Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/21/14
Everybody’s aware that, by and large, spring-training results are meaningless. Not everybody always acts like it, but everybody gets it, on some level. The stats don’t really matter, and the wins and losses don’t really matter. But spring training can still serve some purposes, for us as fans. As we discussed yesterday, spring training can generate highlights as good or almost as good as the highlights generated during the regular season. That is, of plays in isolation, separated from context. And there’s also some analysis that can be done, if done carefully. Previously, Michael Saunders never demonstrated any ability to hit to the opposite field or cover the outer half of the plate. Between 2011 and 2012, he re-worked his swing, and in spring 2012, he covered the other half of the plate. It was promising, and, sure enough, Saunders had a breakthrough season. Spring training isn’t entirely devoid of substance. Which brings us to the matter of Domonic Brown, on Tuesday, February 26. On this Tuesday, Brown generated a highlight, and he also did something maybe worth talking about for analytical purposes. Behold, what Domonic Brown did to a thrown pitch by a member of the Yankees organization: That is a big home run, and in the Phillies’ dugout, you can see the coaches acknowledge that it was a big home run. Brown, in a way, is fighting for a job, as he’s not being guaranteed a regular gig in a Philadelphia corner. Somewhat inexplicably, he’ll face competition from Delmon Young, but Brown is a young player who used to be a tippy-top prospect so he’s got a lot of the fans on his side. Phillies fans will be encouraged to see anything and everything that Brown does well on a playing field. They’re all waiting for Brown to take the next step, and so maybe this is a sign. Let’s get into the good news and the bad news. Good news Domonic Brown hit a home run. What’s more, he hit a home run to center field. What’s more, he hit a home run over the batter’s eye in center field. The fence is measured at 401 feet away from home plate. The batter’s eye is something like 25 feet tall, give or take a little bit. That’s a mammoth home run, captured by this screengrab: That’s a home run you can’t really fake. You’re either capable of clearing the batter’s eye in dead center field, or you’re not. Brown cleared it, which is a wonderful sign after a few years of people wondering about his power. Used to be that Brown was supposed to develop into a guy who could hit for power and average. He’s the owner of a dozen big-league home runs, but this is the sort of strength that can get you re-noticed and re-evaluated. Brown’s goal in camp — the best he can do — is to be impressive. It’s impressive to hit ordinary dingers, but it’s extra impressive to hit extraordinary dingers, and so this could be a good sign with regard to where Domonic Brown is as a player at the present day. Bad news After the home run, the broadcasters acknowledge that the wind has been swirling, and of course strong winds can do funny things to fly balls. There’s no question that Brown hit the ball solidly, but maybe it carried for reasons other than its own velocity and spin; maybe the wind allowed the ball to sail to an area to which it wouldn’t have sailed were it not for the wind. Though Domonic Brown cleared the dead-center batter’s eye, maybe it wasn’t just Domonic Brown who did it. Maybe the ESPN Home Run Tracker would make this home run out to be an awful lot more modest. Good news Observe the American flag during the baseball’s flight: Sure enough, the wind was blowing, but the wind wasn’t blowing out. It was blowing to the right, and it wasn’t the horizontal angle that made Brown’s moonshot a moonshot. Can we eliminate the wind as a variable? No, we cannot, but we have reason to believe this was pretty much all about Brown’s strength. Bad news The pitcher on the mound for the Yankees wears number 95. Good players in spring training don’t wear number 95, and our hero in question is one Zach Nuding. Nuding hasn’t pitched above single-A, and a few years ago he was a 30th-round draft pick. He’s not a top prospect and he hasn’t missed bats. This is one of the problems with spring-training performance analysis — the things that happen in the later innings often don’t happen against big-league baseball players. Who cares what Brown can do against a single-A starting pitcher? Brown isn’t being held back by his inability to hit single-A pitchers. You don’t see a lot of single-A pitchers in the major leagues. Good news So what about the identity of the pitcher? That matters, generally, but specifically, what matters is the quality of the pitch. An unfamiliar or lesser talented pitcher will just throw good pitches less often than a good pitcher, but it’s not like a single-A pitcher can’t throw good pitches. Nuding is a big guy and his fastball gets into the mid-90s. It was a Nuding fastball that Brown hit out. Maybe the pitch wasn’t bad. Maybe it was a big-league-caliber pitch thrown by a non-big-league-caliber pitcher. Additionally, it was a home run with two strikes, which is impressive. But, yeah, maybe the pitch was fine, and Brown applied a better swing. Bad news Two batters later, Nuding allowed a double to Cody Asche. One batter later, Nuding allowed a homer to Tommy Joseph. It wasn’t a great inning for Zach Nuding, because Zach Nuding isn’t great. Brown destroyed a fastball in just about the very center of the zone. That’s right where Brown would’ve wanted it. Our conclusion is that Domonic Brown did a good thing, made somewhat less impressive by the identity of the opposition at the time. But still, for anyone wondering about Brown’s power, it’s still in there, which he proved on Tuesday. Charlie Manuel spoke highly of him after the game, and if these are the early signs of Brown turning the corner, then Phillies fans could be in for something special, and for a lot less Delmon Young than they’ve feared. It’s way too early to say that Domonic Brown is going to take a leap forward, but it’s not too early to talk about it. A home run like this has a way of getting people talking.
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