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Hunter Brown And His Home Run Problem

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In yesterday’s start against the Royals, Hunter Brown allowed four home runs across three innings, essentially putting the onus on the lineup to mount another comeback. Spoiler alert: The Astros ultimately fell a run short. Brown’s performance also enabled an embarrassing sweep, arguably one of the worst in recent franchise history. Decidedly not great. In other words, it was a bad weekend for the Astros. It has also been a subpar four months for Brown.

Around this time a year ago Brown had the appearance of someone who had a bright future as a starter. I’d argue that remains the case, even with recent trends accounted for. There were loads to like about his profile last year and nothing has necessarily changed on that front. But those struggles this season have become increasingly alarming. I mean, a 6.14 ERA/5.37 FIP in his last 92 13 innings ought to raise at least some concern even to the most casual observer. The right-hander, in short, has become a liability to the Astros’ postseason hopes. But due to the relative dearth of starting pitching depth on the 40-man roster, it has become essentially a foregone conclusion that Brown would continue to start until something breaks.

Well, that something broke a while ago and it continues to deteriorate. Namely, the number of home runs that Brown allows. 22 home runs in his last 18 appearances, or 92 13 innings. Six in his last 8 13 innings, both losses. His home run to fly ball ratio jumped from 11% before June 1 to 25.5% following yesterday’s start. There is plenty of blame to spread with this roster at present, but his troubles with the long ball are one of the larger factors at play behind the Astros’ slide. His starts have become relatively uncompetitive, especially in recent weeks. A lineup can only overcome so many large early-inning deficits. In three of his last five starts, Brown has left the game typically by the fourth or fifth inning with the Astros trailing by the following scores.

  • 9/24: 6-2
  • 9/19: 7-3
  • 9/8: 6-1

In terms of his pitches, Brown’s four-seam fastball has accounted for 11 home runs allowed, with his slider not absolved of blame with eight. Even his curveball with five isn’t immune to an occasional dinger this season. There is a common theme with all of these pitches and the home runs allowed: Look at where Brown is serving these meatballs.

For a pitcher who allowed only five home runs all of last season, it begs the question about what has changed. The primary culprit possibly lies in how many innings Brown has pitched this season. In fact, he has far exceeded his previous high in innings pitched, topping out with 126 13 frames between Triple-A and the majors last season. This season, he has thrown 154 23 innings, with at least one more start tentatively scheduled. While workload issues are sometimes overblown, it does appear to be a real cause for Brown’s downturn.

In his recent starts, for example, you may have noticed that Brown’s pitches have lacked that same crispness that he has displayed in the past. His breaking pitches aren’t, well, breaking as much. The lack of vertical drop has become increasingly noticeable. Opposing hitters' launch angles have trended upwards. Not a coincidence that his groundball rate has suffered a bit while his line drive and fly ball numbers have risen. It is also clear that he’s laboring through most, if not all, of his starts nowadays. To no one’s surprise, Brown’s average velocity has taken a dip as the season has progressed following a gradual build-up through June.

With no known injuries at this time, the workload appears to have become the primary issue at play for Brown. This increase in workload has led to a decrease in the quality of his pitches. His location has also suffered. That much is plain. I’m sure I am oversimplifying his struggles a bit, but sometimes the overall point is that simple. If there is any solace about his recent performance, it is that Brown’s xFIP (3.87) indicates that his overall numbers are currently skewed due to the number of home runs he has allowed. For context, xFIP utilizes a league-average home run-to-fly balI in place of the player’s actual rate. If, or when, Brown’s home run rate eventually decreases, I think we have reason to at least feel somewhat optimistic about him rebounding in the future.

With that said, I do wonder if the Astros would’ve been better off implementing a 2021 Cristian Javier-esque plan for the rookie in his first full season. Of course, this team was short on starting pitcher depth, especially once Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. were lost for the season. The lack of depth is the reason why Brown has been kept a starter this far into his struggles. His upside, when compared to Ronel Blanco and Brandon Bielak, possibly remains too tempting to ignore for the organization.

But it is clear at this point, if the Astros do indeed qualify for the postseason, Brown isn’t a dependable option to use as a starter. Heck, I’d argue for not putting him in a high-leverage situation as a reliever at this point. To be honest, Dana Brown ought to have pivoted away from the rookie, even if temporarily, to address these workload concerns and see if a rebound was possible. It feels like a missed opportunity considering how he has pitched in recent weeks to help him reboot a bit. Again, the pitching depth that the Astros assembled in the past couple of seasons evaporated fairly quickly this season. But the lack of creativity from the organization when Brown was clearly faltering in front of our eyes is arguably one of the most disconcerting aspects surrounding his recent struggles.