The best season ever by a Milwaukee Brewer is Robin Yount’s 1982. There is no debating this fact. In 1982, Yount hit .331/.379/.578, led the league in hits (210), doubles (46), OPS (.957), OPS+ (166), total bases (367), and WAR (10.5 FanGraphs, 11.5 Baseball-Reference). He was an All-Star, won the Gold Glove at shortstop, won the Silver Slugger at shortstop, and was the league MVP en route to becoming an American League champion. Not only is that the best season the Brewers have ever seen by a wide margin, it is also extremely unlikely to be repeated.
The difference between Robin Yount in 1982 and Ryan Braun in 2011 is not their bats. Both were clearly top-5 hitters in each of their respective seasons. The difference is in the glove — even if Yount might not have been the very best fielder in the league at the time, at 26 years old he was still slick up the middle. Braun may have his awful rookie year at third base behind him, but nobody who knows anything about defense would ever accuse him of being a gold glover in left field. Purely looking at batting (for alliterative purposes) or overall offense, to be more specific, how do these seasons (and some other notables) compare?
Braun is likely going to end the season with the best OPS+ (167) and partially thanks to his excellent season on the basepaths, stealing 31 bases on 37 attempts, his wRC+ of 179 will certainly go down as the best in Brewers history. Yount pales in this comparison, largely due to the running game, as he stole 14 bases against three failures. Whereas Braun’s wRC+ receives a boost for his successes in the running game, Yount doesn’t, as his 1982 was worth a 167 wRC+. The other 30/30 man in Brewers history, Tommy Harper of the inaugural Milwaukee Brewers in 1970, scored a 148 in this more complete measure of offensive production.
There are a few other Brewers who contend with Braun in the “plus stats:” Paul Molitor in 1987 (161 OPS+/172 wRC+), Sixto Lezcano in 1979 (164/165) and Prince Fielder in 2009 (166/160). Of these seasons, including Yount and I think Fielder’s stakes the best claim against Braun’s current year.
Fielder hit 46 homers in 2009 en route to compiling a ridiculous .299/.412/.602 line with 141 RBIs on a very disappointing team just a year removed from the playoffs. His 160 wRC+ was third to Albert Pujols’s 181 and Joe Mauer’s 170 (56.67 times the number of home runs he hit in 2011), but Fielder’s season also had a clutch factor unseen in any Brewers season before or since.
Fielder compiled a 7.79 WPA, meaning his hits added nearly eight victories above an average player — not a replacement player, as WAR is on, but an average player, so nearly 10 victories above replacement — by far the most in Brewers history. Braun in 2011 “only” has a WPA of 5.41. It’s not necessarily a mark of skill that Braun is so far below Fielder here (and is, in fact, below Fielder again this season, who is at 6.11). A player doesn’t control the situations he’s in, and the .400 OBP for Ryan Braun combined with the regular effectiveness of the top two hitters in the Brewers lineup (whether it’s been Hart, Weeks, or Morgan) has meant tons and tons of baserunners for Prince Fielder, which means higher leverage situations and therefore means a higher WPA for Fielder than Braun.
Or, in English, Braun creates the situation for Prince, and then Prince drives the situation home.
Clutch hasn’t been proven to be a particularly controllable skill, and we can see this with Fielder’s much-maligned 2010 season where he slugged .301 with runners in scoring position. If Ryan Braun’s 2011 season were closer in terms of overall production to Fielder’s 2009, I would say Prince’s clutch would be enough of a tiebreaker to give him the nod.
However, Braun has put together only slightly worse raw numbers this year than Prince did in 2009, and given how far down offense is league-wide — 4.6 runs per game in 2009 as opposed to 4.3 runs per game now, a 7% drop — Braun’s numbers are simply more impressive. As far as Robin Yount’s season goes, the combination of Braun’s steals, his homers (33 vs. 29) and his on-base ability (.399 vs. .379) gives him the nod, for me.
You can look at the wRC+, you can look at the 30-30 season, you can look at the potential batting title. Right now, it seems every way you slice it, Ryan Braun is putting up the best purely offensive season in Milwaukee Brewers history.