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."
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.