Did you ever notice how many great baseball players have what could loosely be described as a Hack Wilson type body?…Just perhaps, the short, powerful body is actually the best body for a baseball player. Long arms really do not help you when you’re hitting; short arms work better…Lousy players outnumber great players a hundred to one–but can you name a dozen guys like that who had bodies like that and were lousy players?
—Bill James, “Yogi Berra,” in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, 2001
We all sort of imagine that the ideal athletic body type is tall, with long, spindly arms and legs. This is absolutely true in basketball, a game that’s all about long strides, long leaps, and long reach. In other sports, this is not necessarily the case. For pitchers, the tall, long-limbed body type is often the ideal, because of the tremendous leverage that can be generated when throwing the ball, to say nothing of the intimidation factor of staring up at a Goliath figure on the mound. When one considers the great power pitchers of the last 50 years, there isn’t really much doubt that this is true–Randy Johnson (6-10), Steve Carlton (6-4), Roger Clemens (6-4), Sandy Koufax (6-2 and a former basketball player at the University of Cincinnati), and so on. There are exceptions, of course (Chad Billingsley might have the shortest legs in baseball), but you get the idea.
For a position player, I’m not convinced that this is true. Albert Pujols, while he is 6-foot-3 of quivering muscle, actually has rather short appendages, leading to a shorter swing. Babe Ruth was hardly Cole Hamels in appearance, but somehow, he rode his stubby little legs to become baseball’s all-time leader in slugging, WAR, and OPS+. Perhaps no one in the game today uses his fire hydrant body to greater advantage than Chase Utley, whose swing is among the shortest and most powerful in baseball, and who generates his speed on the bases, not from a few loping Usain Bolt-style strides, but from many shorter ones.
But this, ultimately, isn’t about Babe Ruth, or Randy Johnson, or even Chase Utley. It’s about Domonic Brown.
Enough metaphorical digitized ink has been spilled over Domonic Brown, I think, since he first appeared on the mainstream Phillies fan’s radar about two years ago, so I’ll try to hit the highlights without belaboring the point. Domonic Brown is the ideal of the Phillies’ current draft strategy, which is to draft a bunch of young, athletic players without a lot of polish but with a ton of upside. The theory is that most of them won’t work out, but the few that do will be really good. It’s high-risk, particularly in the early rounds, but with a tremendous potential reward.
Let’s compare the Phillies’ first draft pick in 2011, Larry Greene a high school outfielder from Nashville, Georgia, to the guy I wanted the Phillies to draft, University of South Carolina center fielder Jackie Bradley, who went one pick later to the Red Sox. Greene, a linebacker in high school, has prodigious raw power and very little else in terms of well-established major league skills, having played in a relatively noncompetitive high school environment. Greene has (these are by no means exact figures, so don’t go too hard on me) maybe a 30 percent chance of becoming a major league regular, but a 3 percent chance of turning into someone like Prince Fielder or Mike Stanton.
Bradley, by contrast, has been a star for three years for a top-flight college program, having played against competition in the SEC equivalent to the low minors, and is the defending MOP of the College World Series. He’s a known quantity who has maybe a 60-70 percent chance of becoming a major league player, but if he does, he’s more likely to project as a solid-but-not-spectacular MLB player, maybe someone in the vein of Angel Pagan. Let’s say Bradley has a 10 percent chance of being an all-star, a five-tool player as valuable as Jayson Werth or Andrew McCutchen. If you draft Bradley, you almost certainly get something for the pick. But if Bradley and Greene both reach their absolute peaks, Greene will be more valuable.
This is the thinking that led the Phillies to draft Brown 607th overall in 2006. He was, essentially, a football player who came late to the sport, and the Phillies coached him and promoted him until he got to a level of pitching he couldn’t hit. Which hasn’t happened yet. If Dom Brown isn’t starting in a corner outfield spot every day for the next five years for the Phillies, something is wrong. He’s the goal of the high-risk, high-reward draft strategy.
So much for not belaboring the point.
What I find absolutely captivating about Brown is his appearance. He’s the diametric opposite, in the way he looks and the way he moves, to Chase Utley. Brown is not only four or five inches taller than Utley, without weighing much more, but that extra height seems to reside almost entirely in his legs and neck. The difference when they’re running, between Utley’s churning, mouselike scamper and Brown’s gliding, long-legged gait, is evident enough, but it’s in the swing that the difference in body type shows up most.
Here’s a young Chase Utley doubling to the opposite field gap. Look how compact his swing his, how quickly his hips turn, and how the bat goes from vertical, through the zone, and through in almost literally the blink of an eye. It’s compact, an almost binary motion, like throwing a switch.
Ryan Howard is different. This is a video of Ryan Howard’s RBI double on Saturday afternoon against the Cubs. Notice the long, looping, effortless motion, almost in the style of a golf swing. Ken Griffey Jr. had this kind of swing, and it generates a lot of power, but because it takes so long, it also generates (as you may have noticed by now) a ton of strikeouts.
Domonic Brown has the motion of Howard’s swing with the intensity of Utley’s. If Utley’s swing is the on/off switch, and Howard’s is dropping the head of a hammer, Brown’s swing is like opening a jack-in-the-box. He starts compressed, then drops his shoulder and explodes onto the ball, throwing his hips through the motion and extending his arms with incredible force before relaxing into the follow-through. He’s a physics lesson in cleats; you can see him unwinding as the potential energy turns into kinetic, resembling not so much a ballplayer as a medieval trebuchet.
I love watching Dom Brown not only because he can hit the ball into the second deck, but because of how he looks while doing it. It’s an extremely complex swing, but when he connects, it’s incredible to watch. When Ryan Howard hits the ball, it rockets off his bat in a way that makes you wonder where the force comes from. With Brown, the source of the power is evident in the violence of his motion, and while the spider crab body type might not be the most ideal physique for hitting a baseball, Brown, representing the extreme both in his own construction and in his athleticism, has adopted a manner of playing the game which is fascinating both in its aesthetics and its results.