Wally Joyner Deserves Some Credit for Dom Brown’s Breakout Season

Wally Joyner Deserves Some Credit for Dom Brown’s Breakout Season

How can a team that employs two hitting coaches – three if you include Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel – also have the 27th-ranked offense in Major League Baseball? There are no simple answers to that question, but we can confirm at least one of the instructors is making his presence felt in the lineup this season.

All of a sudden Domonic Brown is exceeding some of our wildest expectations. With eight home runs over the last nine games, he’s rocketed into first place in the National League, while his 40 RBI and .574 slugging percentage are fifth and sixth respectively. Brown was named the NL Player of the Week for the second consecutive week on Monday, and it was nothing short of a foregone conclusion he would then be named Player of the Month as well.

While Brown’s recent power surge has captivated baseball audiences across the country, signs of his meteoric rise from eternal prospect to All-Star outfielder actually began toward the end of April, after his batting average dipped to a season-low .206. Dom responded with multi-hit games in three of the next four, bumping that figure right back to .241, and he never slowed down since, now up to .282.

But if we really want to trace this success story to its origins, we have to return to Clearwater. A slow start caused people forget about Brown’s white-hot spring, where he led all Phillies players in runs and hits, and tied for the clubhouse lead in home runs and RBI. Even then it was evident there was something different about Domonic Brown this time around.

The reason for his transformation, at least through the eyes of Brown, was obvious: Wally Joyner.

Joyner was hired back in October as the assistant hitting coach to Steve Henderson, only now it seems like the real reason he was brought to Philadelphia was specifically to mentor Brown. The two of them hit it off right away. Matt Gelb, the Phils beat for the Inquirer, got Joyner to recall their initial conversations for a story back in February.

"I came in early and we started talking," Joyner said. "I just asked him to try a couple of things and he locked it right in."

Around the same time, Brown admitted to Sam Donnellon of the Daily News that he found an immediate comfort level with Joyner when pressed for impressions of his new coach.

"There's a lot of chemistry between us," said the Phillies outfielder. "It's not just baseball, either. It's on the field, off the field. Just making sure that I'm free. Mentally."

Common bonds

In retrospect, the similarities between the two were impossible to ignore from the beginning. Joyner broke into the big leagues with the California Angels in 1986 at the age of 24 – Dom is 25. Both are lefties. Coincidentally, they even went to the same high school in Georgia. Now Brown is bursting on to the scene in a similar fashion to Joyner.

One difference is Joyner was an instant smash. He was voted to his only All-Star game in his first season, helped the Angels reach the ALCS, and finished as the runner-up to Jose Canseco in Rookie of the Year balloting. Until last season’s trade deadline Brown had been pinballing back and forth between Triple A and the show since 2010, setback by injuries, later blocked by the trade for Hunter Pence, and never quite proving he belonged at any point.

Yet that doesn’t mean Joyner doesn’t understand what his protégé was going through, being a young professional athlete in a major media market on whom huge expectations are bestowed. When Brown discusses being free mentally, it’s hard not to apply that to the way he’s conducted himself in interviews during the past couple weeks – calm, thoughtful, graceful.

From what he told Jim Salisbury at camp, dealing with so much attention must have felt like a burden to Dom in the past. Some of the weight seems to have been lifted from his shoulders, whether it has anything to do with Joyner, or that’s just the confidence that comes with knowing his name was going to be on the lineup card every day.

Past springs weren’t fun for Brown. He got off to an 0-for-15 start two years ago then broke his hand on a swing. Last year, he came to camp and ended up being sent back to Triple A for more development time.

Brown admits that he “probably” put pressure on himself in past camps.

“It’s a lot to handle with [the media] and everything,” he said. “It takes a while to get used to. I’ve been going through this a while.”

The long and winding road

Joyner would go on to belt 56 home runs over his first two seasons in the Majors, although his pop soon fizzled, and he would only ever crack the 20 mark once more. That is where the Phillies are hoping the comparisons end. Joyner settled into a perfectly respectable 16-year career in the Majors, but the belief within the organization has always been that Brown could be special.

That is where Joyner has done his best work: helping Brown to discover his swing. The Phillies had already tried to reinvent Brown’s cut in the spring of 2011 under the direction of former hitting coach Greg Gross, but it had been a disaster up until they were forced to abandon the plan after the injury. Gelb painted Joyner’s tweaks as being a bit more subtle.

