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.

2017 Eagles Cost Analysis, DT: What will it cost to re-sign Bennie Logan?

2017 Eagles Cost Analysis, DT: What will it cost to re-sign Bennie Logan?

Bennie Logan set new career highs for the Eagles in 2016 with 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, although clearly the bar was low in those particular categories. But while the four-year veteran maybe made a few more big plays than in years past, he was less active overall after making the switch from the nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme to a defensive tackle in a wide-nine, 4-3 alignment.

After racking up at least 55 tackles in his first full two seasons as a starter, Logan managed only 24 in his new role. And while he doubled his quarterback hits from three over 2014-15 to six, his tackles for loss were cut almost in half, from eight, then nine, to five.

Logan did miss three games with a hip injury, which who knows how that might've affected him over the final eight games. In the four contests prior to getting hurt, he already had 2.0 sacks, a forced fumble, three quarterback hits and three tackles for loss, so there was a marked difference in impact beforehand.

Regardless, that must make it difficult for the Eagles to evaluate his performance, which is kind of a problem, because Logan is due to become a free agent. How does the front office go about determining his value in this defense?

It's not an easy question, and the first thing you have to ask is who takes Logan's place in the starting lineup? In terms of an in-house replacement, the individual numbers don't indicate a huge drop-off with Beau Allen. Allen only recorded a 0.5 sack and failed to force a fumble in '16, but finished with five more tackles, the same number of tackles for loss and one less quarterback hit than Logan in 55 fewer snaps.

The Eagles would need to address depth at the position if they went with Allen, but that path wouldn't necessarily cost as much money as retaining Logan. A proven disruptor up the middle — especially in the right scheme — can command a lot on the open market.

Take a look at the contract fellow LSU product Michael Brockers got from the Rams back in September. Brockers received a three-year extension worth over $33 million with $18 million guaranteed. Granted, a lot of that is tied to a roster bonus he doesn't seem poised to be with the club to earn in 2017, but even just his salary for last season totalled nearly $7 million.

That was coming off a season in which Brockers posted 44 tackles, 3.0 sacks, zero forced fumbles, eight tackles for loss and six quarterback hits. Those are a step up from Logan's totals in '16, but not necessarily better than some of his previous campaigns.

Again, it's difficult to determine Logan's exact value, but to the right team, he could certainly be worth upwards of $5-6 million per year. Tough to say whether the Eagles would be willing to go there, especially given their tight cap situation.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES UNDER CONTRACT

Fletcher Cox
Age: 27*
Cap Number: $9,400,000

Cox probably didn't live up to the expectations that come with a contract worth $100 million — the second-highest total for his position — but he's still one of the most dominant interior linemen in the league. The five-year veteran better get used to the fact that he's going to face constant double-teams the next few years, because the Eagles don't have a pure pass-rush specialist on the edge who can take over games. With that in mind, 6.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hits probably aren't enough from Cox, although when he's at his best, he can carry the Eagles to victory. Just look at his first three games of the season, all wins: 11 tackles, two tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, four quarterback hits and a forced fumble. Either way, $63 million in guarantees says he isn't going anywhere for awhile.

Beau Allen
Age: 26*
Cap Number: $705,562

Allen proved to a perfectly serviceable rotational player in 2016, plus added another position to his resume. He can play fullback in a pinch, which is impressive in itself for a 327-pound man. Hard to say whether Allen is starter material. According to Pro Football Focus, Logan still charted better against the run among qualifying interior linemen — although Allen was above average — but the Wisconsin product was the more productive of the two when it came to rushing the passer. If the goal here is primarily to save money, the Eagles should be able to get away with Allen and a cheaper veteran or early draft pick aside of Cox, who makes sure everybody else across the line is getting one-on-one treatment anyway.

Taylor Hart
Age: 26*
Cap Number: $690,000

Not going to lie, I was a little surprised to see Hart is still on the roster. Depth issues led to the Eagles bringing him back, although he never suited up. The former fifth-round draft pick has now been active for a grand total of 15 games in three seasons. Scouting reports suggested Hart would be better off in a 3-4 alignment, but even that is suspect at this point.

Destiny Vaeao
Age: 23*
Cap Number: $540,000

An undrafted rookie out of Washington State, Vaeao had his moments. His strip-sack against the Bears in Week 2 was a big play, and he got the quarterback again in the first meeting against the Giants. Otherwise, Vaeao was pretty quiet. He figures to be competing for his spot on the roster in 2017, although if Logan leaves, it might be difficult finding enough bodies to rendering a prospect with a full season's worth of experience expendable.

