Russell Branyan is off to an historic start to the season. In twenty games he has already belted ten home runs the fastest any Brewer has ever reached that mark. After starting the year in AAA and mashing there he has been called up and the mashing has continued. The question on everyone's mind is can he keep this up? Of course the answer is no. Branyan is hitting a home run once every 6.2 ABs and has an OPS of 1.260 which is absolutely unsustainable. Ok so the real question isn't whether he can keep up this pace but what can we expect from Branyan going forward?
Before the season started, Marcels had Branyan pegged for a .240/.340/.450 line. That is an above league average OBP and SLG yet he couldn't even get an invite to spring training opting to sign a minor league deal with the Brewers. BaseballProspectus thought so highly of him they didn't even add a projection for him in BP 2008. So is his Marcels line what we should expect from him or should we bump that up a bit with how he has started? Let's investigate further.
I don't have to tell you that Branyan has been hitting moon shots this year. He is nearly lapping the field for the Golden Sledgehammer and only two of his ten home runs have been Just Enoughs. Those two were bombs to center that went 410 and 422 feet as well so when he hits them, they stay gone. The interesting thing is that while some of his homers are on balls he has pulled he also has hit several to center/right center. Here is his total hit chart at Miller Park thanks to MLB.
It appears that Branyan might have turned himself from a dead, dead pull hitter to just a dead pull hitter. Maybe the opening of his stance has helped with this. In fact, looking at this chart you might want to be playing Russell to go the other way because if he pulls it it is gone anyway. Also, maybe a softball defense of four outfielders is the way to go. Why even bother having a third baseman? Seriously though this chart shows just how few balls Branyan has hit on the ground this year. His GB/FB ratio is a staggering 0.15 way down from his usually low 0.6. This is probably the thing that will start to fade in the next months. He actually isn't hitting a terribly lucky amount of homers/fly ball but he is just hitting so many fly balls some of those are bound to go out.
One last thing I want to touch on that I think is a great sign. Here is a look at all of Branyan's hits, not counting the homer from last night (I mean you knew I was going to sneak in a couple PITCHf/x plots right?).
The classic location that lefties are supposed to love the ball is down and in but Russell is only fairing well there. If you get the ball out over the plate where he can extend his arms he is absolutely destroying the ball. Middle away about belt high is his wheelhouse right now. He also has done a good job of not swinging at too many balls out of the zone. Here is a plot of balls out of the zone minus the hits.
Now I am using the MLB defined strike zone here but, as you can see by some called strikes on the outer part, the called strike zone extends a bit to lefties. Russell still will swing at some balls low and away from him but he is not swinging at the high fastballs very much this year. This has been a real weak point in the past for Branyan and if he can continue to lay off that pitch that will mean more balls and more hitters counts. I mean he must be doing most of this damage against fastballs right?
To my surprise Russell has actually slugged better against off speed pitches then fastballs where fastballs are four seamers, two seamers, and cutters and off speed
is the rest. I know these plots get kind of messy but I hope you can see the general trend. His is slugging a healthy .794 against fastballs but a whopping 1.20 against off speed pitches! Change ups from right handers are particularly on the menu as he is slugging 1.55 against the floaters.
Ok so now we have seen all the good that Russ has done but there are still some holes in his swing (shocking I know). First, if you bust him in with fastballs he isn't doing very much. He tends not to swing at those pitches waiting for one over the plate but I would expect the league to adjust and start throwing him more fastballs inside. Also, fastballs up in the zone he has trouble catching up to. In previous years if you threw a fastball shoulder level he would swing and miss a lot. Now he is laying off that pitch unless it is very close to the strike zone, but he is still swinging and missing at a lot of high heat at the top of the strike zone. This is a dangerous pitch though as if you miss your spot and leave the pitch down he is likely to hammer it. He will still swing at breaking balls down and away, with two strikes especially, but again if you miss with that pitch he is not missing it. Also, you really need to be ahead of him in the count for that to work so getting strike one with the fastball is really necessary. Lastly, Branyan still can't hit lefties. In nine ABs this year he is 0 for 9 with 7 Ks. Because Fielder can hit lefties pretty well teams should consider saving their LOOGY for Branyan because the difference is night and day. That said, Ned has already lifted Branyan in late game situations when a lefty is on the mound. This is a smart move by Ned no matter how hot Russell has been. Bill Hall should be able to pound LOOGYs so that puts opposing managers in a bind.
Getting back to what to expect from Russell going forward. I think Marcels is pretty close but I do think that we are seeing things from Branyan that shows a real improvement. Still, he can be had at the plate and it seems likely that teams will start to adjust to his adjustments soon. Thus I am going to adjust the line up slightly to .250/.350/.480 which I think is very reasonable. That still is very good production especially from a guy who has played a decent third base despite what his RZR might be.