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Rejecting Ryan Braun’s apparent regression

He’s oft-injured these days, but he’s still good.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Braun is not an everyday player anymore. A lifetime of playing baseball, including the last twelve years at the game’s highest level, have taken their toll on the 34 year old outfielder’s body. Recurring thumb, back, and muscle issues have cost him many games and disabled list stints over the last several years. The last time Braun played more than 150 games was in 2012; he made only 104 appearances last year and is at 115 in 2018 with a little over a week left in the season. Braun didn’t start any of the three games in the most recent series against the Reds while dealing with an ailing back, and his injury history makes regularly scheduled off-days necessary even when he is “healthy.” At this point, we simply need to accept that Braunie cannot physically handle being in the lineup on daily basis.

What we don’t need to accept, however, is the sharp decline that his rate stats have presented in recent seasons. After an All-Star season in 2015 and finishing 23rd in MVP voting in 2016, Braun posted a career-worst 110 wRC+ in 2017 on the back of a .268/.336/.487 slash while popping 17 home runs in 425 plate appearances. His bottom-line production has been even more disappointing in 2018, even as the team around him chases a playoff berth. Ryan’s 411 trips to the plate have yielded only a .247/.304/.434 slash line; all three of those marks (BA, OBP, SLG) would be the worst totals he’s produced in his career. Braun is on pace for his first-ever season as a below league-average hitter as a Major Leaguer, checking in with a 93 wRC+.

An aging player with a checkered health history, it would be easy to attribute Braun’s struggles over the last couple of years to the inevitable march of Father Time. A deeper dive into the numbers, however, reveals that things aren’t quite that simple when it comes to Ryan’s performance.

Ryan Braun wOBA vs. xwOBA

Year wOBA (rank) xwOBA (rank) BABIP Hard Hit%
Year wOBA (rank) xwOBA (rank) BABIP Hard Hit%
2015 .366 (t-31) .367 (t-29) 0.322 36.3
2016 .378 (20) .350 (t-66) 0.326 34.4
2017 .347 (92) .352 (t-77) 0.292 39
2018 .313 (182) .375 (41) 0.27 40.7

Weighted on-base average, or wOBA, is an all-encompassing offensive metric that weighs the various types of hits differently in order to provide a better overall picture of a given player’s offensive production. (It is the basis for the metric weighted runs created plus - wRC+ - where it is placed on a scale where 100 is always the league-average.) Expected wOBA (written xwOBA) is a Statcast metric that attempts to take defense out of the equation in order provide an idea of how good a hitter has been based on the things they can control - launch angle and exit velocity. Statcast data goes back to 2015, and in each year since the league-average wOBA and xwOBA have both hovered in the .310-.325 range.

As the table indicates, Braun was a far better-than-average hitter in each year from 2015-2017 before his wOBA plummeted this season. When taking into account the quality of his batted balls, however, xwOBA believes that Braun has actually done better work at the plate in 2018 than he has in each of his previous three campaigns. In fact, only four players in all of baseball (min. 250 PA) have a larger negative discrepancy between their actual wOBA and xwOBA than Braun’s -.062. He simply isn’t being rewarded for consistently hitting the ball hard, as evidenced by his career-low .270 batting average on balls in play.

xwOBA is more of a descriptive statistic than a predicative one, meaning that it is better at telling us what has happened than what will. There are, however, a lot of other numbers that illustrate Braun’s continued competence at the plate. His hard contact rate is the highest it’s been since his rookie year. That 40.7% mark is more than four points better than his career average and five points higher than the league average in 2018. He has never hit line drives more often than his current 23.5% rate. Braun is hitting fewer-than-average pop ups on the infield, and fly balls in general; close to 72% of the balls he’s put in play have been ground balls or line drives. When you combine all of these factors, it becomes more and more obvious just how flukey his .270 BABIP - 27 points below the league-average for non-pitchers and 55 points (!!!) below Braun’s career mark - truly is.

Not much has changed in Braun’s overall approach, either. He swings a bit more often now than he did in the early part of his career, but he’s generally attacking pitches in the same areas of the zone. He has fashioned himself into one of the league’s best opposite-field hitters and you will indeed see him more open to swinging at pitches on the outer half these days.

On the whole, though, Ryan’s 51.6% swing rate falls right in line with the 50-52% rates he has posted each year since 2014. He is chasing fewer pitches out of the zone than he did last season, and again his 36.5% O-swing rate matches up with the 36-38% marks he has achieved in each of the last five years. His 10.3% swinging strike rate is only a half-point off his career total of 9.8%, and his 79.8% rate of contact exactly matches his career average. Likewise, his overall strikeout rate (18.5%) and walk rate (7.3%) in 2018 are within less than one point of his career totals. Even his pull/center/oppo rates are within about a percentage point of the range they’ve always been in.

‘Ocho’ has retained an impressive amount of athleticism as the years have gone on, too. He’s swiped 11 bags in 15 chances this season and has nabbed at least 10 bags in each of the last five seasons. Fangraphs grades his baserunning contributions as a net positive overall, and his 26.8 ft/sec sprint speed is right around the league average. He’s made a number of impressive plays in left field and rates well above average there by Defensive Runs Saved (+4) and Ultimate Zone Rating (+5.1). He’s even adapted to playing a new position on an irregular basis, although he hasn’t appeared much at first base since the first couple months of the year.

The injury issues aren’t likely to abate. Of course he’s no longer the same hitter he was in his prime of 2011-12. He doesn’t have quite the same pop anymore, although his 15 dingers and a .188 ISO in 411 PAs are nothing to sneeze. And sure, he’s had some troubles with the low-and-away slider this season. But everything else - except his triple slash line - says that Ryan Braun remains a productive force at the plate as he approaches his 35th birthday. He’s largely the same hitter as he’s been for the last five years, he just seems to be hitting into a lot more “hard outs” lately.

Ryan Braun will be a well-compensated member of the Menomonee Valley Nine for at least two more seasons after this one. We shouldn’t expect him to take the field regularly during those two years, but hopefully the underlying numbers portend a productive finish to a truly outstanding career.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Savant and Fangraphs