CLEARWATER, Fla.—Things can get tedious in the daily minor league grind. The 10-hour days at the field. The cramped, overnight bus rides. Living out of a hotel. Eating some combination of clubhouse spread, hotel breakfast and fast food every day. So sometimes teams like to shake things up a little to ease the delirium.
On Friday, the high Class A Clearwater coaching staff decided having some fun would be for all of the players—hitters and pitchers—to take batting practice as one giant gaggle. Of course, the pitchers weren’t up there for a traditional batting practice. There would be no opposite-field approach or situational hitting practiced. No, this was a time for nothing but gripping and ripping.
Every swing a pitcher took was designed to hit the ball as far as possible, regardless of form. What followed was 25 minutes of hooting, hollering, ahhing and oohing as a brief respite from the doldrums of the hot, sticky Florida summer. But if one pitcher’s batting practice looked markedly better than all the rest, it was Aaron Brown‘s. And that made sense, because until three months ago he was an outfielder.
Brown was a two-way player in college at Pepperdine, too, but the Phillies liked him more for his bat than his arm. So when they chose him in the third round of the 2014 draft, it was as an outfielder. The following three years had their ups and downs. He swatted a career-best 11 home runs in 2015 with Clearwater, but hit just seven more over the next 115 games between 2016 and 2017.
He’d also been passed on the organizational depth chart by a host of players, including Nick Williams, Odubel Herrera and Dylan Cozens. So it was time to make a decision. Did he want to continue to grind it out as an outfielder, or did he want to start from scratch and try to use his other gift to make it to the big leagues?
“The Phillies brought the opportunity to me back at the end of May, and they sat me down and they asked me if I wanted to start pitching,” Brown said. “Given my stats last year in Double-A and in the beginning of this year—I wasn’t playing terrible this year. I started in a little bit of a slump but I was trying to work out of it—you don’t want to wait too long for another opportunity. I feel like this was the best opportunity for me, as a lefthanded pitcher.”
Once the Phillies brought Brown the idea, he needed a little bit of time to think. He called his parents and his agent and slept on the decision. The next morning, he was sure. He was going to start pitching again.
“This game is about giving yourself the best opportunity to succeed,” Brown said. “I felt that this was the best opportunity for me to make it to the bigs and have a long career in the big leagues.”
The big leagues are a long way off, but Clearwater manager Shawn Williams has liked what he’s seen from Brown in the early stages of his professional pitching career. Specifically, he’s been pleased with how willing he’s been to jump into the transition head-first.
“He’s got the same competitiveness just like he was playing every day. He wants to pitch every day. He wants to play every day. He’s got that determination like when you’re facing the pitcher,” Williams said. “So now he’s on the opposite side and he’s doing the pitching and it’s a lot of fun to watch.”
Brown is pitching with the Threshers now, but his career reset began just down the road at the team’s minor league spring training complex. His first five appearances came with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League before he moved back to full-season ball. Between those two stops he’s gone 0-0, 1.50 over 12 innings. He’s allowed just five hits and struck out 10, but he’s also issued 14 walks.
That’s to be expected. It had been three years since he’d pitched competitively, so there was bound to be a little rust. His experience certainly expedited the transition, but he also had to begin learning the Phillies’ ground-up approach to pitching.
“When you’ve done something for a number of years it’s going to be easy to get back into it and remember what it felt like. The pitches that you had, when you threw them well and when you didn’t, so it definitely has helped the transition go very smoothly and quickly,” he said. “All the coordinators have done a great job with me when it comes to getting me some sound mechanics and trying to keep the arm loose as it comes through. That’s going to be the biggest thing for me: not trying to throw hard and just letting the ability and the mechanics do the work.”
Brown has tweaked his delivery a little bit to help him stay closed as long as possible. At Pepperdine, he said, he had a tendency to fly open and let his pure arm strength do the bulk of the work. Now he’s learning to let his lower half lead the way to help keep the stress off his arm.
It might go against a pitcher’s instinct, especially during the current velocity spike taking place across the sport. Brown will still rear back and fire at times, but he’ll be more selective about when he chooses to try to blow a hitter away.
“I’m always going to have that aggressive mentality. I’m always going to want to do more,” he said. “But as a pitcher you have to pick and choose those times to do that. Obviously early in the count you want to get ahead with something and work ahead in the count early and often, then when it’s time to put somebody away I’ll try to put them away.”