Hunter Brown develops his skills as a starter

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – For a player to attain any notice from scouts playing at a Division II college, they must prove they have the physical and mental endurance to withstand the pressure of the professional game. During his three-year career at Wayne State, pitcher Hunter Brown seamlessly answered those concerns to earn a fifth-round selection by the Houston Astros in June’s MLB draft and a spot on the organization’s top-30 prospect list.

“I think wherever you play, the scouts will find you if you have the talent and the ability,” Brown said. “I guess I realized I would be a fifth-round pick when I saw my name on the draft board. I started talking to scouts in the fall or winter time my junior season. The thought was if I put a good season together then maybe I would have the opportunity to play some pro ball. In college, you try to focus on playing for your team and not about the draft.”

Located in Detroit, Michigan, Wayne State produced two major leaguers in its existence. Its most recent alumnus was Anthony Bass, a relief pitcher for the Seattle Mariners. The baseball program takes pride in its success and recently completed its most successful season since 2014, reaching the Division II Midwest Regional Final.

“There’s a lot of talent that came out of Wayne State. Anthony Bass, who is pitching in the big leagues now, for example. Jared Tobey, who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers last year. It is a testament to the culture created by head coach Ryan Kelley at Wayne State,” Brown said. “He’s been there a long time and has done a really good job of bringing people into the school along with the assistant coaches and the grad assistants. They create a culture of having a ‘name on the back mentality.’ We have a brotherhood at Wayne State, and you can reach out to anybody.” 

Coming out of Lakeview High School, Brown did not receive much attention from Division I programs, despite being a team captain and posting a 1.54 ERA as a senior. While Eastern Michigan offered Brown an opportunity to pitch as a walk-on, he believed that Wayne State would provide the best place for him to reach his potential as a student-athlete. Brown would initially pitch out of the bullpen for the Warriors before moving into the starting rotation as a junior.

“I thought Wayne State was the right fit for me and a good opportunity that Coach Kelley gave me. I matured both physically and mentally,” Brown said. “All of the guys take you under their wing and show you the ropes. You are held accountable with your schoolwork and from an athletic standpoint. It helped me as a person and the strength and conditioning coaches. I was sold on Wayne State because they believed in me, and it turned out to be the right fit.”

Although some players benefit from assuming a smaller workload in relief, Brown took the opposite path with the transition to a starting role and flourished during his junior season. In his first year as a full-time starter, he registered a 9-0 record with a 2.21 ERA in 14 starts and held the opposition to a .203 batting average. He also saw a sharp spike in his strikeout rate, registering 114 in 85 1/3 innings pitched.

Experts began to observe his potential and projected him among the top-100 players in this year’s draft.

“I started a couple of times as a freshman and a sophomore. We had a new pitching coach going into my junior year in Alex Maloney out of Ball State, and he challenged myself and other guys to get better,” Brown said. “I always had the belief that I could be a starting pitcher. It was all about putting it together, and that offseason, I built up, and my mindset got better. It was a transition they wanted me to make and a transition that I wanted to make. As an upperclassman, you know who you are as a pitcher.”

Brown’s ascension to prospect status came in large part to the uptick in velocity on his four-seam fastball that peaked into the mid-90s last spring. His fastball generates late downward action, while his slider serves as his main off-speed pitch and can tail in against left-handed batters. A changeup serves as a third offering and continues to improve with repetition. He features a traditional delivery for a right-handed pitcher with the ability to attack the strike zone and maintain his command.

“I have been working on the fastball, slider and changeup and also throwing a curve,” Brown said. “That’s something I want to continue progressing in as a professional and getting a better mix and feel for all of my pitches and being consistent in the strike zone. It can go a long way. The work I’m putting in is a testament to the Astros and the pitching coach John Kovalik. My slider showed some good bite in college, but now it’s now it’s more consistent because I’m throwing it often.”

Joining the Astros organization also held sentimental meaning for Brown as a Detroit native who grew up a Tigers fan and emulated Justin Verlander. Watching the impact Verlander had on the franchise since being acquired in a trade in 2017, adds another element of significance for Brown as he embarks on a pro career with an organization that placed a premium on drafting and developing quality pitching at each level.

The Astros selected 17 pitchers in this year’s draft and continue to focus heavily on run prevention and building a core of promising arms.

“Being from Detroit it’s huge to be in the same organization as Verlander because I grew up watching him,” Brown said. “When I was younger, I tried to mimic everything he did. Starting pitching is coveted everywhere you go, especially in Houston. They do a great job developing young players and the way they progress through the system. I think going to a championship level organization like the Astros gives you a sense of security because they have everything figured out.  I heard a lot of good things about the Astros. I cannot wait to be a part of it.”

The stout mechanics for Brown enabled him to hold pro hitters to a .156 average in his first ten appearances with the Tri-City ValleyCats. His batterymate Korey Lee, a first-round pick out of California, worked with Brown on navigating through lineups and mixing his pitches throughout each appearance.

Since Brown threw the most innings of his career as a junior, the Astros looked to limit his innings initially by having him between starting and relieving depending on the outing.

“Korey Lee is a first-round talent and a great guy,” Brown said. “He is smart, and he’s been around the game. He worked with a lot of different people and a lot of different coaches. Working with him is a lot of fun because we click. Other catchers I worked with are C.J. Stubbs, Nate Perry, and Juan Paulino. As a whole everybody works well and does a good job together. At the end of the day, catchers have different styles, and there are times they will have to trust you, and you will have to trust them, so you have to find a balance. It comes with experience.”

Read a MLB draft profile on Hunter Brown by Dan Zielinski III here.

Video of Hunter Brown
Gershon Rabinowitz
Gershon Rabinowitz
Gershon Rabinowitz is a reporter based in the New York market who has covered a variety of sporting events including the MLB draft, the 2016 World Baseball Classic, and Big Ten Hockey at Madison Square Garden. In 2013, he co-founded the website Baseball Essential and currently specializes in coverage of professional baseball and hockey.

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