How 2 Astros teammates aided Hunter Brown's turnaround from baseball's abyss

TORONTO — Rock bottom arrived atop middle America. Somewhere amid the skies of Kansas City, Mo. sat a pitcher at a crossroads for a team teetering toward disaster. Hunter Brown had earned a place in baseball history with a start so bad it still boggles the minds of many who witnessed it.

“After you get your head handed to you like he did, you kind of have to rebuild that confidence a little bit one by one,” veteran setup man Ryan Pressly said. “Kind of remind him: ‘Hey man, you are good. Just go out there and be the person we know you can be. Things are going to start changing.’”

Pressly patrolled an airplane taking the Houston Astros home from a horrific road trip. The team lost five of its seven games and fell to 4-10. During the final one, Brown surrendered 11 hits and nine earned runs while recording two outs against the Royals.

Brown became the first pitcher in major-league history to allow 11 hits in less than one inning. Including an inauspicious ending to 2023, Brown owned a 10.42 ERA across his last 38 frames. Coaches now acknowledge his spot in Houston’s starting rotation had started to slip.

“I did worry that we weren’t going to have enough time for him to bounce back before we would have to make a decision,” pitching coach Josh Miller said on Monday.

Comforting someone after such a calamity is complex, but Pressly attempted it anyway. Ten years separate them in age, but the two players have grown close since Brown’s big-league arrival in 2022. They share an agency and, according to Brown, Pressly has “been that guy for me since I got here.”

“On the plane, we sat there and I kind of just let him talk,” Pressly said. “Sometimes you have to let people get it off their chest, you just have to let them talk and let them do their thing.”

“He’s got the stuff. Everybody knows he’s got the stuff. It’s a matter of putting it together and if you don’t have the confidence to put it together, it’s not going to work.”

Defying doubters is a story of Brown’s entire baseball career. He spurned a college that recruited him as a bullpen catcher, caught fire at little-known Wayne State and is now surprising talent evaluators who wondered if he could stick as a major-league starter.

Brown is blossoming into a budding star, the stabilizing force Houston’s injury-ravaged rotation required. Six more scoreless innings against the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday lowered his ERA to 4.07, a number still skewed by that brutal start in Kansas City and not indicative of the transformation Brown has undertaken.

“He has looked like a big league, top-end of the rotation ace,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “His ceiling is a Cy Young-type arm.”

Brown has allowed one earned run across his past 31 innings. The 1.16 ERA he posted last month is the lowest by any Astros starting pitcher in June since Darryl Kile in 1993. When the league announces its June awards on Tuesday, Brown must be a heavy favorite for American League Pitcher of the Month.

Opponents are hitting .188 against Brown across his past 11 appearances, during which he has a 1.99 ERA. Brown and Chicago White Sox ace Garrett Crochet are the only two major-league starters with a sub-2 ERA and a sub-.200 batting average against since May 5, the day around which Brown’s season must now be analyzed.

That afternoon, at Bregman’s behest, Brown began throwing a two-seam fastball against the Seattle Mariners. He threw it sparingly in some bullpen sessions, but otherwise had not utilized it in a competitive setting since college. Watching Seattle starters Bryce Miller and George Kirby pair a sinker with their high-velocity four-seam fastballs during that series only solidified Brown’s plan of action.

Before he added the sinker, all of Brown’s secondary pitches tailed away from right-handed hitters. Even his four-seam fastball has perceived cut, allowing opponents to lean over home plate without respecting the inner half.

“Breggy was actually like, ‘If you can throw a two-(seam) in there, you might open that back up,” Brown said. “It was like, ‘All right, I’m going to try to own the inner half of the plate with that.’”

Bregman has become increasingly more involved with some of the pitcher’s game planning and received ample credit from Brown for his turnaround. Advice from a hitter — especially one with Bregman’s experience — can provide a different perspective for young pitchers still learning the league.

The sinker itself is not a superb pitch. Before Brown’s start on Monday, Baseball Savant only assigned it a run value of zero. Brown throws it like his four-seam fastball, one of the reasons he could incorporate it without much preparation, and described it as “more of a seam shift than it is a sinker.” Brown affectionately called it a “backwards cutter.”

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Hunter Brown lowered his ERA by over two runs in June. (Dan Hamilton / USA Today)

“If you were to grade the movement of the pitch, it would be good because he throws hard, but it would not be a good sinker,” Josh Miller said. “It’s just different from his four-seam and his cutter that it forces hitters to be aware of it and also cover his other pitches, which are good, and it opens up the world.”

“His two-seam looks like it takes off, but it doesn’t move a ton. Compared to his other stuff, it looks like it does, so a hitter has to mentally account for that. Makes it tough.”

Brown has thrown his sinker 185 times since introducing it. George Springer’s 101.8 mph flyout on Monday is the only one that’s been hit 95 mph or harder by a right-handed hitter. Brown threw the pitch a season-high 39 times against a Toronto lineup that featured six right-handed hitters.

Brown exclusively uses the sinker against righties while counting on his changeup, cutter and curveball to control lefties. Right-handed hitters are hitting .192 against him since adding the pitch. Last season, righties hit .276 with an .839 OPS against him. Brown’s four-seam fastball usage has continued to dwindle since the sinker appeared, too.

“It’s a ridiculous roll that he’s on,” Pressly said. “You have to go through certain ups and downs like that to make you better and make you a better player, teammate. It makes you better. It’s a game of failure. You’re going to fail in this game. It’s about how you respond.”

A new offering is not Brown’s only answer to adversity. His body language on the mound disappeared and with it so did his confidence. Brown acknowledged catching himself thinking, “Aw man, here we go again,” throughout his awful April. Losing focus on the pitch at hand became a problem, understandable after such an unraveling in Kansas City.

“My mentality, body language, things like that, can transfer over,” Brown said. “Those were my two focuses, less about the results of that day and more just like, ‘That’d be tough to do if I try again.’”

Teammates reassured him of something similar while helping Brown back from baseball’s abyss. Now, he’s brought himself to the precipice of a position he always hoped to occupy.

“The stark difference from April to June is pretty amazing,” Miller said. “A lot of it is confidence-related, in my opinion. You can’t measure that. But he just has a different presence on the mound.”

“He’s gonna breathe fire and snarl and try to act mean, even though that’s not his nature. He does it on the mound during his game days and it’s great to see.”

(Top photo of Hunter Brown: Mark Blinch / Getty Images)

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