Over the last decade-plus, Vanderbilt’s baseball program has been one of the premier incubators for pitching talent at the amateur level. They’ve been so successful recruiting and molding arms that their relievers often transition back to starting successfully in pro ball. In the 2020 draft, a pair of their short relief arms were drafted as starters- lefty Jake Eder went to Miami and would go on to one of the most explosive pro debuts of the 2021 MiLB season, but righty Tyler Brown was actually drafted ahead of him by the Astros.
A power righty with spin to match, Brown generated more excitement in pro circles for his pitch data than his college resume, but both were strong. After a rocky freshman campaign, Brown wasted little time taking the next step, and was perhaps the ‘Dores single best relief weapon as a sophomore. In 49 and 1⁄3 2019 frames, Brown racked up 65 strikeouts against just 9 walks while allowing only 1 home run out of 35 hits, good for a 2.19 ERA. He was entrusted with high leverage work on the nation’s best college club, and he rewarded them with 17 saves en route to a College World Series title.
The massive season endeared Brown to the Vandy faithful and pro teams alike. Not only did he show series moxie pitching on big stages, he did it with a very trendy pitch mix as far as the pro game is concerned. Brown’s plan of attack is all about verticality- he goes at you with a low to mid 90s heater, sitting around 93, and uses the hop on the pitch to tie hitters up at the top of the zone. From there, he’s able to deploy his pair of downer breaking balls to chase zones for swings and misses. The shape on his slider and curve are similar, but the two offerings have significant velocity separation which forces hitters to respect both of them, and there’s enough movement on the breakers for them to be effective in the zone as well, though Brown isn’t always consistent landing them there.
Vanderbilt product and HOU 2020 3rd rounder Tyler Brown tightroped out of danger a lot scattering 5H, 3BB, and 7K over 5 shutout innings.— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) July 28, 2021
Stadium gun was all over the place, but..FB was mostly 93-94. It looked to me a CB/SL combo. One high 70’s, one 83-84. Both pretty nasty. pic.twitter.com/McJ7v7knyq
After a brief, COVID shortened junior year which was similarly productive to 2019 on a per-inning basis, Brown made the leap to pro ball as the Astros’ third round pick. With baseball on hiatus, he wouldn’t make his pro debut until 2021, and debuted as an organizationally ranked prospect. He’d be moving back to a starting role for the first time in awhile, but there was nonetheless a lot of optimism about his potential. Unfortunately, he’d end up stumbling out of the gates, and ultimately never really found solid footing. Starting with an aggressive assignment to High-A Asheville, Brown scuffled to a 7.25 ERA across 63 and 1⁄3 innings. He struggled mightily with the home run, allowing nearly 2 per 9 innings, and was hit around a lot in general with 71 total knocks against him.
Obviously, Brown had a lot of difficulty keeping the bases clear, but it wasn’t a performance without positives. His bat missing ability showed up in a major way with a 23.4% strikeout rate, and that number was even better when you cut his particularly rough first 5 starts from the equation. Despite the mixed results, the Astros nonetheless decided to challenge him with a midseason promotion. The move was a bit of a headscratcher at first, but while Brown didn’t completely breakout in Double-A, he did improve in some ways. He’d end up throwing 27 and 1⁄3 frames with the Hooks down the stretch, and managed to improve his K rate all the way to 31%, an elite figure, despite facing significantly stronger competition. In addition to the improved bat-missing, Brown was able to limit hard contact much more effectively. His hit rate was much better at under 1 per inning, and he allowed just 4 home runs— still an above average rate, but a definite step forward. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that his walk rate also rose sharply to 18.6%, an unworkable figure, signifying the progress that still needs to be made if Brown is to achieve big league effectiveness.
All in all, 2021 wasn’t exactly what the Astros or their supporters hoped to see from Brown, but to say he didn’t show anything would be missing the mark in my mind. The stuff that made him a Vanderbilt hero has not diminished in the slightest, and when located effectively it was capable of confounding even upper minors hitters. A move back to the bullpen might end up being necessary, but I remain high on Brown’s talent in shorter stints. His ability to mix eye levels and speeds can make for a very uncomfortable plate appearance, and he’ll only need modest location improvements to excel as a short reliever. He’s dipped out of most organizational top 30s for the time being which is certainly understandable, but by no means should he be forgotten entirely.