With Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart on the disabled list, protection in the lineup for Ryan Braun has been a hot topic of conversation — especially since Rickie Weeks is currently mired in a significant slump at the plate.
This is from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sunday:
Perhaps not coincidentally, Braun’s slump began not long after cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez went on the disabled list with a sprained knee.
The Brewers tried several different players in the cleanup spot in Ramirez’s absence, but Rickie Weeks (.182) has struggled mightily since taking over the job full-time. With no consistent protection behind him, opposing pitchers have even less of a reason to give him anything good to hit.
The conversation has cooled some in recent days because Weeks has been removed from the cleanup spot and Braun has been on a bit of a home-run binge, but the idea remains intact. Is Ryan Braun seeing fewer good pitches because the hitter immediately following him in the lineup isn’t a well-known slugger?
Logically, the theory holds water. Of course opposing pitchers would choose to pitch to Rickie Weeks or Jonathan Lucroy than be forced to challenge Braun. That’s a no-brainer for almost any pitcher, right?
The numbers suggest otherwise.
Perhaps the most direct avenue to determine whether opposing hurlers are pitching around Braun is to examine the percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone. And coming into Tuesday night’s game against the San Diego Padres, Braun was actually seeing more strikes than he had been since the 2009 season.
Although Braun may be seeing more strikes, it’s important to recognize that all strikes are not created equally. He could be seeing a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone. However, perhaps the pitches are predominantly offspeed pitches. That isn’t technically “pitching around” a hitter, but would avoid directly challenging Braun at the plate.
Again, the data suggests the exact opposite. Braun is seeing more fastballs than he has throughout his entire career. Not only that, but we’ve also determined that opposing pitchers are throwing more strikes — so it actually seems like guys are pitching right at Braun more than ever before.
If inadequate protection in the lineup isn’t causing opposing pitchers to avoid Braun, the issue could actually lie with Ryan Braun himself. He may be altering his approach. Perhaps he’s swinging more often or chasing pitches out of the zone more. One could argue Braun may have become overaggressive at the plate because the bats immediately behind him haven’t been producing (again, this is referencing Weeks more than anyone). Stated differently, it’s possible he’s trying to do everything himself.
The data once again contradicts that point. He’s not swinging at a higher percentage of pitches out of the zone, nor is he swinging more often.
Both his O-Swing and Swing percentages have decreased from last season. Cumulatively, this information suggests Ryan Braun isn’t being treated any differently than he has in previous seasons — at least, not dramatically so — and if anything, he’s being a bit more patient at the plate in 2013. Thus, we should discard the notion that Braun is being pitched around or he’s putting too much pressure on himself with A-Ram and Hart on the disabled list. Nothing here supports that.
Yet, something doesn’t seem right with Ryan Braun. He struggled a bit on the home stand, and his strikeout rate has ballooned to 31.9%. If he’s not being pitched around or he’s not pressing by swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone, what is the problem?
It’s just an old-fashioned slump, in many ways. Braun is struggling to consistently make contact with pitches low-and-away. In fact, this heat map of his batting average illustrates the fact that he’s experiencing the most difficulties on the outer edge.
With that in mind, opposing teams are exploiting that weakness. Pitchers are pounding the 29-year-old slugger low-and-away again and again.
Teams are going to continue crafting their scouting report around this weakness until Braun makes the adjustment at the plate. And history has shown us that Braun will eventually find his swing and start driving those pitches to the opposite field. Here’s his hit chart from last season:
Braun had no trouble using the opposite field, nor did he have trouble with the low-and-away pitches. In 2012, he hit twenty extra-base hits (including eight home runs) to right field, and in the very southwest quadrant of the strike zone, Braun hit .386 last season. It seems highly unlikely that he’s suddenly developed a massive hole in his swing.
Braun doesn’t need better protection in the lineup to succeed. That’s just a narrative that is utilized when a team’s primary hitter scuffles at the plate. He needs to adjust his approach. He’s going through a bit of a rough patch — as rough as it can be when hitting .276/.391/.638 in the first couple weeks — but it doesn’t seem likely that he will continue to struggle for long. He rarely does.