On April 21st, 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers made an historic announcement. The club had reached an agreement with outfielder Ryan Braun on a franchise record five-year, $105 mil contract extension. On top of the previous extension Braun has signed in 2008 (which ran through 2015) the new would keep him in Milwaukee until at least 2020, his age-36 season. At the time, Braun told the media:
"It's incredible for me to hopefully have an opportunity one day to say, 'I spent my whole career here in Milwaukee,' and it's something I truly want to do.
I believe that I'll continue to get better. I've always taken pride in my work ethic and my aptitude, my ability to make adjustments and to learn from everything that I've gone through. The goal is to continue to get better, continue to stay healthy, continue to contribute to winning teams."
Obviously, Braun's and the Brewers' situations are quite different today than they were on this date five years ago. That club was on the cusp of the best season in franchise history, winning 96 games and coming within two games of the World Series. Braun won the MVP award after posting a .332/.397/.597 slash with 33 home runs and 33 stolen bases in 150 games.
Now, of course, Milwaukee is in the first year of a full-scale rebuild under new GM David Stearns. Braun, now 32 and with his contract extension just kicking in, is one of the elder statesman on a young team without expectations. Thanks to steroid accusations, denials, and ultimately a suspension, Braun has gone from one of the game's bright young stars to receiving hearty boos in every stadium he plays in outside of Milwaukee.
One thing that has remained constant, however, is that Ryan Braun continues to hit the snot out of the baseball.
A troublesome thumb injury limited him to full season career-lows of 19 home runs and a 113 wRC+ in 2014. After finding cryotherapy as a suitable treatment to manage the pain in his thumb, The Hebrew Hammer came back with a vengeance in 2015. He stayed healthy enough to play in 140 games, slugging 25 home runs to go along with a .285/.356/.498 slash line and 24 stolen bases. Braun was also among league leaders with a 93.4 MPH average exit velocity and a 36.3% hard-hit rate, helping to further prove that his game was all the way back.
Even after undergoing back surgery this past offseason, Braun hasn't missed a beat so far in 2016. Coming into today's action he was sporting a robust .340/.421/.560 with three home runs and two doubles through his first 57 plate appearances. That equals out to a tremendous 159 wRC+.
Braun is hitting the ball even harder this year with a 94.1 MPH average exit velocity according to Statcast. His hard-hit rate has also increased to 36.6%, better than his career average and he currently boasts a career-high 22% line drive rate. His .368 BABIP would be a career high thanks in part to the fact that he's all but eliminated soft contact at the plate. He's hit just 7.3% of balls with soft speed this season, which would be a career-low by some five percent.
Like seemingly every other Brewer player this season, Braun has also greatly increased his selectivity at the plate. After swinging at 34.3% of pitches out of the zone for his career and 36.5% last season, Ryan has slashed his O-swing to just 22.9% this season. He's cut his swing percentage as a whole down to 46% after being over 50% each of the last two seasons, yet is swinging at more pitches inside the zone (70.6%) and making more contact (85.6%) than he has in any other season in his career. Braun's 12.3% walk rate would be a career-best mark and his 15.8% strikeout rate is his lowest since 2011.
Ryan is still owed $95 mil over the next five seasons ($10 mil of his extension was paid out as a signing bonus), and as I've outlined before it's not too difficult to imagine him being able to live up to that deal in the economic landscape of today's game. Given today's going rate of about $7-$8 mil per WAR, Braunie need only accrue about 12-14 WAR in the next five years to have earned his keep for the Brewers. If he can continue the outstanding batted ball trends that he's displayed in his early 30s, that bodes well for him at the very least being able to continue being an offensive threat going forward.
Unfortunately for fans of Ryan Braun, all of these positive trends could simply be hastening his departure from Milwaukee. Slingin' David Stearns didn't earn that nickname for nothing, and Braun's $19 mil salary this year represents nearly a third of the Brewers' total payroll in 2016. There have been reports that other clubs were asking about Braunie this past winter, and if he can continue his current level of play throughout the rest of the season, Stearns and the Brewers may not end up having to eat much of his contract in order to facilitate a fair deal.
Until that point comes however, Brewers' fans will continue to be treated to watching arguably the best hitter in franchise history. You can count me among those who want to see Ryan Braun finish his career as a Milwaukee Brewer and eventually capture a World Series title, as he made all of us hopeful for five years ago today.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs