The Road to The Show™: Astros righty Brown
Each week, MiLB.com profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken toward achieving his Major League dream. Here's a look at top Astros prospect Hunter Brown. For more stories about players on The Road to The Show, click here. After years of compiling one of the game’s best
Each week, MiLB.com profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken toward achieving his Major League dream. Here's a look at top Astros prospect Hunter Brown. For more stories about players on The Road to The Show, click here.
After years of compiling one of the game’s best farm systems, the Astros built a Major League empire that significantly thinned their prospect talent pool. However, Hunter Brown is proving that the organization is still among the best at developing homegrown pitchers.
Brown is on the doorstep of the Major Leagues with Triple-A Sugar Land in just his second full professional season. He is the only Astros’ Minor Leaguer ranked in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list, at No. 80, and he’s drawn comparisons to Walker Buehler and Tyler Glasnow.
Through his first 19 appearances (12 starts) for the Space Cowboys this year, Brown leads all qualified pitchers in the Pacific Coast League with a 2.52 ERA, 115 strikeouts and a .194 opponent’s batting average. Although he wasn’t nearly as dominant as he’s been in the regular season, Brown also earned an appearance in the Futures Game at Dodger Stadium.
He sports a four-pitch mix, led by a 65-grade four-seam fastball-curveball combination and has greatly improved his control.
“The stuff is there,” Astros’ Minor League pitching coordinator Eric Niesen told MLB.com in March. “I think everyone's pretty aware of that. And it's just becoming more a complete pitcher, understanding the dynamic of when to use something, how to use it, where to throw it, kind of different developments in that stage. I thought he had a great year [in 2021]. I think it's one of those things where a young guy moves quick.”
Despite his quick rise, Brown was very much a late bloomer. He didn’t exactly have his pick of Division I schools to play for coming out of Lakeview High School outside Detroit. In fact, the closest he came to a D-I offer was as a walk-on catcher at Eastern Michigan, where he probably would have redshirted as a freshman and been a bullpen catcher with few opportunities to pitch. Instead, he opted to attend Wayne State, a Division II state school less than a mile from Comerica Park.
The 6-foot-2, 212-pound right-hander would rarely touch 90 mph in high school and was mostly used as a reliever in his first two seasons with the Warriors. But as he grew bigger and stronger, he also made a mechanical adjustment that spiked his velocity. Brown said he shortened his arm swing to get quicker to the plate and soon his mid-90s heater could touch 99 mph while sitting mostly in the 94-96 mph range.
The mechanical tweak came during a summer with the Bethesda Big Train in the Cal Ripken Professional Baseball League. Brown posted a 1.27 ERA over 21 1/3 innings in a league that featured many players from Power 5 conferences. This breakout made professional baseball a much more realistic possibility.
Brown elevated himself even higher in his junior season at Wayne State. He went 9-0 with a 2.21 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 85 1/3 innings and came into the 2019 Draft as a legitimate Day 2 talent.
MLB Pipeline had Brown ranked No. 89 in his class, and he was selected by the Astros with the No. 166 overall pick in the fifth round. Brown signed an above-slot deal worth $325,000 and reported to Tri-City of the New York-Penn League after the Draft.
In college, Brown didn’t make much use of the plus curve that he features today. In fact, he only broke out the pitch, which doesn’t have much sweep but more of a spiking, 12-6 trajectory, in bullpen sessions after the Draft. But it was apparent that his curve was a better offering than his slider, which also grades as plus. The Astros also encouraged him to junk his two-seam fastball in favor of a four-seamer, and he went into his first Minor League action with a newly expanded arsenal.
Over 12 appearances (six starts) with the ValleyCats, Brown proved to have some of the most elite stuff in the system, striking out 33 batters in 23 2/3 innings. He didn’t struggle as much as his 4.56 ERA might suggest, and he held opposing batters to a .157 average and .509 OPS.
The lost season in 2020 could have been detrimental to his development, but Brown impressed the Astros brass with his work ethic and was able to stay sharp while throwing off a makeshift mound in his backyard. Brown’s greatest task in 2020 was to finely tune his curveball and changeup, which should help him improve on his 17.6 percent walk rate in Tri-City.
"Hunter has got some big-time stuff," Pete Putila, Houston assistant GM in charge of player development, told MLB.com during instructional league camp in November 2020. "He's 96-98 mph with a huge curveball, a Tyler Glasnow-type curveball, an 86-88 mph slider and a changeup. He didn't throw the curveball until he got to us. It's really just a matter of refining his game, working on his locations and what-not. It's impressive watching him pitch. He gave our hitters fits."
The Astros assigned Brown to Double-A Corpus Christi to start the 2021 season. He made 13 appearances (11 starts) before earning a promotion to Sugar Land at the start of August. Brown posted a 4.20 ERA with 76 strikeouts in 49 1/3 innings with the Hooks and remained consistent as the season drew to a close in Triple-A.
His ERA dipped to 3.88 over his final 51 innings of 2021, and he found himself pitching more to contact. Brown’s strikeout rate decreased by nearly 10 percent from Corpus Christi to Sugar Land, but his walk rate dropped to 9.7 percent.
The 23-year-old has his strikeout rate (32.8 percent) and walk rate (10.8 percent) in favorable positions this season -- which has certainly been a catalyst for one of the best pitching seasons in the Minors.
Having grown up in the shadow of Comerica Park, Brown idolized Justin Verlander as a kid and was -- thanks to Dusty Baker -- able to chat with the Astros ace over the phone last year.
“He said, 'Just have a good season and do your thing and go out there and pitch,'” Brown told MLB.com this spring.
Brown moved fast for a late bloomer and would probably already have a spot on a Major League roster in a different organization. It’s not unfathomable to believe that the Astros could add him to the 40-man and call him up for a stretch run or as an injury replacement. They could perhaps even to use him in a relief role, similar to Cristian Javier’s last year.
Regardless of when it happens, Brown is proving to have a big-league future -- a pretty astounding development for a Michigan high schooler with no D-I offers.
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.