A few weeks ago, I took Ryan Braun with the 10th pick in FanGraphs franchise player draft. Truth be told, I was set to pick Miguel Cabrera before Niv Shah grabbed him with the pick right before mine. I briefly considered an ace like Felix Hernandez or a top prospect, but “settled” on one of the best hitters in baseball who also runs the bases well despite his defense being an all-around negative.
In addition to his durability (150-plus games in each of the past three seasons) and past production (.307/.364/.554 from 2007-2010 with an average of over 70 extra-base hits), I also considered Braun’s improvements at the plate in 2011. His current .417 wOBA is the fourth-best in the National League and would be the highest-single season mark for him since his smashing 2007 debut (.422 wOBA in 113 games).
Braun’s excellent season at the plate is not a byproduct of luck either. His .329 BABIP is actually lower than his career .335 average. In terms of power, his current home run-to-flyball rate of 17.2% is in line with his career mark of 17.7%. In fact, his .241 ISO is
actually slightly lower than his .247 career number. Despite the slightly dips in those numbers, Braun has improved his plate discipline which has led to the favorable overall offensive production.
Braun entered 2011 with a walk rate of around 7.5% and a strike out rate of nearly 20%. This season, he has bumped his walks all the way up to 11.9% while cutting his strikeouts down to 17.3%. With over 300 plate appearances this season, Braun is past the stability thresholds for both metrics. What that means in future years is unknown – and he is still swinging at 30% of pitches outside of the zone – but one would hope it is a sign of maturity as a hitter. Also fueling that thought, his walk rate has improved in each of his big league seasons while his strikeouts declined.
Also steadily improving season to season is Braun’s production versus right-handed pitchers. Not that Braun was a slouch against same-handed pitchers before this season (.388 wOBA in 2010 vs. RHP), but his .422 wOBA thus far is the second-highest wOBA for a natural right-handed batter in the National League behind Matt Kemp (.437). According to pitch f/x data (hat tip Texas Leaguers.com) Braun was susceptible to changeups and sliders from righties in the past (whiff rates above 10%); however, this season, he is making much more contact and has cut down the whiffs drastically – albeit a rather small sample size compared to career numbers.
On top of all that hitting goodness, Braun is also an above-average baserunner. In fact, his current pace (15 home runs and 16 steals) puts him on pace for a 30/30 season should he remain healthy. Of course stealing bases at a high rate – Braun has an 80% success rate this season – is not the only sign of good base running. According to baseball-reference’s extra-bases taken (XBT%) Braun is effective at moving from station to station often advancing more than the average baserunner.
Defensively, Braun is on pace to put up his third straight double-digit negative UZR rating; however, that has not stopped him from being a 5 WAR player before. Although a -5 fielder would be more palatable, his bat and his baserunning more than compensate for his shortcomings in the field. In fact, Braun is nearly at the 5 WAR mark right now and could very well approach the vaunted 8 WAR season if he keeps producing as he is now.
As much as I liked the pick when I made it, I’m feeling even better about it now and beyond 2011.