Lone Star Dugout Q&A: Brant Brown

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Lone Star Dugout chatted with Double-A Frisco hitting coach Brant Brown before Monday night's game against the Missions. In this interview, Brown discusses the development of Engel Beltre, Jose Ruiz, Tom Mendonca, and others.

Jason Cole: I want to start off by talking about Jose Ruiz. Obviously he's a guy with a real unique story and situation. When you watch him take BP, the raw power is evident. I guess the key is getting it to come out in games now. Can you talk about what you're working on with him?

Brant Brown: We kind of started in spring training. Our biggest factor is communication––just him learning English and me learning Spanish. Right now, we have Guilder Rodriguez––who is our most veteran shortstop––he'll do most of our translating in our early work.

We're just trying to get him––his demeanor is so passive. It's just who he is. It's his personality. He's going to take everything with a grain of salt. He's not going to show a lot of emotion. We're trying to get him to understand some aggressive points when we hit. I still want to be calm as the ball is coming toward me, and I want to relax. But when I go to get it, I want some type of aggression to where he can use––or put––the raw power in its place.

We've looked at our mechanics and we've looked at our film. There are some things that we're going to be able to tighten up. He has got a little bit of a twist. Kind of like a Big Papi-type of a swing. So we've taken some film of him and showed them and kind of compared them––just to educate him. Because we don't know how much he has been through, and we don't know how much he has been taught. He doesn't say a lot as far as his history or his past.

It's kind of nice to have a clean slate. But at the same time, you'd like to know, ‘What did he get taught over there? Did they yell at him? Did they talk to him nicely? How did they do things?' We're just taking it day-by-day, and we make adjustments according to how he does in the game. But I think everyone is pretty pleased with what he has been able to do as of this game tonight.

Cole: He's 26 years old and has played at the highest level of baseball in Cuba. How mature is his approach and swing compared to most guys that you get here in Double-A?

Brown: I think he has got some maturity. I think that's probably one of his stronger points. And then from that aspect, it's just trying to learn from that maturation process. And that's us trying to get it out of him so we can incorporate some stuff that will help him in American baseball. Because, you know, I've never seen Cuban baseball, I've never played Cuban baseball––we don't really go over there that often and scout them or see them. It's kind of trying to interpret their style and our style to where he's happy. Because he is the one who has to go and do it. I can help, but he is the one who has to go out and do it.

Cole: It seems like his extra-base hits have picked up over the last week or so. How do you feel he is progressing?

Brown: We would love to see more power. But at the same time, we've also talked about if you hit for a higher average, they'll always say that the power will come. As far as our development is concerned, as long as he keeps getting hits and as long as he's hitting above .300––I think everyone would be satisfied. Now, if it goes below and goes down to the .220s, then you're going to have to see power numbers. Because a guy who hits .220 but has 12 home runs one-quarter of the way through the season, they'll be like, ‘Oh yeah, he has got good power. But he just has to work on the average.'

So you kind of take it in that kind of outlook. He's doing good average-wise. At the beginning of the year, it was all base hits. Now he is getting the feel for it––15 or 16 games in with a couple doubles and an opposite-field home run. Just kind of letting him get accustomed. I know he has played American baseball before, but never just in one spot for a long period of time. So we're trying to let him get adjusted to the Texas League or playing here in general.

Beltre is a high-energy player.
Cole: Another guy I want to talk about is Engel Beltre. How has he developed since you got him in Frisco last season? And what does he need to work on in order to further his game?

Brown: Engel Beltre brings a ton of energy. You're going to see it every day. It doesn't matter what has happened. The one good thing about him is that he has got a short memory. That is really, really good as far as being able to play every day.

But he brings energy like the sun. And you'd love to see it––on our point, it's like, ‘How do we compound that with the patience?' There has to be a necessity for calmness at the plate. When you go out in the outfield, you can run after it, catch it, and throw it. But when we get to the offensive side, you've got to have a tempo. And for Engel, that's what we're trying to develop. We're trying to develop a tempo for him that he likes but is also just a tick slower than what he's used to going out and doing.

Cole: Beltre is obviously a guy with excellent hand-eye coordination and can make contact with a lot of stuff out of the zone. But can that kind of work against him at times?

Brown: Yeah, that's something that we've been talking about. We have shown him some paperwork, and some stuff has been drawn up about four-by-four areas of the zone and six-by-six areas of the zone compared to––let's say––10-by-10 areas of the zone. And how successful hitters are when they stay in that little part of the zone compared to when they extend themselves and go into chase mode and extend the zone on them.

The numbers are uncanny. It's 100 points higher, it's more power, it's more RBIs. So that's something that we do in our drill work. We mix in balls as he's doing his flips in the cage. So he has to kind of work inside a small strike zone area––almost shrinking the strike zone on him rather than trying to expand it.

Cole: Tom Mendonca already has six home runs in his first month of Double-A ball, and he didn't hit his sixth in Bakersfield last season until mid-August. I know you didn't have him in High-A last season, but what is he doing well out here so far?

Brown: Well, it's a Fresno State-on-Fresno State thing (laughs). I went to Fresno State and so did he. But he has done some really good stuff. There is no doubt that we've talked about certain things, and we've implemented a drill series that he likes.

