Announcers and hitting coaches love to talk about hitting the ball to all fields, and especially hitting the ball to all fields with power. Not every elite hitter uses such an approach — Jose Bautista uses left field almost exclusively, for example. But Bautista’s way of hitting — pure pull power, with tons of fly balls — has it’s drawbacks; it is a finely tuned system available to a select few specimens.
After the 2010 season, it wasn’t clear Ryan Braun would become the elite power hitter suggested by his explosive 34-homer, .634 SLG, .310 ISO debut season. Every season after he came up, his ISO dipped by at least 34 points until he slugged just .501 with 25 homers in 2010. Braun was never the kind of pull power hitter Bautista embodies, but much of his power away from left field came in the form of doubles (45 in 2010), not home runs.
And that Braun was just fine — a consistently All-Star caliber even considering his deficiencies in the field, and one of the better hitters in the league. But when the Brewers extended his team-friendly seven-year, $45 million deal with a five-year, $105 million rider, the club was signaling an expectation of more. That is beyond All-Star money, it’s the money reserved for the best.
The Brewers certainly were not paying Braun for his improvements in left field. For Braun to take a step forward from great hitter to franchise carrying, league-leader hitter, he needed to find power beyond his pull stroke. In 2010, just three of his came right of center field. his lowest since his 492 plate appearance rookie campaign.
Once Braun returned to the field after signing the contract, the power it demanded — the power that made his rookie season a spectacle (beyond his third base defense, which fluctuated between morbidly and hilariously awful) — returned. Observe, all of Braun’s career home runs mapped out by true landing spot (per ESPN Hit Tracker).
The darker the dot, the later the season. Although left field is peppered with dots of varied saturation, right field is populated by darkness. His 2007 exploits are visible, but dominated by the work he’s done in the 2011 and 2012 season, such as these works:
He goes up the middle:
To right-center (you’ll have to wait through about 10 foul balls for this one):
And down the line:
After hitting 31 home runs to the opposite field in his first four years in the majors, Braun has equaled that total in his past two. Although his team’s failures will likely preclude him from MVP consideration, he’s been nearly as good as in 2011′s winning season — .311/.388/.605, a 167 wRC+ and 7.0 WAR through the first five months and change of this season. In pushing his power from foul pole to foul pole, Braun has grown into the perennial MVP candidate the Brewers expected when the made him their franchise player back at the start of the 2011 season.