Aziz Shittu
Age: 23*

Shittu had a standout preseason, racking up six tackles, 1.5 sacks, three tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. That was enough to land the undrafted rookie out of Standford on the Eagles practice squad, though it might be telling that they liked Vaeao and even Hart more. Nonetheless, Shittu signed a futures contract at the conclusion of the season and will be an interesting name to keep an eye on come training camp.

EXPIRING CONTRACTS

Bennie Logan
Age: 28*
2016 Cap Number: $1,842,023

To be fair, Logan probably made more of an impact than the numbers indicate. The Eagles' wide-nine just doesn't feel like the ideal fit. A case could be made Logan was transforming into arguably the best nose tackle in the NFL prior to the switch. Filling a gap and building a wall at the line of scrimmage seem to be his strengths, not so much getting upfiekd and attacking quarterbacks. Again, we'll allow for the possibility Logan wasn't 100 percent all season, and he could certainly continue to develop with more experience in this role. If it were my money, it would be all about price. If we're talking the lower end of the spectrum, maybe $4.5 million, it's easy to justify bringing him back. Once that price tag soars — and it certainly may — it simply may not make much sense for the Eagles anymore.

Dario Saric hitting his stride, altering games on Sixers' second unit

Dario Saric hitting his stride, altering games on Sixers' second unit

There was skepticism as to whether or not Dario Saric would ever play for the Sixers. He spent two years overseas after the team acquired him on draft night 2014, and as each month passed, more and more uncertainty grew around his future in the NBA.

Saric told the Sixers all along that he would come to Philadelphia. He urged them, I will play for your team.

The 22-year-old rookie (and that term should be used loosely given his lengthy professional career) is proving the wait was worth it.

“They said he was never coming back,” Joel Embiid said. “But Dario’s here and he’s making big plays for us.”

Saric is averaging 9.7 points and 5.9 rebounds in 24.1 minutes this season. That includes a transitional period wherein Saric was moved in and out of the starting lineup and shifted from power forward and small forward as the Sixers experimented with different rotations. Saric looked out of sorts and frustrated with himself at times. The newness of the league, team and system took its toll on the player who is his own toughest critic. 

Saric's numbers are up since Brett Brown locked him in to the second unit. He is averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 boards during the Sixers' 7-2 stretch. 

“If Joel Embiid weren’t in the league, you’d have to talk about him in consideration for Rookie of the Year,” Brown said. “There is an appeal that he has developed, I feel, from our fans. They respect him. How can you not? He is so blue collar. I think the plays he makes, the effort-based plays, the physical plays just count for everything. ... I hope that he recognizes we appreciate his passion and we appreciate how he plays.”

Saric put on a show in the fourth quarter of the Sixers' statement win over the Raptors Wednesday. He had a pair of blocks in under a minute, including one against Jared Sullinger which sent Embiid into a frenzy on the bench (video here)

“Dario never blocks shots and he had two in a row,” Embiid said. “Especially at the rim like that, blocking Sullinger, that’s the type of play we need. The crowd obviously got into it. I’m just glad he’s here with us like he promised he was going to be after two years.”

Saric followed up the blocks with an offensive rebound and layup that pushed the Sixers' lead back up to six points. He topped off his fourth-quarter spurt with a three-pointer from T.J. McConnell to put his team up seven. 

“Every guy has their own job,” Saric said. “Sometimes you can do it better but always you need effort. You've to give 100 percent, try to fight, try to win. Give everything that you have in that moment. Your whole body, just move it. ... I had a good game. Sometimes the game gives you open shots. Sometimes it gives you a situation where you cannot do nothing. I tried to come and bring some energy. I tried to change the game in that way.”

Saric finished with eight points, nine rebounds and two blocks in 24 minutes off the bench. He hadn’t recorded two blocks since Nov. 9 against the Pacers. 

“I think Dario is the key to helping us secure that win, big-time,” Nerlens Noel said. “I think he really took that game more toward our favor.”

There were bound to be growing pains for Saric with all the massive challenges involved in playing in the new league. His basketball world has been flipped upside down in less than a year, not to mention his adjusting to life outside of Europe. It took some time but Saric is hitting his stride, and it is led by his disciplined mindset.

“Sometimes when you're doing bad and you don't have an opportunity to do something, (you have to) give the team its energy," Saric said. "I tried to bring some kind of energy and I did that good. I don't know. Maybe it's because I want to win the game. That's the easy answer."