It was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth of Friday’s game when Ryan Braun stepped to the plate. With one out and runners on second and third, Braun accessed the situation and was honest with himself –
“Typically, there’s probably a chance they would pitch around me, but I’ve been swinging so terribly, and Luc’s been swinging so great, that the combination would probably entice them to at least come at me a little bit.”
With that in mind, Braun laced a walk-off single to center on the first pitch he saw from Rockies’ reliever Matt Belisle. It was the highlight in what has been a rough patch at the plate for the Brewers’ star right fielder. After Friday’s game, Braun had slashed .246/.338/.386 with a 23.1 K% and 7.7 BB% over the previous two weeks. The hits, when they came, had mainly gone to right, and his pull power has been almost non-existent. (Dark blue squares correspond to outs.)
Even after his walk-off single secured the Crews’ 50th win, it could be argued that Braun has been the Brewers’ third best outfielder this season. Following Friday’s game, here’s how the Brewers’ OF rank by Baseball-Reference’s WAR calculations –
Now, this doesn’t mean that Braun is having a bad year. His 128 wRC+ is still fourth best amongst NL right fielders. So even with Braun going through a recent cold patch, he’s provided solid production. Updated ZIPS projections peg him as a 3.8 fWAR player by the end of the season. According to Fangraph’s WAR definition, that places Braun near the cusp of “Good Player” and “All-Star”. For me, that feels like an accurate description of how Braun has played so far this season.
Ryan Braun not being the most feared hitter in the Brewers’ line-up is a change of pace for Brewers fans. It was also inevitable. He missed 14 games with a strained oblique, earlier this season, and has been playing through a nagging nerve injury to his right thumb, a factor that would be expected to affect his performance.
Also, at the age of 30, Braun has reached the precipice of baseball’s perceived aging curve. The idea that a baseball player reaches his peak between age 27-30 seasons has been around for a while. Though there is a debate about exactly when players are most likely to reach said peak, everyone agrees that by the age of 30 that a player’s numbers typically trend down.
A few years ago, Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs dissected the aging curves of star hitters. Simply, he wondered if an elite player aged differently than an average player. Zimmerman surmised that, “at 30, great players begin to see a pronounced decline.” The peak years of elite players plateaued longer than a normal player, but father time still exacted his revenge around the same time.
In addition, J.C. Bradbury evaluated players “peak age by skill” across multiple categories for Baseball Prospectus (free article). His assessment is more extensive but his conclusion similar. To summarize his findings, Bradbury quoted Bill James, whose piece “Looking for Prime” first used analytics to identify a player’s peak age –
“Good hitters stay around, weak hitters don’t. Most players are declining by age 30; all players are declining by age 33. There are differences in rates of decline, but those differences are far less significant for the assessment of future value than are the differing levels of ability.” (The Bill James Baseball Abstract, 1982, p. 205)
So it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see Braun’s numbers begin to dip. Based on his age alone, they should. His nagging thumb injury should further affect his performance. But those two issues aren’t Braun’s main dilemma. Braun’s big problem is that many people will link any slide in his production to his PED use.
MLB’s zero tolerance PED policy won’t help Braun’s case either. Without a concerted effort by the league to analyze and understand PEDs’ effect on players, the game is adrift amidst assumptions and emotions. Some would argue that Nelson Cruz’s successful 2014 campaign suggests that BioGenesis was nothing more than snake oil. Others whole-heartedly believe that PEDs provide a significant advantage to those who take them. Personally, I don’t know what to believe, or how to factor it into Braun’s recent, and future, performance.
What I believe is that PEDs will always be a part of this game. If there’s an edge to be had, there will always be someone willing to sharpen it. When it comes to undesirable, yet inevitable, situations, I defer to the colorful wisdom of former President Lyndon Johnson, “It’s probably better to have [them] inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent piss in.”
Yes, I understand that PEDs could provide an unnatural edge to those who take them. Yet, doesn’t the number of arm and oblique injuries suggest that playing baseball seven or eight straight months also seems to be “unnatural” for the human body? If one “unnatural” thing could be used to balance out another, isn’t it of benefit to the sport?
What I’m suggesting isn’t a PED user’s paradise. I believe that MLB should consider allowing players to use authorized PEDs, under the supervision of a team physician, while on the DL or during the off-season. This would provide the league with a sample size of players to begin understanding what, if any, affects PEDs provide. Testing would stay in place to weed out stronger enhancers, like anabolic steroids. Hopefully, by providing players with a legitimate path to use some PEDs, it would discourage them from leaving the tent to find others. This is far from a perfect, or complete, plan, but it’s a step towards addressing an issue that MLB must eventually face.
Like it or not, Ryan Braun is a symbol of the modern game more than some would care to admit. MLB is filled with extremely talented and driven individuals who are willing to take risks to win, make a fortune, and/or achieve their goals. For instance, look at Matt Harvey. During his recent Tommy John surgery, Dr. James Andrews wrapped Harvey’s wrist tendon around his partly torn ulnar collateral ligament three times. Normally, the tendon is wrapped around once or twice. When I heard Harvey talk about the procedure, he said the doctors referred to his repaired UCL as a “super ligament”.
Medical science is already changing the game and PEDs are part of that picture. For the MLB to turn its back on PEDs because of its checkered past is a huge mistake. That’s one of the game’s main dilemmas. One, I believe, that is better dealt with if offered a seat at the table rather than hidden out back.
For me, I have had to come to terms with the fact that we don’t know exactly how good Ryan Braun will be going forward or exactly how much benefit he got from PEDs. I’m fascinated to see how this will play out, yet disappointed that the Brewers’ current cornerstone player will always have that cloud hovering over his head. Because, no matter how Braun performs going forward, he will never be able to wash his hands of it.
Eight years into his career and Braun already has the third highest position player bWAR (36.5) in team history. Trailing only Paul Molitor (58.6 bWAR) and Robin Yount (82.2 bWAR). As if figuring out how to separate his performance from PEDs wasn’t hard enough, just wait until people begin to debate Braun’s legacy. As Brewers fans, I guess that will be our dilemma.