In August of 2021, I tabbed Hunter Brown as the Houston system’s best prospect. This year, I slotted him at number 3, behind Jeremy Pena and Korey Lee. I have access to a lot more advanced data than I did in March, so if I were to re-rank them, I would put Brown behind Pena, and atop the system again with Pena’s impending graduation (and hopefully ROY award, yeah I said it). The four top prospects in Sugar Land were all fairly interchangeable. Regardless, this will be an evaluation of Hunter Brown’s player profile as it is now, what he’s likely to become at the MLB level, and how excited we should be about the 23 year old flamethrower.
A 5th round selection from 2019 out of Division 2 Wayne State University, Hunter Brown was an arm strength flier. A big, imposing mound presence with late-blooming velocity up to 98 MPH put him on the Astros radar, and his dominance over his competition let the spreadsheets rank him highly as well. He sat more in the low 90s then, but there was clearly more velocity to tap into, and his 3 pitch mix showed some promise for spinning breakers. HOU signed him for an over-slot $325,000 bonus, and Brown began his professional career.
In 2020, Brown started throwing his curveball, a fourth offering, in-game at the Astros request. It had been relegated to bullpens and side sessions in 2019, but he did throw that curveball sometimes in college. Professional strength training and conditioning programs helped Brown hold his velocity deeper into ballgames, where it used to taper off around 40-50 pitches. Now, Brown maintains ride and life on his four-seamer up to the 90 pitch mark, and this year is averaging 96 MPH. He’s improved in every way you’d ask him to, with some soft question marks in strike-throwing and pitch efficiency.
So he throws hard, and has 4 pitches you can dream on. But what exactly is it that makes Hunter Brown so intriguing? Is he a frontline starter?
Hunter Brown, by raw stuff, is one of the premier pitching prospects in the game today. I’ll go by offering, and then discuss the whole package. Special thanks to my buddy Robert Orr over at Baseball Prospectus for all his help with the data. If you like the Phillies, smart baseball analysis, or watching a bitter NL East rivalry interrupt domestic bliss, follow him on Twitter @NotTheBobbyOrr.
Hunter Brown’s fastball is a 65 grade offering. It’s averaged 96 MPH this season as of May 20th, and has topped out at 99.8 MPH. He averages 10 inches of vertical movement, which would be 3.5 inches more than the average 96 MPH four-seamer in MLB today. In other words, his fastball has 26% more “rise” than the average 96 MPH fastball. 2200 RPM does not prevent it from being a lively and overpowering offering. League average VAA (Vertical Approach Angle) is roughly -5, and despite a high release point of 6.1 feet, Hunter Brown’s fastball shows a -4.5 VAA, unadjusted for location. It’s a similar profile to Walker Buehler, who uses his over-the-top, vertically oriented fastball at both the top and bottom of the zone – inducing whiffs at the top, and called strikes at the bottom. Hunter Brown does the same. Although maybe with less purpose, which I’ll get to in a second.
Through 100 outs recorded in AAA this season, Hunter Brown’s fastball has recorded a 17 SwStr%, and a 34 Whiff%. That whiff rate would be 4th best in MLB on four-seamers. Of starting pitchers, only Eric Lauer and Gerrit Cole could boast better. Of course, Brown is facing AAA hitters. I do not mean to say that his fastball would retain its same whiff rate upon taking the jump. Important context, though, is that Hunter Brown’s fastball has the single highest whiff rate of any four-seam fastball in the entire PCL, with a minimum 250 fastballs thrown. It is the best fastball, by results + volume, in the division. And while the pitch is a whiff generator, Brown has only allowed an average exit velocity of 82.97 MPH on it. Contact management is additionally evidenced by a 42.4 Groundball% and measly 21 HardHit% allowed. He is not an extreme flyball pitcher, relying on whiffs to get him out of jams. His four-seamer induces ground balls, generates whiffs, and manages hard contact. It just demolishes Triple-A.
Brown’s curveball, which he did not throw professionally in games that matter until last year, also represents a plus offering. Its raw movement is more impressive than the results so far, which are still fine. Hunter Brown’s big 1-7 tilted curve averages 81.75 MPH, a hard curveball that’s been up to 86.3 MPH, with 8.65 inches of induced drop. It is a hammer, with 1.76 inches of induced sweep as well. An average-profile MLB curve at 81..75 MPH would move 50 inches vertically, with 6.7 inches of sweep. Hunter Brown’s moves 58.65 inches vertically and 9.4 inches horizontally on average, at roughly 82MPH. Here’s all of the curveballs from starting pitchers in MLB with anywhere close to Brown’s velocity (80-84 MPH) and induced break (54+ vMov). Tables are formatted for desktop, so if on mobile, just turn horizontally!
lol. That’s pretty much the full list. Everyone else either hasn’t thrown enough pitches, is a reliever, or both.
Brown’s curve has a fairly unimpressive 24 Whiff% this season, but also manages contact well, with an AVG EV of 84.65MPH, although a 40 HardHit% is a little bit of a blemish. It is a ground ball inducer, with an 80 (yes, 80) Groundball%, probably a product of its ludicrous -10 VAA, and an average launch angle of -11.6. They may hit it kind of hard, but they’re beating it into the dirt.
