Domonic Brown just had himself one incredible month of May. What's truly crazy about the month Domonic Brown just had, however, is the complete lack of walks.
As in, Domonic Brown walked zero times in May.
12 HRs, 0
In fact, he's the only hitter in major league history with nine or more home runs in a single month while failing to
draw a walk. As the calendar has flipped to June, the story has continued to gain steam. He's locked in at the plate right now in an almost
unthinkable manner. Currently, Brown leads the NL and is second in the major leagues with 19 home runs, one behind league leader Chris "Crush" Davis of the Orioles. Coming into this season, Brown had hit a grand total of twelve home runs in roughly one full season's worth of games between 2010 and 2012.
His ISO (isolated power) stands at a remarkable .299, while his slugging percentage is a powerful .588 in 2013. Only six players in the major leagues have slugging percentages higher than the number Domonic Brown currently possesses, and three of them (Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Michael Cuddyer) play half their games in the forgiving power-hitting confines of Coors Field. The other three are the pre-eminent hitter in the game (Miguel Cabrera), the game's best current pure power hitter (Chris Davis), and the breakout first baseman for Arizona, Paul Goldschmidt. When relegated to just ISO, only Chris Davis (.369) and Carlos Gonzalez (.318) sport a higher rate of isolated power in 2013 than Domonic Brown (.299).
That is certainly some welcoming company to have alongside one's name. Yet this explosion of a former top prospect came almost out of nowhere. Phillies fans anticipated Domonic Brown playing, but few would have imagined a breakout season like the one he's having thus far. All of this begs the question: what lies behind Brown's new-found power?
The first, and most base, explanation is to attribute some of his success to finally having secured a job as a major-league outfielder in Philadelphia. Ruben Amaro himself admitted that the Phillies more or less stagnated Brown's development by jerking him in and out of the lineup while the Phillies were vying for a third World Series title to add to their 1980 and 2008 championships, similar to what San Francisco has been doing to first baseman Brandon Belt for the past couple of seasons as they fight for a third championship (while located in San Francisco, of course) of their own.
Looking a little deeper and delving into his hitting profile, it would appear that the first major change Domonic Brown has made at the plate is to be less selective with pitches he is willing to hit. In 2011, Brown posted a walk rate of 11.9% and a strikeout rate of 16.7%; in 2012, that rate was 9.9% for walks and 16% for strikeouts. This season, Brown has noticeably trimmed down his walk rate; it has dropped a full 4% since last season, sitting currently at a rate of 5.5%. His strikeouts, meanwhile, have increased from 16% to 18.5%, closer to rates commonly attributed to power hitters.
Many hitting coaches stress "working the count" and waiting for pitches to hit, but for some (and I would like to stress the term some) batters this is counterintuitive and ultimately does more harm than good. It is debatable whether or not this is the case for Brown, but the results speak for themselves. Brown himself has stated that in 2013 he has taken a more aggressive approach at the plate, more ready to swing at fastballs early in the count. While becoming less selective, he has not abandoned the selective approach altogether. He's still differentiating between pitches in the zone and those out of the zone, and is merely swinging more freely at pitches in the zone. He misses more often, but also makes serious contact far more often. Yes, he misses on some pitches out of the zone, but not at a rate high enough to place him into the category of a free swinger.
Walks are important to the game, but only in relation to the goal of scoring more runs. Walks are valuable simply because they add men to the base paths, making it more likely to score multiple runs. However, if you can muscle the ball over the outfield wall with regularity, the need to draw walks takes a backseat to home runs. One increases the likelihood of runs being scored, the other plates at least one run. One is abstract, one is concrete. So far this season, Dom Brown has chosen to go for more concrete production at the plate. In slicing away at walks while taking more swings during his at-bats, Domonic Brown has gone from a league-average, negative-to-zero-WAR player to one worth +1.6 WAR in 61 games this year.
Another overlooked area is a change in Brown's stance at the plate. This was mentioned in late March by FanGraphs' own Eno Sarris. Coaxed by Phillies hitting coach Wally Joyner, Brown moved his hands further down the neck of the bat, allowing his bat to reach for baseballs that he would have previously swung and missed on (particularly those down, and more specifically down and in). It also has appeared to have made it a bit easier for Brown to hit chest- or belt-high pitches away; these were the two spots that he exploited the most during his May home run binge.
Furthermore, by "swinging through," keeping his grip on the bat throughout the entire motion of his swing, he adds a little more oomph to the ball, something that was missing in previous years (and it is likely not coincidental that in the prior seasons, Brown tended to let one hand come off the bat after making contact with the ball). In all of this, Brown has also utilized his "top hand," or the hand that grips the upper part of the bat, more regularly. Getting both hands comfortable has likely paid serious dividends for the young outfielder.
Lastly, it should be noted that as an emerging prospect, Brown flashed potential as a 15-20 stolen-base player. While not altering his approach to steals in the same way as his approach to hitting, Brown remains savvy on the base paths and is on pace to steal about fifteen bags over the course of the season, barring a spike in production in that category. So (again, at least thus far) unlike other major-leaguers who move away from the "speedster" category in favor of more power hitting like teammate Jimmy Rollins, Domonic Brown has stayed true to his running ability while augmenting his power at the dish, making his play all the more valuable.
It appears that for years, the Phillies have had a cloudy diamond and only saw coal. Now, the team is beginning to see the shine on one outfield diamond. The question now shifts from "where did this come from?" to two interlocking questions: 1) Can he keep this up?, and 2) If he indeed can keep his torrid pace going, how will he react at the plate as pitchers begin to learn his tendencies and adjust to them?