Going Deep: Don’t Sleep on Ryan Braun in 2019
Few players have experienced the topsy-turvy career trajectory of Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun.
Noted as a true five-tool player coming out of high school, Braun proceeded to become a two-time All-American at the University of Miami prior to being selected fifth overall by the Brewers in the 2005 MLB Draft. Following the draft, Braun immediately acquitted himself to professional ball, ripping through the minor leagues and earning his MLB call-up in May 2007 at the age of 23. The next 113 games in Braun’s rookie season still amount to the best in his career, as he posted an absurd .324/.370/.634 triple slash line en route to NL Rookie of the Year Honors. Braun’s 2007 slugging percentage of .634 still remains the highest ever by a first-year MLB player.
Braun then proceeded to rally off five straight All-Star appearances from 2008 to 2012, with an NL MVP Award along the way in 2011 for good measure. Few players in MLB history produced such a dominant start to their career, with Braun’s 147 OPS+ over his first six seasons ranking ahead of names such as Frank Robinson, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Rice, and Miguel Cabrera. Unfortunately, Braun’s legacy became tainted because of a positive PED test in 2011, which was followed by incrimination in the Biogenesis scandal in 2013. This culminated with Braun being suspended for the final 65 games of the 2013 season and losing the trust of pundits, fans, and fellow players alike.
Possibly because of age, injuries, or a lack of PEDs — or perhaps some combination of all three — Braun’s performance since the suspension has dipped. Up until his suspension in 2013, Braun accrued a career 148 wRC+, on par with some of the best players of all time. However, since that suspension, Braun has posted a 120 wRC+, still solidly above average but ultimately pailing in comparison with his peak. Now at 35 years old and coming off arguably the worst offensive season of his career in 2018 with an uninspiring .782 OPS, Braun is being written off both in traditional MLB circles and the fantasy sphere. ESPN’s rankings place him as the 225th player off the board, behind the likes of Marwin Gonzalez and Ketel Marte, while his 215th ranking at FantasyPros indicates that fantasy managers echo similar sentiments.
While his age, long-term headline issues, and recent on-field performance have soured the opinions of many, there are several reasons to be hopeful that the Southern California native can engineer a turnaround. For starters, Braun is one of this generation’s best pure hitters, and if anyone can reinvent himself at an advanced age, it’s a player with the advanced plate discipline, bat speed, and swing control that Braun possesses. Secondly, underlying batted-ball metrics suggest that 2018 was actually one of Braun’s best recent seasons and that he was extremely unlucky in his box score production. Finally, in late January, Braun went on the record about using a private hitting coach and analytics to retool his swing to favor a more fly-ball heavy approach. The combination of these factors points to a big rebound for Braun in 2019 and another turn in Braun’s wild career to date.
State of Affairs
Braun is only two years removed from a 2016 season that saw him produce like a top outfielder. Braun’s .538 slugging percentage that season was top 15 in baseball, and his 80 R/30 HR/90 RBI/16 SB line made him one of the most desirable players on the fantasy circuit.
Unfortunately, Braun’s 2017 and 2018 seasons were the worst of his career on both a rate- and counting-stat level. Injuries hampered his efficiency in 2017 while also reducing his games played to 104, which led to artificially low showings in the typical fantasy offense categories. Braun also dealt with injuries in 2018, however it was also the first year in which he contended with competition for playing time, evidenced by his career-low 3.6 plate appearances per games played. Impressively, despite the onset of father time and deteriorating speed, Braun still managed to post impressive stolen base totals the past two seasons.
One of the biggest concerns for Braun heading into 2019 is playing time. Reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich and standout free-agent acquisition Lorenzo Cain have two outfield spots on lock, leaving Braun to contend with Eric Thames and Ben Gamel for playing time in either left field or right field. But that’s a battle that Braun should win, especially considering Thames was relegated to bench duty in September and was left off the Brewers’ playoff roster. Braun also saw 18 starts at first base last year, spelling Jesus Aguilar occasionally.
Ultimately, given Braun’s age and Milwaukee’s roster, it’s unrealistic to expect a full slate of plate appearances from him at this juncture. However, given a relatively healthy season and a bounce back in offensive efficiency, a return to the 550-570 plate appearance range and the commensurate counting stat production is certainly within the cards. The central question is this: Does Braun, at 35, have room to improve offensively?
While 2018’s .469 slugging percentage and 105 wRC+ won’t inspire much confidence on their own, some deeper analysis reveals that there’s a lot to like about how Braun swung the bat last year. His 116.3 mph maximum exit velocity, 97.4 mph exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, and 49.5% hard-hit rate (percentage of batted balls hit 95 mph+) were all personal bests in the Statcast era that began in 2015. His average exit velocity of 91.9 mph was also his best since 2015 and a marked improvement on his 2016 and 2017 numbers.
