From the moment Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun stepped in a major league batter’s box, he’s mashed. The 25 year-old holds a career .304/.363/.586 line, with a .402 wOBA. While that whole…third base thing didn’t work out so well, Braun nonetheless posted 3.1 Wins Above Replacement during his rookie year, followed by 3.9 WAR in 2008.
While his work at the dish was outstanding in each of the past two seasons (.422 wOBA in ’07 and .377 in ’08), Braun is arguably turning in his finest season yet in 2009. The former Hurricane is batting a searing .326 with a 574 slugging percentage. Neither of those numbers should come as particularly shocking: Braun holds a career .282 ISO and possesses as much raw power as any player in the N.L (his ISO is “down” to .248 this season, from .310 in his rookie season and .268 in 2008). However, it’s the other part of his triple-slash line that might cause you to do a double-take: Braun boasts a .451 on-base percentage, fifth-best in baseball and 116 points above his 2008 mark (.335).
Braun was a very aggressive batter in 2007 and 2008, drawing a free pass just 6 percent of the time in ’07 and 6.4 percent last season. In 2009, though? The “Hebrew Hammer” has suddenly morphed into a Youkilis-like God of Walks, with a 15.1 BB%. Intentional walks aren’t clouding the picture, either: he has been put on first intentionally just once thus far.
Braun’s dramatic spike in walks is due to a confluence of factors. For one thing, he is toning down his penchant for swinging at outside pitches. After chasing 30.6% of outside offerings in 2007 and 34.3% in 2008, Braun has gone fishing 25.5% of the time in 2009, just a tad above the 24.3% major league average. He swung at 52 and 51.2 percent of all pitches seen over his first two seasons, respectively, but Braun has hacked at just 39.5% of opponent offerings in 2009. According to The Hardball Times, he has seen 4.0 pitches per plate appearance in 2009, up from 3.7 each of the past two seasons.
It’s not all Braun, though: having been scorched in the past, pitchers seem less apt to toss Milwaukee’s big bopper a strike. Opposing pitchers placed 52.5 of their pitches within the strike zone during Braun’s rookie year, and 50.8% during 2008. In 2009, that figure has dipped again, to 45.6%. Perhaps opponents would rather tiptoe around the slugger instead of watching him trot around the bases.
Ryan Braun was already a devastating hitter, capable of changing the complexion of a game with one swing. But, if he can sustain his newfound patience, he may challenge for the title of best hitter in the big leagues (non-Pujols division, of course).