The changes were to Brown's hands, specifically, how he gripped the bat. At times, Brown would wrap his hands and wrists around the bat.

"We straightened his hands out a little bit, allowing his wrists to cock," Joyner said. "He's a big boy. He looks great. We want to take advantage of that size and leverage. That's one of the assets that Ryan Howard has. And he uses it. He has a lot of leverage. He stays behind it."

Whatever mechanics are behind it, Charlie Manuel sees the same thing as the rest of us – a compact, almost effortless stroke. Per Salisbury back in February:

“He’s got good balance,” Manuel said. “He’s slowed things down at the plate. He’s keeping his balance and catching the ball out in front.”

The real reason behind Dom's ascension?

There is one final aspect about Brown’s newfound power game that suggests maybe it was there all along. That wrist injury, the same one that derailed Gross’ own attempts at reinventing Dom, the same one that made him unavailable until deep into May and more or less led Ruben Amaro Jr. to trade for Pence at the deadline, well it may have been sapping his strength as well.

ESPN.com’s Keith Law has been quoted in the past as saying a fractured hamate bone such as the one Brown sustained in ’11 could take as long as 12-18 months to fully heal. Obviously players are able to come back much sooner, as Brown was only out of action for roughly three months following the injury, but it could be to blame for his relatively diminished power over the last two seasons. Brown hit 20 HR in 93 games between Reading and Lehigh Valley in ’10 compared to 8 in 101 appearances with the IronPigs over the next two seasons.

Brown seems more partial to the idea that Wally Joyner is the most important variation. Who can argue?

“He showed me a little something then, boom, it clicked and I’ve been working hard every day.”

At the end of the day, all that matters is the light finally came on for Dom, and he is turning into the player Phillies fans were told he could be – in fact, for the last month or so he’s been even better than what a lot of us ever imagined. Maybe a young player with all of Brown’s natural gifts could have figured it out on his own eventually, but it would be remiss to overlook the job Joyner apparently has done here.

Now if only he could do something for a handful of these other guys.

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

It feels appropriate with the season coming to an end and the recent struggles of the Phillies' entire pitching staff to again point out how consistent Jerad Eickhoff has been in 2016.

Tuesday's rain delay likely cost him a shot at reaching 200 innings — he's sitting on 191⅓ with one start left — but his season has obviously been a success whether or not he reaches that mark. 

Some may argue Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies' MVP this season, but I'd go Eickhoff. Maybe that's just based on the inconsistencies of his rotation mates, but there's real value in a guy who gives you six quality innings each time out. Eickhoff this season was basically John Lackey — a reliable mid-rotation workhorse with solid but unspectacular numbers.

ESPN's longtime prospect analyst Keith Law mentioned Eickhoff this week in an Insider post looking at players he judged incorrectly. Eickhoff and Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks were the first two pitchers mentioned.

In his assessment of what went wrong with his initial evaluation of Eickhoff, Law wrote:

"I hadn't seen Eickhoff in the minors and, based on what I'd heard about him, had him as a back-end starter, saying he had the repertoire to start but giving him a limited, back-end ceiling. Eickhoff had a good curveball with Texas. But the Phillies' staff has encouraged him to throw it more often, and it's been a difference-making pitch for him. His curve accounted for 40 percent of his swings and misses in 2016, and it's one of the most effective curveballs in MLB right now; that pitch alone has made him more than just a back-end starter, and he has been the Phillies' most valuable starter this year. He is probably a league-average, No. 3 starter going forward with the arsenal he has — average fastball, plus curveball, inconsistent slider that flashes plus but on which he makes too many mistakes — and with 4-WAR potential, given his durability."

Eickhoff's curveball was what made a lot of us take notice late last season. He used it to shut down some good lineups in September, and he finished 2015 with back-to-back seven-inning, 10-strikeout games against the Nationals and Mets.

This season, he grew up. He incorporated the slider more and that led him out of an early-season funk. Early in the year, hitters were laying off his curveball and swinging at any fastball near the zone because it's a hittable pitch. Once he started showing another breaking ball, the game plan for the opposition became more complicated.

There was nothing fluky about Eickhoff's 2016 season. He'll enter the final day of the season 11-14 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. 

It's pretty startling to compare Eickhoff's numbers since joining the Phillies to Cole Hamels' with the Rangers. Have a look.

