There might not be a more polarizing figure in Wisconsin sports than Ryan Braun. Braun took Milwaukee by storm by and captured the hearts of fans across the state when he made his major league debut in 2007. After being a first round draft pick just two years before, the “Hebrew Hammer” exceeded everyone’s expectations by hitting .324/.370/.634 with 34 home runs in just 492 plate appearances after having to wait until May for his call-up, capturing the Rookie of the Year title. After signing an 8 year, $45 mil extension in the beginning of 2008, the next four seasons were more of the same for Braun, as he was an All-Star and Silver Slugger award winner in each, culminating with his MVP season in 2011. After signing a 5 year, $105 mil extension in the beginning of the season (keeping him in Milwaukee through at least 2020), Braun posted a league leading .994 OPS in 2011, hitting 33 home runs and stealing 33 bases, and was valued at 7.8 wins above replacement. He was even better in the postseason, as he hit .405 in 42 at bats with a couple of home runs as the Brewers’ charged to the NLCS before losing to the Cardinals in six games.
Things quickly changed, however, on December 10, 2011, when it was leaked that Braun had failed a urine test for a banned substance. Braun’s testosterone levels were said to have been among the highest levels ever for anyone that had taken the test, though he did pass a subsequent test conducted by an independent laboratory. After Braun’s legal team did their best to tarnish the reputation and call into question the efforts of the sample collector, the 50 game suspension was overturned. Despite winning on a technicality, Braun vocally and forcefully proclaimed his innocence in a press conference before Spring Training in 2012.
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Ryan might have been even better in 2012 than he was during his MVP season, again leading the league in OPS while he slugged an NL-best 41 home runs. Braun finished second in the MVP voting in 2012, doing his best to quiet those that were convinced his numbers were fueled only by performance enhancing drugs. Braun’s performance was again called into question, however, after he became embroiled in the Biogenesis scandal when his name turned up in documents seized from the clinic’s operator. Braun’s first story, that he was simply using the operator as a resource to help mount his successful suspension appeal, seemed plausible enough. However, as evidence mounted, Braun eventually agreed to serve a 65 game suspension, which ended his 2013 season. 50 games were for his failure to abide by the drug policy, and an additional 15 games for his comments against the sample collector and his press conference, which were labeled as “conduct detrimental to baseball.” Braun admitted to using a “cream and lozenge” to get over some unspecified injury near the end of the 2011 season.
Ryan never admitted the specific names of the substances, and never admitted to using during periods other than the end of 2011. The damage was done, however, as Braun was crucified by media, fans, and even other players and coaches. Kirk Gibson, the manager of the Diamondbacks when the Brewers eliminated them in the 2011 playoffs, decried Braun as a cheater, and fans’ rightfully felt anger and angst as Braun lied to their faces on several occasions. Many wanted the former MVP traded or even released. The Brewers’ invested over $150 mil into Braun expecting him to be the face of their franchise throughout his career, but many were left wondering, will Braun be the same player “without steroids?”
Unfortunately for Ryan and the Brewers, we have yet to see a healthy Braun since his perfomance enhancing drug debacle. Ryan had taken a pitch to off his hand early in the 2013 season, and had already spent time on the disabled list with discomfort in his thumb that was affecting his swing. Braun played in only 61 games before his suspension began and his season was ended in July, and the hope was that the extended rest period would give Braun enough time to recover from his nerve damage and be able to put together a strong 2014 season.
Things did not go as planned, however. Despite hitting a home run in his first spring training at bat in 2014, Braun wound up posting career lows with a .266/.324/.453 batting line, hitting less than 20 home runs for the first full season of his career. Braun was particularly awful in the second half of the season last year, slumping to a .669 OPS and 85 wRC+ as the Brewers’ collapsed to third place with an 82-80 finish. Following the season, Braun underwent a cryotherapy procedure on his thumb, and reports were encouraging heading into spring training. There is not a single player on the Brewers’ roster more important to the team’s offense, as he has shown he can be one of the best hitters in baseball while healthy. For a team that was starved for offense down the stretch last year, hitting close to his ZiPS projection line of .287/.352/.500 with 27 home runs will be a must for Braun if the Brewers plan on contending for a playoff spot.
Braun has been positive about his health thus far in camp, saying “So far, so good” in regards to the thumb. He has yet to experience any setbacks injury-wise, though he did miss a couple games with the flu. The results so far in spring have been much different, however.
Heading into today’s game, Ryan is still in search of his first spring hit. In 6 games, Braun has gone 0-12 with 3 walks and five strikeouts. He has been hitting balls hard at least, including a 390 foot flyout on Sunday that was “probably a home run” in the Brewers’ ballpark, according to Ron Roenicke, and a sharply hit ball to third base that went for an out yesterday. Roenicke seems unconcerned about Ryan’s early results, saying “His swings have been really good. We just need to get him some hits.”
For his part, Ryan has remained confident, as well. “Spring Training stats really don’t matter. All of us would rather have success than not, but it’s all about process and getting your work in and preparing yourself for the season,” Braun said, adding “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself with anything with the thumb… I think the further we get into it, the more confident I’ll be in making an assessment of where it’s at.”
Braun has been consistently inconsistent during his career in Spring Training, so it would be unwise to read too much into his lack of hits thus far. Interestingly, Braun’s worst spring training preceded arguably the best season of his career, while his best spring training foreshadowed his worst offensive season. In 2012, Braun got off to a slow start in spring and hit a meager .213 in the preseason, then went on to hit .319/.391/.595 with 41 home runs during the regular season. Last year, Braun hit .417 and slugged three spring home runs, and then posted career lows in just about every offensive category during the regular season.
Ron Roenicke and Ryan Braun both realize the folly of getting too wrapped up in Spring Training numbers, and despite his slow start, fans should not yet be concerned about Ryan Braun’s lack of hits so far in Spring Training 2015. Health is the biggest factor for Ryan at this point, and as long as he can continue swinging pain-free, the hits will come for the Brewers right fielder. Braun says he feels good, so we should feel good, too. Until Ryan starts missing stretches of games or goes on the disabled list, then there is little to worry about before the regular season begins. As the thumb goes, so does Braun, and so likely will the Brewers’ offense.
Braun will not be in the lineup today as the Wily Peralta takes the mound for Milwaukee against the Royals in Surprise, AZ at 3:05 CST. The Brewers will open their season at Miller Park against the Colorado Rockies on April 6th.