If you’re a Milwaukee Brewers’ fan, you know the story of Ryan Braun. First round draft pick in 2005, Rookie of the Year in 2007, Most Valuable Player in 2011 as the Brewers charged to the NLCS. Braun failed a drug test at the end of 2011, and won his appeal on a technicality while calling into question the character of the sample collector. After another MVP type season in 2012, Braun became embroiled in the Biogenesis scandal, and eventually served a 65 game suspension to finish the 2013 season. Ryan was dealing with a nerve issue in his right thumb at that time, and the silver lining of his suspension was that everyone expected he would be able to come back strong after the extended period of rest for his hand.
Braun didn’t undergo any sort of procedure for the thumb prior to 2014, and despite starting off the season well, he fell apart in the second half and posted the worst full season of his career. Braun managed to play in only 135 games, putting up career lows in all three slash categories (.266/.324/.453), hitting only 19 home runs. His walk rate was lower than it had been in any season since 2008, and his strikeout rate was well above his career average. Braun was forced to alter his approach in order to compensate for the hand injury that had yet to fully heal, beginning his swing earlier in order to catch up to pitches. This is evidenced by his career high 39.0% O-Swing percentage, or swings at pitches out of the strike zone. Braun managed only a .210/.319/.284 line during the season’s final month, when the team needed him most. Despite OPS+ and wRC+ marks of 114 (14% above league average), Braun was not anywhere near the player the Brewers signed to a $105 mil extension.
Following the Brewers disappointing finish to last season, Braun was quick to shoulder a great deal of the blame. He opted for a cryotherapy procedure on the troublesome nerve in October, where the nerve was essentially frozen. At the annual “Brewers On Deck” event in January, Braun announced that he was feeling significantly better than he had at the same time last year. He started hitting earlier than he normally does in the offseason, and has been taking batting practice three time per week without setbacks.
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A healthy Braun makes a huge difference to the Brewers lineup. The most glaring struggle that Braun has had since the beginning of the thumb saga has been his trouble with fastballs. Between 2009-2012, Braun posted wFB (weighted fastball, or runs above average against fastballs) marks of anywhere from 25.1 to 39, or roughly 25 to 39 more runs than the average major league hitter. Over the past two seasons (since the injury flared up), Braun has plummeted to a 7.6 wFB in 2013 and all the way down to a 1.8 wFB last season. A healthy Braun should be able get back to catching up to those fastballs and pounding them out of the park for the Brewers.
So, if Braun is truly healthy for 2015, what can we expect from the much-maligned right fielder? In 2015, I’m predicting:
138 G 594 PA 534 AB 93 R 155 H 37 2B 4 3B 27 HR 100 RBI 12 SB 4 CS .290 BA .362 OBP .526 SLG 54 BB 115 K
While Braun may never again be the 40 home run guy that he was earlier in his career, a Braun that can hit 25-30 home runs and get on base closer to his .368 career clip is still a big improvement over his 2014 performance. Ryan was valued at a career low 1.0 WAR last season, worse than teammates like Khris Davis or Scooter Gennett were in 2014. Given that Braun’s contract extension kicks in following this season and his salary will jump significantly, finding his offensive stroke will not only be important to the 2014 team, but will significantly impact the franchise for the next six seasons. If we rate Braun as a “weak” defender in right field (-1.6 dWAR last season) and as an “above average” baserunner and use last season’s .750 MLB-average OPS, Ryan would be worth a solid 3.5 wins above replacement according to our simple WAR calculator.
Ryan Braun has been a top prospect, a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and the most hated man in Major League Baseball during his 10 year employment with the Milwaukee Brewers organization. He has suffered through a debilitating injury over the past two seasons in his right thumb, one that he finally sought treatment for during the past offseason. Braun now says he feels great, and he is primed for a big comeback season in 2015. If Ryan Braun can find his stroke and become someone who at least resembles the pre-2013 Braun, he changes the entire complexion of the lineup. If he cannot, then his contract could become an albatross that holds the Brewers hostage until 2020. Should the former happen rather than the latter, as I expect it should for a healthy Ryan Braun, theMilwaukee Brewers stand a significantly better chance of making the postseason in 2015.