• Hamels with the Rangers (44 starts): 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

• Eickhoff with the Phillies (40 starts): 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.9 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

It's not an apples to apples comparison because Hamels has pitched about 40 more innings than Eickhoff in a tougher league and in a tougher ballpark. It doesn't mean that going forward they will be equals. It just means that over the last season and a half, their production has been close to equal.

Nobody would have expected a year ago that Eickhoff would be the best piece in that trade. But until Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams graduate to the majors in full-time roles and produce, Eickhoff will be the unexpected centerpiece of that blockbuster deal with the Rangers.

He's a walking example of solid scouting and even better player development by the Phillies.

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

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Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

CHESTER, Pa. — Union head coach Jim Curtin knows it may seem like a weird situation to some.

Early on Tuesday morning, as soccer fans around the area were just waking up, the Union issued a press release that stated that Tranquillo Barnetta would be leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season (see story)

There was no trade. No sale. No contract dispute. No off-the-field issues. 

It was simply a case of a player — a really good player — deciding before the end of the season that he wanted to say goodbye to MLS and finish his pro career with his hometown club in St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

“I think it’s unique maybe to the American public and fan bases that a guy announces it and there’s still [part of] a season left to play,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “I think it’s strange for everyone to hear it that way. But in Europe that’s kind of the norm. To get out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is. He addressed the team and didn’t want it to be a situation where something leaked out. He’s a true pro. I’m honored to have coached him and I want to prolong it as long as I possibly can.”

In other American leagues, of course, a talented but aging player with Barnetta’s pedigree might drum up a bidding war to try to get one more good contract in free agency before he retires, perhaps using a strong playoff performance to do so. But, as Curtin alluded to, global soccer is a whole different animal. And Barnetta never planned to use his 2016 performance as a launching pad to a new deal with Philly or something bigger on a different MLS team.

His plan all along was to retire for the hometown club he cheered for as a kid — and he made sure he’d have the freedom to do so when he signed with the Union last summer.

“We offered several years but he was very content and adamant about taking an 18-month deal,” Curtin said. “A lot of people say they’re not about the money but Tranquillo truly means when he says it. He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day.”

If there’s any knock against Barnetta, it’s that he essentially treated MLS as a short-term project, a way to try something new after an illustrious career in Switzerland and Germany, to live in a different part of the world and see different cities throughout the United States.

But make no mistake, he earned that right and he never tried to hire his future ambitions. And even if his tenure with the Union will be a short one, it’s been very beneficial for both sides.

Barnetta, for instance, learned about the grueling travel demands in MLS and the more physical nature of the league compared to ones in Europe, all while showing the sublime skill that made him a three-time World Cup veteran for Switzerland.

And the Union leaned on his talent and leadership at the end of their disappointing 2015 season and throughout the entire 2016 campaign with Curtin calling him “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

“He’s a great example for our young guys,” the Union coach added. “He’s got a close relationship with a lot of the veteran guys. And he’s just a pleasure to have in the locker room. He comes to work with a smile on his face but when it’s time to work, he’s the hardest worker there is. A true professional. And the pedigree is the highest we’ve ever had in this club.”

You can make the case that acquiring players with great pedigrees hasn’t always worked to the Union’s benefit (see: Mbolhi, Rais), but it’s hard to find any fault in the Barnetta deal, especially when you consider Philadelphia got him at a discount and that Curtin and technical director Chris Albright orchestrated the signing at a time when the franchise was in a state of flux and sporting director Earnie Stewart had yet to join the fold. 

For someone that’s played in three World Cups, the Champions League and one of the top leagues in Europe, Barnetta may not be the biggest name out there. But getting him when they did was still something of a coup for Philadelphia. And the benefits will likely be reaped for a long time to come as the Union followed last year’s Barnetta signing with a couple of big moves in the offseason and this summer’s long-term acquisition of U.S. national team starter Alejandro Bedoya — the combination of which has them thinking about the playoffs and a whole lot more even as Barnetta’s departure looms.

“It’s something we want to celebrate rather than pity and feel bad,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for the time we’ve had him here. And now we’re gonna make it last as long as we possibly can. The rest of the games out, in the pregame talk, we’ll say, ‘Let’s extend this thing as long as possible and use it as a rallying cry.’ You don’t want it to come to an end. And when it does come to an end, you want it to be a special moment.”

What kind of special moment?

“We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”