February 14, 2013
When I was a junior in high school, I took a job working concessions for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. If my parents asked, it was a just a half-hour trip from my home in northwest New Jersey to Coca Cola Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but a GPS would tell you that, with traffic, the trip would take just over an hour. I didn’t take the job for the money; when all was said and done, I probably spent the entirety of my earnings on gas, speeding tickets, and McChickens. I took the job because I liked the feeling of going to the ballpark every day.
I was a vendor, tasked with selling soda and candy, and persuading fans to spend their money as I walked up and down the aisles, shouting all sorts of nonsense. During my first summer with the Iron Pigs, a prospect arrived, fresh off a strong start at Double-A Reading. I hadn’t looked at the game through a scouting lens, but I could tell that this kid was special. In his short time with the Iron Pigs, I had seen him do it all; he scored game-winning runs, he sprayed the ball all over the field, he hit home runs, he stole bases, he rocketed-out runners attempting to tag from third base. He was chiseled and tall. If anyone was born to play baseball, surely it was this 22-year-old: Domonic Brown.
That was almost three years ago, and Domonic Brown has not yet become a superstar. Instead, he owns a career .236/.315/.388 triple-slash line over 492 major-league plate appearances. I haven’t done the math, but I expect that those numbers are significantly better than those of your average 20th-round draft pick. Brown was once a raw, toolsy outfielder, headed to the University of Miami to become a wide receiver. A significantly-overslot, $200,000 bonus convinced him to leave the gridiron and focus on baseball.
At first, the key for Brown was gaining experience. In 2007, he had a strong year with Short-Season Williamsport, and he followed that up with a solid effort for Low-A Lakewood. The numbers weren’t dreamy, but the tools were. In 2009, his stock really started to rise, as his power started to play in games; despite playing in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, he hit .303 and mashed 11 homers in 66 contests, and he didn’t slow down after a promotion to Double-A. By that point, Brown was a consensus top-50 prospect.
Then came 2010, the year that 17-year-old Hudson salivated over Brown, and, unfortunately for Phillies fans, perhaps the year that will define Brown’s career.
Then just 22, Brown exploded in Double-A. Over 271 plate appearances, he posted a .318/.391/.602 triple-slash line, showing off his power (15 home runs, 15 doubles) and speed (12 stolen bases). Philadelphia promoted him to Triple-A, and his numbers were even better. Over 118 plate appearances, he posted a .346/.390/.561 triple-slash line, which quickly earned him a trip to the majors.
Scouts’ opinions were just as impressive as the numbers. “You know, two years ago, when I saw him in Double-A, before they called him [up] to the big leagues that year, I mean, I would have said, ‘Gosh this guy might be Darryl Strawberry’,” one seasoned evaluator said.
The Phillies brought Brown to the big leagues in July of 2010, after Shane Victorino was placed on the disabled list. In his debut, Brown went 2-for-3 with two RBI. (He even had the RBI skill!) Over the next couple of weeks, the youngster struggled, and while he remained with the Phillies even after Victorino’s return, he earned just four starts over the rest of the season. Given the lack of playing time, Philadelphia likely thought that Brown would benefit just from being around a team in the midst of a pennant race.
Prior to the 2011 season, Brown had surgery on his right wrist during spring training. He didn’t debut for the Phillies until May, and after he opened his season with a very strong, two-week stretch, opposing pitchers adjusted to him. His average plummeted, and he was batting just .214 at the end of June. Brown responded with an excellent July, posting a .296/.398/.366 triple-slash line over 83 plate appearances, before the Phillies bumped him out of the lineup with a trade for Hunter Pence. That was it for Brown’s season in the major leagues, except for a brief sip of September coffee.
During spring training last year, one scout was bothered by the way Brown presented himself on the field. “He doesn’t play hard, he doesn’t run balls out hard, and, you know, that just infuriates me as a scout,” the scout said of his Grapefruit League effort. Brown got back to the big leagues when the Phillies traded Pence to the Giants in July, but the results were uninspiring.
There have been flashes in the pan, but Brown hasn’t been able to keep the ball rolling. Here’s what another scout had to say: “He does have a quick stroke. He has hand eye coordination, there’s life off of the barrel, plus raw power. Right now, he’s a high-risk player, but I have him as an every day guy. … But that’s not a very convicted ‘I think he’s gonna be an every day guy.’”
The scout continued: “If he isn’t given a chance—I really thought that Philadelphia had given up on him last year—if he isn’t given a chance to be the guy they really have given up on him.”
Pitchers attacked Brown inside last season, and he failed in his small sample, making 2013 a crossroads for him. Philadelphia brought in Ben Revere and Delmon Young this offseason, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the club give Darin “Double-A-By-26” Ruf a chance to prove that he isn’t a prospect. If Brown fails out of the gate, then the Phillies could conclude that he’s nothing more than a fourth outfielder.
This summer, I’ll return to Lehigh Valley. I won’t be trying to force hot dogs down anyone’s throat, or convincing anyone that Michelob Ultra is a brew they need to try. Instead, I’ll be behind home plate, sitting among charting pitchers and a handful of scouts. If I see Domonic Brown there, his days as a Phillie could be numbered.