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The Pending Hunter Brown Decision

A top prospect’s performance demands more attention and could force the Astros’ hand.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Houston Astros Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Writing about prospects isn’t a specialty of mine, as I do not necessarily have the time or skillset to analyze and break down an organization’s farm system properly. I leave that heavy lifting for the more minor league-oriented staff members of this staff. That said, I enjoy keeping up with the progress of a few during a long season, especially those in the upper levels of the minors. Top prospect Hunter Brown, for example, has warranted plenty of attention — myself included — this season, considering how well his performance in Sugar Land has unfolded.

  • 61 innings pitched (18th)
  • 34 percent strikeout rate (1st)
  • 12.7 percent swinging-strike rate (5th)
  • 50.8 percent groundball rate (2nd)
  • 2.66 ERA (2nd)
  • 3.33 FIP (2nd)

(Among qualified pitchers in Triple-A)

For Brown, missing bats has been his calling card, and he misses plenty of them. By strikeout rate among all qualified Triple-A pitchers, his 34 percent rate is not only the best thus far in 2022 but would also represent the highest mark for any pitcher at that level dating back to 2017. His swinging-strike rate is also ranked seventh, dating back to 2017. And did I mention that at least half of the contact he surrenders has remained on the ground? A valuable combination of results for any pitcher.

We’re at this juncture in the season when it is reasonable to see those numbers and wonder how soon will Brown make his Major League debut. For most clubs, Brown could very well be on an active roster right now. Unfortunately for the 23-year-old, the Astros aren’t exactly in a rush to promote, considering the depth on their roster. General manager James Click could have a couple of interesting decisions in July as Houston is about seven starters deep when healthy. Both Jake Odorizzi and Lance McCullers Jr. are due to return at some point this summer to reinforce one of the league’s best rotations. If so, their eventual returns leave Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier’s long-term status as starters a bit in doubt. In other words, there is probably not an opening for Brown to absorb innings as a starter with the Astros in 2022, barring a series of unfortunate injuries.

The question in my mind now is whether the Astros feel Brown can contribute in a different role this season, namely as a reliever. While the anecdotal evidence runs deep with pitchers making debuts as relievers before eventually converting back as a starter in subsequent appearances, is it the right move under these circumstances? One point of consideration is that Brown does have experience appearing mid-game as technically a reliever, even if those were more of a piggy-back variety. A relief role could also amplify his pitches; as we know, relievers' stuff tends to trend up in shorter spurts. These are points to consider, especially considering that the Astros could use Brown’s services in the season’s second half if his swinging strike and strikeout rate translates to the majors. With a relatively large division lead entering July, there is time to experiment with the roster in some creative ways.

At this point, the apparent concern with Brown remains his elevated walk rate, which currently sits at 11.6 percent. Out of all qualified Triple-A pitchers, his rate is the seventh-highest since 2017 for a single season, and he is the only pitcher with a walk rate of ten percent or higher to have an ERA under 3.00. While the higher strikeout rate negates the effect of some of those walks, it is an issue to watch closely. That is why I could envision the Astros not rushing his debut. But the upside with Brown is real, and there is a lot to gain by promoting him to the active roster. While it is an excellent problem to have, Houston has some tough decisions in front of them over the next couple of months.