Braun & Fielder: A Tale of Two Struggling Sluggers | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

For years, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder were the cornerstones of the Brewers organization. They were two of the most feared hitters in the game and helped lead the Brewers to the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. Their paths may have diverged in 2012, when Fielder signed a nine-year/$214M deal with the Tigers, but they still have one thing in common – 2013 is turning into the worst major league season for both players.

Ryan Braun’s struggles have been headline fodder all year. It continued Friday when reports swirled that he was ready to speak for the first time since his suspension. Besides getting his pump on at Muscle Beach, Braun has disappeared from the public eye. His “apology tour”, as some deem it, appears to have begun within the confines of Miller Park. Ron Roenicke briefly spoke about his conversation with Braun. Adam McCalvy tweeted that Jonathan Lucroy also received a call and other teammates likely did too.  Bud Selig and other MLB officials are reportedly on the list of people Braun wants to make amends. When Braun’s word will reach the public is as yet unknown but seemingly coming sooner rather than later.

By all accounts, 2013 has been a horrible year for Ryan Braun. He’s currently serving a 65-game suspension for his connections to Biogensis and was recently sued for defamation by an old friend from Miami. Prior to his suspension, Braun also faced on the field issues. He landed on the DL for the first time in his career with an injured hand.  Between his suspension and DL stint, Braun only played in 61 games and made 253 plate appearances. Braun also struck out in 22.1% of those PA. That’s the second worst K% in his career. Just behind his 22.8 K% from his rookie year.

Next year will be Braun’s tenth season in the Brewers organization and eighth at the major league level. His current contract has the Brewers investing $113M into him through 2020 and includes a $20M mutual option, with $4M buyout, for 2021. Braun is near the midpoint of his major league career with the Brewers. If he stays in Milwaukee for the life of the contract, he will have the entire second half of his career to right all his wrongs.

Of course, plenty of people are wondering how Braun’s numbers will hold up post PEDs. Eno Sarris dug into this for RotoGraphs and is penciling in a .280 BA, 25 HR, 10 SB season for Braun in 2014. Numbers like that would equal Ryan Zimmerman’s 2012 campaign, if you throw in a few more steals. Even with PEDs out of the picture, Braun projects to continue being a very valuable player. To get an idea of the extent of that value, let’s look at his performance this season (what should, hopefully, go down as the worst of his career). Even with so much going wrong, Ryan Braun still compiled a 1.7 fWAR over 61 games. Here’s how that compares to other players this year –

Games fWAR
Eric Hosmer 120 1.8
Michael Cuddyer 98 1.8
Ryan Braun 61 1.7
Anthony Rizzo 121 1.7
Nelson Cruz 108 1.5
Ryan Zimmerman 108 1.2
Prince Fielder 123 1.1

That’s right. Prince Fielder has played more than twice as many games as Braun, but still hasn’t matched his fWAR.

Behind his stoic demeanor, 19 HR and 85 RBIs, Fielder has been battling this season. He’s slashing .260/.349/.438 with a .177 ISO and .344 wOBA. If those numbers hold, they would be his worst season stats since the 39 games of his rookie campaign in 2005. Friday, the Detroit Free Press noted that entering Wednesday’s game, Fielder was hitting “.219 with five home runs and 27 RBIs during his last 50 games”. But, like Braun, Fielders’ on-field performance was not the subject of the article. His off-field issues were. Turns out, Fielder filed for divorce in late May.

Fielder’s off-field issues may be miles away from Braun’s but they might be having a bigger effect on his season. It’s not only that his average is suffering but also his power. Those familiar with Fielder’s yearly splits know that he posts stronger numbers in odd-numbered years. Set aside his .326 wOBA from 39 games in 2005, and his statistical seesaw is apparent –

Year wOBA
2006 .354
2007 .419
2008 .371
2009 .422
2010 .381
2011 .410
2012 .398
2013 .344

Considering yearly statistical trends, and a 2012 campaign that saw him hit for a .313 AVG, no one predicted that Fielder would struggle so much this season. Few outside of Detroit are even talking about it now. Having the best hitter in the game bat before him, and playing on a team with a record of 73-51, has helped keep the heat off Fielder.

Yet, Fielder’s unexpected dip in production highlights the difficulty in predicting Braun’s value next season. If Braun’s numbers take a hit, people will claim that the lack of PEDs is to blame. But, if the floor can fall from under Fielder due to the stresses of life off the field, who’s to say that Braun can’t suffer a similar fate.

I can’t say with any certainty what we can expect from Braun next season. Whatever happens, expect most people to filter Braun’s numbers through the PED lens. But keep Fielder’s struggles in the back of your mind. Baseball’s mental aspect is too unknown and unpredictable to measure in WAR, ISO, wOBA or any other stat. But its effect on the game may be greater than we could ever know.

The 2013 season has been a struggle for more than the Brewers team. Only time will tell how the blowback from this year will affect the organization, one their current stars, and one of their former stars. Here’s to hoping all three improve next season. The game will be better off if all of them can put the 2013 season in their rear-view mirror.

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