An All-Star Comeback

July 14, 2012 | Daniel Radov

For more than two decades, it was the black eye of baseball. The list of players was long, but the evidence was limited. Frequently, mere rumors about use of steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) would tarnish someone’s reputation in the court of public opinion.

Ryan Braun simply appeared to be next in line. This past fall, MLB announced that the 2011 National League MVP had tested positive in September 2011 for a banned substance and suspended him for 50 games. Nevertheless, Braun maintained his innocence. Following a lengthy appeals process, an arbitrator revoked Braun’s 50-game suspension.

Suspicion, however, continued to linger, and Braun became the target of an alleged conspiracy, which claimed that Selig had bent the PED rules for the Brewers’ star. The conversation turned to whether the All-Star outfielder felt vindicated. Braun answered this question with a resounding “Yes” by beginning the season on an absolute tear. He further silenced his critics with an impressive performance in last Tuesday’s All-Star Game on national television. The Brewers’ left fielder sparked the National League’s offense with an RBI double off Justin Verlander in the first inning. The National League would go on to score five runs in the inning. Braun then had an RBI triple, which was part of a three-run fourth inning to give the National League an 8-0 lead. Moreover, he made an impressive catch in the outfield.

Faced with many questions surrounding his alleged use of PEDs, Braun’s statistics in 2012 demonstrate his mental toughness. Moreover, while he is credited with “beating” a drug test, he deserves more credit for having such impressive statistics this year without having the protection provided by Prince Fielder in the lineup. Last season, for example, the tandem combined to hit 71 home runs and 231 RBIs and led the Brewers to the NL Central division title.

FielderFielder’s departure, according to conventional wisdom, should have allowed opposing pitchers to attack or even avoid Braun. In the past, teams couldn’t pitch around Braun because Fielder was next in the order. Consequently, pitchers threw fastballs to the Brewers’ left fielder nearly 60% of the time, and Braun averaged nearly 32 home runs during his five seasons with Fielder in Milwaukee.

Pitchers have thrown slightly fewer fastballs to Braun this season, but his statistics are almost identical, if not better, than they were in 2011. If Braun has the same number of at-bats as last year, he is on pace to hit 44 home runs and drive-in 111 runs. Moreover, his OPS is currently .990, whereas in 2011 Braun had a .994 OPS with 33 home runs and 111 RBIs.

Advanced metrics suggest that Braun is more aggressive in 2012. Facing pitches both inside and outside the strike zone, he has swung 5% more often than throughout the rest of his career. Granted, Braun’s change in approach has resulted in more strikeouts, but the new-found aggressiveness also allows the reigning NL MVP to get ahead in more counts. Thus, pitchers are forced to throw strikes to Braun.

Going forward, Braun should continue to post elite statistics. Milwaukee’s All-Star second baseman Rickie Weeks is hitting below the Mendoza line this season, but he has shown recent signs of improvement. His re-emergence, along with the return of catcher Jonathan Lucroy who was hitting .345 before breaking his right hand, should provide Braun with added protection and more opportunities with RISP.

Although the Brewers’ team struggles might put another MVP trophy out of reach, no piece of hardware can really measure Braun’s accomplishments in 2012. In the midst of the PED cloud and a spotty lineup, the Brewers’ left fielder has continued to distance himself from the nightmare of this past offseason and has affirmed his place among the game’s elite.