The Ryan Braun Dilemma | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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The Ryan Braun Dilemma

By on June 30, 2014

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 –

Player bWAR
Carlos Gomez 3.2
Khris Davis 2.0
Ryan Braun 1.4

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.

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. Big Lance says: June 30, 2014

    The PED use non withstanding- He certainly doesn’t have the power he used to. But the constant lying to friends,sportswriters,teammates and others really bugged me. No matter what you say you can never trust this guy again. Brewers certainly having a good start to this year but with the Braun factor it dampens enthusiasm somewhat. They still have struggled against the N.L. teams with over 500 records but have taken care of business against A.L. and the poor teams in the N.L.- We will see what the final effect of the Braun factor will be. A lot of prominent sports writers and broadcasters are certainly down on him

    • BrewersWorldSeries says: June 30, 2014

      I can’t emphasize enough my belief that individuals are entitled to their own opinions, and that my opinion is no more important than that of another individual. That said, I don’t personally have a problem with Braun at all. He took PED’s, he lied about it, and then he tried frantically to get himself off the hook. I’ve done things like that in my own life, only it didn’t play out in the national media. I don’t expect athletes to embody the morals and standards that I hold dear to myself. I love baseball, and I love the Brewers. It’s a game, and I want to watch them win. I understand that people attach their own expectations to the game and its players in different ways, but history has shown that athletes come in all the same varieties as people in the everyday world. When we romanticize the heroism of athletes, we ultimately often set ourselves and everyone else up for disappointment. The hatred directed towards Braun has not dampened my pleasure of seeing the Brewers play well this year. He will be paying for his mistakes in the public realm for a long time. Call me a pragmatist, but as a baseball fan, I just want the Brewers to win. Go Crew!

      • Big Lance says: June 30, 2014

        I hear a lot of excuses for this loser. Bottom line if you did something like this in your workplace?

        • MGrunner says: June 30, 2014

          People make mistakes their personal and professional life. Seriously, who lives without making poor decisions. Grow up and stop being so sanctimonious.

          • Bart says: June 30, 2014

            Obviously Mgyver never played sports. Agree with Big Lance- There is a code Mgyver. You don’t cross it- Poor decisicion yes- But don’t lie to your friends about it bud

    • matt says: June 30, 2014

      He’s also dealing with the thumb injury, its not like this is a healthy braun were talking about. I don’t know if youve ever had a thumb injury, but i have had finger injuries myself, when a finger is injured, your strength to grip is greatly diminished, the pain shoots up your forearm almost to the elbow. Now imagine trying to hit a baseball with that kind of pain. Quite frankly its a miracle he’s hitting well enough to stay in the lineup, lesser men couldnt do it.

      as for the trust factor, yeah he blew that, but were stuck with him, he’s not tradable at this point in time so complaining about not being able to trust him is pointless. Also had MLB approached the PED issue properly, like adam points out, there 1. may not have even been an issue and 2 not be a need to lie. The problem is the unreasonable expectations by MLB as an underlying issue. That’s not to say its not braun’s fault for lieing, but MLB isnt exactly truthful, or playing on the up and up either. I put the blame where it belongs, on everyone, not just the player.

      • Big Lance says: June 30, 2014

        Not complaing- I played college sports Tore the ligaments in my ankle- separated my shoulder- Broke my nose- You play thru it. Only thing we had a code- Never lie to a teammate or friend. I get a kick out of Brewer fans giving this loser a standing ovation- He laughs all the way to the bank on Milwaukee fans. Don’t kid yourself

        • Klim says: June 30, 2014

          You say you can’t trust Braun any more. Trust him to do what, exactly? Baby sit your kids? I’m not sure he was ever paid to be likeable or trustable or anything other than a guy that hits a baseball really well.

        • BrewersWorldSeries says: July 1, 2014

          Big Lance, get to a doctor. I think some of the bone shards from your broken nose might have lodged themselves in your brain.

          • Biglance says: July 2, 2014

            Hey dip s- You are the kind of guy we would tie to the goalposts and use as tackling dummy’s with the emphasis on dummy. Praise your boy Braun- I have to go with the quote from David Ortiz- No room in baseball for him or any other users. Oh by the way Brewers World Series- Badminton is not a real sport- What a joke

    • Franco says: July 1, 2014

      Seriously; what does it matter that Braun doesn’t have our trust??? Like Klim says – you’re not trusting this guy with your kids. He’s paid to play baseball and help the Brewers win baseball games – whatever else they get is pretty much extra. Can you not trust his numbers (“cheater always cheats”)??? Again, who cares. Is it not honorable enough to win with a cheater on the team? Tell that to the 29 other teams with cheaters, and the countless teams before that have been home to cheaters. I don’t see any of them discounting what they’ve done because they happened to have a cheater on their team. Heck; its not very honorable to outspend your opponents by hundreds of millions of dollars, but the Yankees are the class of MLB anyway. Not sure what the point of you and everyone elses’ “holier than thou” mission is. Honestly, I just see them as pathetic attention grabs.

      “Brewers certainly having a good start to this year but with the Braun factor it dampens enthusiasm somewhat.”
      - No, it doesn’t.

      “A lot of prominent sports writers and broadcasters are certainly down on him”

      - Why exactly did you expect prominent sports writers and broadcasters to sing praises of Braun when they pander to an audience comprised of 30 teams (29 of which aren’t the Brewers)?

  2. john harycki says: June 30, 2014

    Braun did make a mistake, and compounded it by lying. However, if one looks at his entire career, he has without doubt proven that he is an exceptional hitter, and fine all around player who has been tested for years without negative results. I understand how some are angry with him, but I do believe in forgiveness, and am certain he will continue to be one of the best. Was not his home run Sunday number222, putting him in second place in Brewer history?

  3. Jeff says: June 30, 2014

    Part of the problem with questions like, (do) “PEDs provide a significant advantage to those who take them”? is that there is a lot of conflation going on. For example, HGH and Testosterone are not the same thing. They don’t have the same effects and aren’t useful at the same times to do the same things. Since this all gets conflated into “PEDs,” it’s actually an impossible question to answer in any rigorous way.

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