There’s no denying that Ryan Braun has experienced a fall from grace over the last five seasons, both in the real life game and in fantasy circles. Indeed, the Milwaukee Brewers' slugger has gone from 2011 National League MVP and contender for the top overall player in fantasy to being injury-besieged trade bait and a PED pariah.
Braun’s swoon in public perception has coincided with a swoon in production. After leading the majors in slugging percentage with a stellar .597 mark during his MVP year and following that up in 2012 with an MLB-leading 41 homers, Braun returned from a high-profile 2013 PED suspension with two subpar power seasons, bottoming out at a .453 slugging percentage during an injury-plagued 2014.
This flagging production and diminished perception allowed Braun’s resurgent 2016 to present a solid draft day value for fantasy owners. Braun slugged .538 behind 30 homers in 2016, finishing as a top-25 fantasy hitter on the year, per numberFire's metrics. Braun wasn’t quite the supernova power threat of his peak, but his 30 homers and combined 171 runs batted in and runs scored helped fantasy owners turn a sneaky profit on an early mid-round pick.
As a result of the good year, Braun will be somewhat more expensive heading into 2017 drafts, with FantasyPros average draft position (ADP) data charting him as the 34th player off the board on average.
Can fantasy owners trust that Braun’s production will back up his elevated price tag?
Injury and Regression Concerns
The case against Braun as a reliable early-round pick is twofold -- he gets hurt too often, and his underlying batted-ball data from 2016 suggests that he will experience notable power regression in 2017.
Braun’s 76 missed games across the last three seasons are indeed hard to ignore. What seems to turn many owners off about Braun is his recent tendency to be rested sporadically throughout the season for seemingly minor ailments. Indeed, even amid his rejuvenated 2016, Braun had five separate multi-game spells on the sidelines.
Thing is, there’s no real empirical counter to the “injury prone” argument. But one thing worth considering is that few of the hitters going in Braun’s ADP range are pictures of health stability themselves, at least not in terms of average games played per season over the past three years.
Excluding the steady health of Brian Dozier (who, to be fair, is more of a potential batting average liability than anyone here) and the baked-in rest games from Buster Posey (whose job at catcher entails more frequent rest than your average position player), this group is rife with injury and age concerns.
Players like A.J. Pollock, Giancarlo Stanton, and Daniel Murphy all have both some degree of recent injury history and thus a certain risk/reward aura heading into 2017. Meanwhile, the most consistent player here in terms of recent games played is Nelson Cruz, who at 36 is the oldest player in the group by some margin.
This is all a long way of saying that it’s hard to see why exactly Braun poses a unique cost-versus-risk problem based on injury concern alone.
Meanwhile, the concerns over the regression indicators in Braun’s recent batted ball data are, on the surface, much more compelling.
Indeed, Braun’s MLB-leading 28.8 percent home-run-per-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB) does seem like a red flag, especially when taken alongside a career-low 25.1 percent overall fly-ball rate.
Combine fewer fly balls overall with an unsustainable amount of this flies leaving the yard, and the regression narrative seems to write itself. But do the other power metrics confirm that Braun’s resurgence was a mirage?
Other Metrics, Other Narratives
Rather than rely solely on two complementary metrics to gauge the reliability of Braun's power numbers, it might be worthwhile to examine Braun’s power tendencies from 2016 on a more granular level. And indeed, it turns out that more event-specific metrics show Braun’s 2016 power stroke to be no clear fluke.
Braun’s average exit velocity on liners and flies was a strong 94.5 miles per hour, a hair above that of Dozier, Posey, and Mike Trout, per MLB’s Baseball Savant. His Barrels Per Batted Ball Event rate was well above average as well, a 10.2 percent mark that bested that of Murphy, Nolan Arenado, and Joey Votto, all of whom posted exemplary offensive seasons in 2016.
Braun also posted a five-year low in strikeout percentage (17.4 percent) and a five-year high in contact rate (80.6 percent). These numbers are doubly impressive given that 2016 was perhaps the most aggressive season Braun has ever posted in terms of plate approach, with his 51.8 percent swing percentage (more than 5 percent above league average) marking a new career high.
So while the HR/FB ratio does indeed foster a narrative in which a declining Braun got lucky on balls lifted into the outfield, the more granular power stats and plate discipline numbers could suggest a competing narrative.
What if a more aggressive, contact-heavy approach led to Braun driving more balls into the ground (after all, his 55.7 percent ground ball rate beats his career average by almost 10 percentage points) while his sheer power and skill allowed him to boost his power numbers regardless?
In other words, what if the X-factor in Braun's homer-to-fly rate is not the number of homers, but the number of fly balls? Couldn't Braun be an adjustment away from turning some of those grounders into liners and fly balls?
Draft With Confidence
The major takeaway here is that Braun is not exactly a slam dunk to experience notable power regression based solely on his sky-high 2016 homer-to-fly-ball rate.
Sure, some regression is possible, but it shouldn't bog down his output too much given the granular power stats and plate discipline numbers.
Those indicators should highlight Braun as a fairly safe upper-mid 20's homer producer with plus batting average and, one would expect, 160 or better combined runs scored and runs batted in. Pitch in some steals, and Braun seems like the kind of player to draft in the third or fourth round with relative confidence.
Tom Whalen — @drillguitar
Feb 16th, 2017