-lasting effects of the broken hamate bone Brown suffered last year, the constant jerking back and forth between the majors and minors he has endured and whatever psychological trauma has eradicated his confidence as a result of all that stuff I just mentioned. It’s a developmental cocktail mixed to induce failure, and Brownie has had to drink it.
The worst part is all this is happening at a time when the Phillies big league roster has begun to crumple into a mediocre, geriatric heap. It’d be nice to have an infusion of offense and youth into the lineup, but without performing well in the Lehigh Valley, there’s little justification to promote Brown and anoint him the savior.
While I’m discouraged, there’s too much talent there to lose all hope, and I’ll be monitoring Brown carefully (I watch every single one of his at bats on MiLB.TV every day) waiting to drink from the cup that still runneth over with ability. For now, while he tries to work things out, he’ll be booed on a regular basis by ignorant old men who know nothing beyond the fact that Brown was a top prospect who isn’t panning out. It can’t be easy and it can’t be fun.
As much as I’d like to give Domonic Brown an elixir to solve his baseball problems, I’d like to give him a manly hug and tell him that some of us realize this mostly isn’t his fault and that we’re not giving up on him. After the vigor and conviction with which I once touted Brown’s future stardom, I might need one, too.