We have shown him some film and compared him to a couple guys that are similar to him––left-right combinations. Nobody really takes that into effect––a guy that throws right-handed but hits left. They have certain deficiencies in their swing, like as far as a Chris Davis. There are certain things that all of them do because they're not used to throwing left-handed. They're used to throwing right-handed.

We just talked a lot. It has been wonderful to see him get off to a good start, because I think everyone wanted to see it. He has been wonderful defensively. He and Greene have been our best two players so far this year. It has just been wonderful to watch him have a little success and be able to have a little confidence early instead of having to rush something. Instead of him thinking, ‘I've got to do this and I've got to do that.' Because he knows where Olt is. We all do. But it's just so good to see someone get it.

He's such a wonderful guy. During spring training, I was like, ‘I don't know. He's kind of loud. He talks a lot.' And then we had the whole thing that we called the ‘Mendonca Makeover.' (laughs) We kind of changed his pants and taught him how to tuck in his jersey. I was just like, ‘Clean it up, Tom.' It was kind of this whole process. I think he enjoyed it. It has helped him relax a little bit. And it's easier to hit when you're relaxed and confident.

Cole: I know you have personal experience, having played all the way up to the major leagues. When you're coming off a year where you struggle, how big is it to start off strong during the regular season where you can see the results in the numbers?

Brown: I think it's probably the biggest thing for a hitter––to be able to start off fast and develop some confidence early. And to develop some feel. So even if you do go through a dry spell, you've got something to go back to as far as feel-wise or video-wise––something we can look at that we know you were good at this point.

It wasn't like, ‘Well, this was good or that was bad.' Or, ‘You were struggling here, but that was a good swing.' It's like, ‘No, there's no doubt. You were good here.' So we can always go back to that. And I think it gives kids a fresh outlook. When they come in––if they're bummed out a little bit or if their confidence is down––we can go right to it and you can just see the light turn on. They get a smile on their face because they knew they were good. And it helps when you're good early, because you can always go back to that. If not, you have to wait until they got hot and then go back to that point. It's just real good that someone gets off to a hot start.

Felix is working on pulling the ball.
Cole: I also want to ask you about Jose Felix. He'll probably always be known as a glove-first guy, but he did hit extremely well in the Arizona Fall League before getting some winterball action in Mexico. Can you expand on his progression as a hitter?

Brown: We have done multiple things. What we're trying to do is that––he can go to the right side any time, any day of the week. What we're trying to do for him is to get him to establish a feel and a little more strength of barrel. He displays it in BP, and he'll display it sometimes in the game. But something that is thrown middle or middle-in––instead of spraying it to right, just be aggressive and be strong. Because he has got some pop. He does.

If he can learn sooner than later––because I was the same way. When I was coming up, I was a left field-double guy. I didn't have a lot of power. I hit no more than seven home runs in Double-A. And then I worked on my approach a little bit, worked on my strengths and my weaknesses a little bit more, and I started to develop some pull-side power. And I was able to do that––I didn't cheat.

Probably the last four or five days––and especially today––we've been trying to get him a sense to where he can still be comfortable enough to go to right field. But also really to kind of start establishing some type of an approach to get him a little more aggressive––to get the bat out a little bit more in fair territory to left-center or left field.

Cole: In spring training, it looked like Felix was putting a little more ‘oomph' into the ball during batting practice. Did you notice the same thing?

Brown: Yeah, I think it started in spring training. The tough thing is that you go to major league camp and you get to go up there. Balls are new and things carry. And then you've got to come down to little league camp and it's a little bit different.

But yeah––it's definitely something that he knows about it. He knows about it and he's trying to do it. It is just going to take some time to develop because he has been such a right-side guy for so long. You could imagine the muscle memory of it. It's like, ‘I do this, I do this, I do this.' And now we're saying, ‘Hey, let's try to implement that.' I understand it's going to take some time.

It is just being able to relate to him to make sure that he feels okay about it. We want to make sure that he is still alright with what we're doing. We talked about that tonight with his approach. We're going to run with it and talk about it each at-bat. If there is some point in the game tonight that he feels uncomfortable with it and wants to go back to his right-field approach, we're going to switch.

And we're just going to keep doing it every night. And then hopefully there will be a night where it pops and he doesn't have to go to the right side––it just happens automatically. Like if the ball is middle-away, then he'll go to the right side. If there's a runner on first and a big gap––right side. If the ball is middle-in––whack, double. That's kind of what we're going with at this moment in time with him––to try and help him in his development as far as developing a little more gap-to-gap power and a little bit more overall power in general.

Cole: Did you work with Renny Osuna before he got to Frisco at all?

Brown: I've had him since Bakersfield. So for the last three years. And last year was his biggest number as far as power numbers were concerned.

Cole: I ask about him because it seems like the same thing. When Osuna was at the lower levels, he was constantly going to the opposite field. And it seems like he has developed the ability to turn on a ball on the inner half.

Brown: I think it's a little bit of talking to, but most of all it is just him maturing and getting stronger as an adult. When he was in Low-A, he was as big as a toothpick. And he's still just a larger toothpick, but he has got some more muscle on him. And he has developed a little bit as a hitter. He is learning that, when they throw it in there, that he has enough power to where he can do that. That's just a nice thing to have as a hitter––to think that, ‘Even if they throw it here––I know what I'm used to doing, but I can do certain things now because I'm changing my approach or I've gotten older, wiser, stronger, and smarter with more at-bats.'

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