First in a series
WHEN GREG GROSS began poring over video of Domonic Brown's at-bats during the outfielder's 2-month stint with the Phillies at the end of last season, he immediately noticed something out of whack.
"A lot of times, it's not that obvious," said the hitting coach, who is entering his first full season on manager Charlie Manuel's staff after replacing Milt Thompson last July. "This one was obvious."
The problem centered on the height at which Brown, the 23-year-old uberprospect and contender to replace Jayson Werth, held his hands in his stance. Even in normal circumstances, the rightfielder's hands hover high above his back shoulder before dropping into his swing. But late in the season, they were even higher, leaving Brown standing too upright in the batter's box. Gross thought the subtle change affected his timing and, therefore, his ability to make solid contact with the ball.
After consulting members of the Phillies' minor league staff who had followed Brown during his rise through the system, Gross shared his observations with the outfielder during a short minicamp at the club's spring training complex in Clearwater, Fla.
Together, the coach and player talked through the mechanics of the swing, and, by the end of the workout, both were confident the problem had been rectified.
"The good part about it is it didn't have anything to do with his swing," Gross said. "It was just the position he was in to get started - and that wasn't that bad, either. It was just the timing of when he got to the place where he was ready to swing. Then [his hands] would drop even more and he'd be late."
Brown has proved to be a quick study thus far. The Phillies hope that trend continues when they open spring training next week in Clearwater, where the fate of their top prospect figures to be the top story line in what the club hopes is a drama-free spring.
Although the first full-squad workout won't take place until Feb. 19 - pitchers and catchers take the field Monday - Brown has been hitting with teammates in Florida since Feb. 1. He spent much of last season at Double A Reading, hitting .318 with a .993 on-base plus slugging percentage, and 15 home runs to earn a promotion in June. He continued to thrive at Triple A Lehigh Valley, hitting .346 with a .951 OPS and five homers in 28 games before Shane Victorino's oblique strain prompted the Phillies to call him up to the majors at age 22.
Brown made a splash in his big-league debut on July 28, going 2-for-3 with two RBI and two runs, but never really had an opportunity to establish himself. Three days after he hit his first big-league home run in his eighth start, he was forced to the bench when Victorino returned to the lineup. Brown started only four of the Phillies' final 47 games, finishing the regular season hitting .210 with a .257 on-base percentage and 24 strikeouts in 62 at-bats.
"He just didn't feel the same as he did before," Gross said. "I think he was just trying to find a comfort zone when he was sitting on the bench 2 or 3 days at a time."
Although general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has gone to considerable lengths to regulate the public's lofty expectations for Brown, the young outfielder will enter Grapefruit League play with control of his immediate future. What remains to be seen is whether that future involves an everyday job, a platoon role, or another stint at Triple A.
"We'll have our eyes on how he handles all aspects of the game. How he runs the bases, how he handles the outfield, how he swings the bat," Amaro said. "The numbers don't matter as much to me. I think it's just getting enough eyes on him - Charlie and his staff, the front-office staff - to come together and make the right decision on what we think will be the best chance for us to win on a daily basis." *
Coming tomorrow: The bench
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