It has been long known that Russell Branyan can hit a baseball a long way. He holds the record for the longest home run in Miller Park history at 480 feet, hit in 2004. Branyan flashed brilliant power through his career, hitting 133 HRs in 2319 PAs entering 2009, averaging 34 HRs per 600 PAs, an impressive number. However, due to very high strikeout numbers (a career rate of 38.9%), Branyan had been limited to journeyman status and multiple stints in the minor leagues.
The Seattle Mariners’ new GM, Jack Zduriencik arrived in 2009 after 3 years as Director of Amateur Scouting for the Milwaukee Brewers. As such, he was witness to Branyan’s injury-shortened 2008 season. In that season, after tearing up the Pacific Coast League with a .479 wOBA, Branyan joined the playoff bound Brewers. Branyan was up to his old tricks with Milwaukee. Despite striking out nearly 32% of the time, he posted a .383 wOBA and once again made sabermetricians wonder why he’s never received a legitimate shot at a starting job.
Zduriencik made sure we’d no longer have to wonder, as he snapped up the slugger with a low-risk 1.4 million dollar deal this winter. Although injuries limited Branyan to only 505 PAs, the season was enough for him to silence those who would condemn him to AAA or a platoon. Despite seeing more left-handed pitching than ever, Branyan lowered his K-rate to just above 31% and maintained his well above average slugging ability. Even against left handed pitching, Branyan reached base at a respectable rate of .321 and slugged a fantastic .481. His overall .520 SLG ranked in the top 15 in the American League and his 31 home runs caught the attention of the most traditional analysts.
Still, while doubters of Branyan’s hitting prowess existed prior to 2009, few in the sabermetric crowd were astonished by his season of solid hitting. The real question for Zduriencik and the Mariners revolved around his defense. In 329 career games at 3B, Branyan never flashed the leather. His UZR/150 of -6.9 left questions as to whether or not he could play the field. Still, these are by no means Adam Dunn type numbers, and there was evidence that Branyan wouldn’t detract from the defensive machine under construction in Seattle. The Mariners committed to him at 1B for 2009 and were not disappointed, as his +1.2 UZR and fantastic hitting numbers led to a 3-win season.
Now, Branyan is once again a free agent. With one productive season as an American League starter under his belt, it remains to see what kind of payday he will receive entering his age 34 season. One thing is for sure, though. Branyan has a major league reputation, and he’s no longer going to be a diamond in the rough.