I graded (and still grade) Brown’s curveball ahead of his slider, but it’s the slider that has the better results so far., and this is a slider league. As far as movement is concerned, Brown’s hard slider averages 90 MPH on the nose, topping at 93.1. It has 1.91 inches of induced drop, and 2 inches of induced sweep over expected. MLB average 90MPH sliders would expect to see about 29.5 vMov, and 2.5 hMov. Brown’s sees 31.4 vMov and 4.5 hMov. We can go through the same exercise as the curveball. Here’s everything that’s even close on the slider, from other starters:
Again, that’s pretty much it besides relievers and Chris Archer, whose velocity is right below my arbitrary cutoff. Pretty good company. Not many lists you’ll see Corbin Martin, Jacob deGrom, and Hunter Brown all together on, but that’s what you come to Apollo for.
Results-wise, Brown’s slider has a 30 Whiff% and a 16 SwStr%. Like the curveball, it induces a negative launch angle on average and a 57 Groundball%. He manages contact fairly well, with an 84.61 AVG EV. The slider is certainly performing like an above average MLB offering.
Brown keeps his changeup, averaging 88.8 MPH, in his back pocket, and only throws it to left-handed batters. It represents only 4.2% of his pitch mix, but is still there. It also has above average movement in both drop and fade, with 127 Stuff+, but lags very slightly on polish compared to his other three offerings. It’s a fine change-of-pace offering, but likely a 50 grade due to its lack of placement – something to keep hitters thinking about, more than anything. Astros pitch sequencing generally already uses a RHP’s downer curveball to neutralize left-handed batters, so Brown’s changeup can lag behind for a while before becoming a problem. Still, by raw movement profiles it does have above average potential.
Control and Command
So I’ve just outlined a starter with a Dylan Cease-esque fastball, a Musgrove-type curveball, a Woodruff-adjacent slider, and a 127 Stuff+ changeup that’s somehow not a good enough idea to even throw compared to his other offerings. What’s the problem?
Brown, 23, still has 40 grade command. There’s definite paths to improvement. It’s not a death sentence, or anywhere close to it. He keeps getting compared to Tyler Glasnow, who posted around a 5.00 BB/9 split between AAA and MLB in his own age-23 season. Brown’s is a similarly palatable 4.59 BB/9 currently, and has been going down since his call-up from AA last season, but he will likely need to bring it closer to the right side of 4 for a real MLB rotation outlook.
Speaking of Glasnow, there’s one other similarity to draw. Tyler Glasnow was the first pitcher I ever saw where the catchers used a one-target system. That is to say; when Glasnow pitches, even in the bigs, the catcher sets up in the same spot every time, slightly towards the outside corner of the plate, but mostly down the middle, with very slight deviations if they want the ball way up or way down. His raw stuff is just so good that Glasnow can let it rip, unbothered by silly concepts such as “good location” – because almost any pitch in or near the zone is good location with that level of stuff. The following quick clips show the setups from both Korey Lee and Scott Manea in May 2022, where the broadcast allows for it:
Glasnow’s walk rate plummeted under 3 BB/9 in the three half-seasons he remained healthy following his one-target system’s implementation. It might similarly help to explain why Brown’s walk rate is ticking down. In AA and through some of his first AAA stint, they called pitches edge-to-edge just like for any other pitcher. Now, Hunter Brown is getting the one-target treatment, and the results are still pretty good. Brown currently sports a 2.43 ERA with a 3.11 FIP, 12.2 K/9, and has not deviated from his career norm 50 GB%.
Because we have Statcast metrics available in the PCL now, Eno Sarris of The Athletic has also provided Pitching+ metrics for all PCL pitchers. Stuff+, Location+, and Pitching+ are all scaled to MLB, and average in the PCL would be 96 as opposed to 100.
Brown’s Stuff, Location, and Pitching+ line: 120.1/104.8/111.1.
The Astros buy in to Stuff and Pitching+. They even hired the metrics’ co-creator, Max Bay, into their R&D department last fall. These metrics start to stabilize around 300 pitches. Hunter Brown has the highest Pitching+ in the PCL and second highest Stuff+, with a minimum of 300 pitches thrown. Maybe even more encouraging than the stuff, though, is the above average Location+ at 104.8. He’s listed on FanGraphs with 30 grade control. Every report since he debuted is that Hunter Brown will go as far as his command takes him. By Pitching+’s observations, Brown is placing his pitches in above-average locations, and one can interpret the final Pitching+ number as the idea that we would expect to see 10% better results from Brown than the average MLB arm, if he was in the bigs today.
To put a damper on things, Brown only averages 60 pitches per outing. He’s been stretched out closer to 90, but if he were to come up this season it’s hard to imagine any workload more significant than we saw with Cristian Javier in his rookie season. Still, you can dream on Hunter Brown as a future keystone in a big league rotation. And you should, because you deserve it. A lot of the numbers would agree with you.
Thank you for reading.
- Benjamin Zeidman (@midzee4)