The topic has generated plenty of discussion last season and throughout the winter. We’ve talked about it on Brew Crew Ball. The local beats have talked about it. The national publications have done deep dives into it. Even the man himself has spoken at length on the topic.
Ryan Braun was plain unlucky in 2018.
He generated a hard contact rate that was in the top 16% of MLB hitters (min 400 PA). Add to that an average exit velocity in the top 6% (min 150 batted ball events). The frequency with which he “barreled” a baseball was in the top 11% of batters. His strikeout rate (19%) and his walk rate (7.6%) were both within about half a point of his career averages. His 23.1% line drive rate was far and away the highest that he’s totaled in 12 MLB seasons. In terms of the quality of contact Ryan Braun generated last season, one would “expect” his productivity to be among the top 10% of players on offense based on his .368 xwOBA, a product of his .296 expected batting average and his .515 expected slugging percentage.
In reality, Ryan Braun finished with the season with a batting line of .254/.313/.469 for a career-low 105 wRC+. The biggest culprit for his so-called “down season?” That would be the .274 batting average on balls in play he produced in 2018, 18 points worse than his previous career-low and more than 50 points below the .327 BABIP that he’s run up as a big leaguer.
So, at age 35, Ryan Braun has decided to join the launch angle revolution.
Over the winter, Braun hired a private hitting coach for the first time to help him make some tweaks to his swing. He calls them “subtle changes” and ones that only those with in-depth knowledge of the baseball swing will likely be able to recognize with the naked eye. Braun hopes the changes that he’s made to his bat path will put him in the “optimal position” to do as much damage as possible on the balls he makes contact with:
“I feel good about where I’m at. I feel confident about the changes I made. I feel like what I was doing was still working. If you look at the batted ball profile – exit velocity, line-drive rate, hard-hit percentage – all of that stuff is still elite.”
“So, if I’m able to make some subtle adjustments and subtle changes, hopefully I can maximize my success in that batted ball profile. I don’t think I’m at a point where I’d be able to make any drastic changes. Fortunately, I didn’t think that was something I needed to do...”
“Every player, you try to assess where you’re at, assess what you’ve gone through and try to find ways to ultimately maximize your success and your performance, and put you in the optimal position to be successful. Some of this bat path stuff is just trying to put me in the optimal position to have success, give me a little bit more room for error. I think there’s a way to make things a little better, and that’s what I tried to do this off-season. I feel excited about it.”
Braun did step up last season when his team needed him most, hitting .265/.375/.588 with six homers and 15 RBI in 23 games in September. He finished the year with 20 homers, the ninth time in his career that he’s reached at least that threshold. Then, in the playoffs, he batted .286 with a pair of doubles and four RBI, seeing the field in all 10 of Milwaukee’s postseason contests. Though he’s getting up there in years, he has retained a good amount of his athleticism; he stole 11 bases last season, the 11th time he’s reached double-digits in that category, and racked up +4 Defensive Runs Saved in left field, recovering nicely from a down season defensively in 2017 in the eyes of the metrics.
At this point in his career, Ryan Braun has no illusions about being an everyday player. He, his manager, and the front office all understand that in order to keep him performing at an optimal rate, rest and maintenance days are absolutely necessary. But even if he’s only playing 120 games or so, Ryan Braun is still a principal figure on the team and in the clubhouse. As the most veteran player and the longest tenured Brewer, he delivered a string of memorable speeches as the team celebrated an NL Central championship and an NLDS sweep of the Diamondbacks. He’s often lauded for his leadership abilities and how he handles himself at work by his younger teammates. He’s still a useful bat, even if he only matches what he did last season. Hopefully, though, the adjustments he’s made will spur on a rebirth at the plate and a return to the 130+ wRC+ marks he posted as recently as 2015-16.
On days when Braun is taking a breather, Ben Gamel figures to be the top candidate to see the field. The left-handed hitting utility outfielder was part of the trade package for out-of-options Domingo Santana over the winter and has put up a solid line of .274/.335/.398 with 12 homers and 11 steals in 843 plate appearances over the last two seasons for a wRC+ of 103. Super-utility men Hernan Perez, Tyler Saladino, and Cory Spangenberg could all see time on the outfield grass for Milwaukee this season, as well.
In the Minors
Tyrone Taylor earned a 40 man roster spot last year by posting a 110 wRC+ and bashing 20 homers for Colorado Springs last season, and is probably the “next man up” in terms of true outfielders in 2019. Top prospects Troy Stokes and Corey Ray are both also slated to begin the year in Triple-A San Antonio and could factor into the picture later on in the season. Further on down in the minors are guys like Trent Grisham, Weston Wilson, Zach Clark, Tristen Lutz, and Joantgel Segovia.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Savant