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Ryan Braun: A King Even Without His Prince

It was just a year ago at this time that Ryan Braun’s name was starting to be whispered in connection to a failed PED test sometime at the end of the 2011 season. We all know how it shook out. Braun was indeed accused of violating Major League Baseball’s Joint Drug Agreement, appealed, and, in a rather substantial upset, was exonerated in all but the court of public opinion.

Plenty of people believed then — and continue to believe — that Braun gamed the system and should have been suspended for 50 games, 42 more than he actually missed in 2012. I have strong opinions on the JDA and PEDs in general, but this isn’t so much the space for them. The important thing for fantasy players is that, whether you believe Braun was using a PED or not in 2011, don’t bother waiting for the other shoe to drop. It will never come. I studied it for Sports Illustrated, Nate Silver did it for Baseball Between the Numbers, Justin Wolfers and a team of Penn economists did it for a peer-review journal (this was then republished in the New York Times), and pair of stats professors did it for the New York Times, and all four studies came to the same conclusion: There is no statistical evidence to support the idea that PEDs produce abnormal offensive seasons.

There’s no way to know for sure how many people resisted drafting Braun because they were worried he’d suddenly turn to sand, but he surely didn’t. As previously noted, he played all but eight games this season and gave owners very similar production compared to what he gave them last year. While his 2011 campaign featured a higher batting average and a slightly better slash line across the board — .332/.397/.597 in 2011 compared to .319/.391/.595 in 2012 — he hit eight more home runs to help make up the difference. His run and RBI totals were even more remarkably similar: 109/111 respectively in 2011 and 108/112 in 2012.

If it’s possible for a top-10 pick to be undervalued, Braun might be the type who is. He’s a phenomenal hitter, there isn’t a soul who doesn’t know that, but he also stole 30 bases, tying him for 17th in baseball and ninth in the National League. He’s highly efficient in his base-stealing, stealing 30 bases in 37 attempts in 2012 and 33 out of 39 attempts in 2011, so while he doesn’t get an abnormally high number of chances, he should constantly be an asset in that category in a way other 35-40 HR threats typically aren’t.

Notable to OBP players will be the sharp uptick Braun saw in intentional walks after the departure of Prince Fielder. In his five seasons prior to 2012, Braun was intentionally walked just nine times and never more than four times in a year, but in 2012 alone he was given then standing four count 15 times. Aramis Ramirez had his best seasons ever by wRC+, but was still unable to keep Braun from getting passed. If this trend continues next season, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t, Braun’s OBP will get a nice bump, though it will come at the expense of a few RBI chances. He wasn’t much worse for the wear last year, however, so even if he were to reach 20 intentional walks, it’s unlikely to make a noticeable difference in his counting stats.

Positional scarcity certainly help to explain why Braun isn’t fighting for the first overall pick — and why Mike Trout may not go first overall either — but over the last two seasons only Miguel Cabrera has had a higher wOBA or wRC+ than Braun. Over the same time period, Bruan is third in batting average, second in HR, fifth in RBI, fourth in runs scored, 10th in stolen bases, the only player to appear in the top 10 of all major offensive categories. You can’t, as the saying goes, win a draft in the first round, but you can lose one; Braun is exactly the type of player who will provide a high peak without a lot of associated risk and that’s exactly what a high first-rounder should do.