To put some context to it, Braun’s average exit velocity, among players with a minimum of 250 batted balls, was 16th-best in MLB (ahead of Manny Machado, Jose Abreu, Eugenio Suarez, and Mike Trout), while his peak exit velocity was 14th-best (ahead of Bryce Harper, Matt Chapman, and Justin Upton). Most impressively, his exit velocity on fly balls and line drives landed at seventh and was only exceeded by Joey Gallo, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Teoscar Hernandez, Juan Soto, and Matt Olson.
Baseball Savant utilizes this type of batted-ball data in combination with a player’s plate discipline metrics to assemble “X” stats that explain what a hitters offensive production should have been absent variances in luck and ballpark type. Sure enough, Braun’s xBA of .296, xSLG of .515 and xwOBA of .368 were his best showings in the past four years. In fact, Braun’s .296 xBA was ninth-best in the majors among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, sandwiched between Freddie Freeman and Justin Turner.
Yet, instead of a .296 batting average, Braun posted a career-low .254. That minus-42 point differential was the highest in baseball last year! Astute observers would note that Baseball Savant’s xStats aren’t always perfect analogs for reality and that certain hitters, particularly slower ones who face infield shifts, tend to underperform their expected performance. But while Braun isn’t particularly fast, with a 2018 sprint speed of 26.8 feet/second, he’s not particularly slow either, clocking in at the 40th percentile in speed. Additionally, being a right-handed hitter with the ability to spray to all fields, Braun was only shifted on 2.0% of plate appearances last season. Players who exhibit structural impairments between their real and expected statistics also tend to do so over multiple seasons, yet Braun’s .288 batting average from 2015 to 2017 actually outperformed his .277 xBA. Based on the available evidence, it seems Braun simply got unlucky in 2018.
He acknowledged this reality in June, exclaiming, “It is a part of the game, and I’m sure at some point in my career I’ve been lucky and didn’t realize how fortunate I was to be lucky. But now I’ve been incredibly unlucky over a large sample size. They’ve looked at it. They’ve looked at ideas, concepts. Does it make sense to change something?”
Room for Improvement
If Braun’s batting average trended into the .290s last year, as it should have, his fantasy line would have been much improved and his stock heading into 2019 considerably higher. However, players, especially 35-year old players battling for at-bats, shouldn’t sit idly by waiting for fate and fortune to correct itself.
While Braun’s upper-tier exit velocities and xStats are impressive, he displays one consistent weakness in his approach at the plate: a proclivity to hit ground balls. Braun’s ground-ball rate has hovered around 50% since 2015, above the MLB average of 45.8% and well above most other power hitters. Put simply, hitting the ball into the ground half the time puts a ceiling on power production and subsequently overall production. Braun has managed to maintain success because he mashes the few fly balls he does hit, however tweaking his approach to favor more balls in the air could result in strong gains at the plate.
Three years into the “fly ball revolution,” a sea of digital ink has been spilled about how specific players could improve if only they altered their swing mechanics to trade some ground balls for fly balls. I’m generally not an advocate of such suggestions because altering a player’s swing is a complex process that entails a variety of positive and negative externalities. But when discussing a player such as Braun, one of the best pure hitters in baseball for more than a decade, I’m more open to the idea. Braun’s strong plate discipline, ability to hit the ball to all fields, and aptitude against all pitch types indicates he has the skills necessary to be successful if, theoretically, he alters his swing.
Luckily, this won’t be a theoretical exercise. Braun hired a personal hitting coach over the offseason with the goal of revamping his swing to hit more fly balls and, ideally, more home runs. It seems like the early returns are promising, with Braun stating, “Based on where my swing was at the beginning of the offseason, I’ve made some productive adjustments, at least according to all of those (analytics).” Reading between the lines, it seems Braun has already noticed increases in either exit velocity or launch angle in the batting cage, which is certainly a positive development heading into 2019.
It’s difficult to handicap how a swing change will affect Braun’s success at the dish in 2019. But the fact that Braun is now combining his God-given gifts with data, analysis, and experimentation makes me optimistic for his future success. Moreover, it’s likely that Braun would have experienced production gains next season based on positive regression alone. Both of these forces combining creates the prospect of, if you can believe it, a breakout season for Braun at the age of 35.
From a fantasy perspective, consider that a player like Angels outfielder Upton is projected for an 88 R/33 HR/88 RBI/9 SB/.249 Avg. batting line by THE BAT projection system. ESPN has him ranked as the 67th-best fantasy player heading into 2019. Even with no improvement, Braun is likely to supersede Upton in steals and batting average, while there is a strong possibility he comes close in runs, home runs and RBI if the aforementioned improvements manifest.
Yet Braun is going in the 20th round of most fantasy drafts. It’s hard to envision a more undervalued player heading into 2019. Don’t sleep on him.
Graphic by Nathan Mills (@NathanMillsPL on Twitter)