Take a step back to December 9th, 2011. The city of Milwaukee was brimming with baseball pride. During his fifth season with the Brewers, Ryan Braun had recently captured Milwaukee’s first MVP award since Robin Yount did so in 1989, and on the heels of a trip to the NLCS, things were looking bright for the Crew with Braun locked into a long-term extension.
Then, December 10th happened.
On that date, an Outside the Lines report was released implicating Braun as a PED-user, stating that he had tested positive for abnormally high levels of testosterone during the playoffs. Braun’s reputation took a nosedive, and after an outstanding 2012 season, his on-field performance experienced a decline as well.
After two injury-riddled campaigns in 2013 and 2014, Braun bounced back in a big way, accumulating 3.2 WAR in 2015 and 3.4 WAR in 2016 while slashing a combined .295/.361/518 over the two seasons. However, 2017 and 2018 were not as kind to Braun – he has posted a sub-2.0 WAR in both years, and saw large decreases in both his batting average and slugging percentage, as his cumulative stats dropped to .261/.325/.478.
Some of these struggles are surely due to Braun’s age. As an injury-prone player in his age 33 and 34 seasons, a decrease in production was to be expected. However, another part of the issue, especially in 2018, was more abstract – Braun seemingly was extremely unlucky.
I’m sure every fan who regularly watched the Brewers last season can remember at least a few instances of Braun hitting a ball right on the nose, only for it to be directly at a member of the defense. While these memories are a qualitative indicator of his “unluckiness”, there are quantitative measures that back it up. MLB’s “Statcast” tracks the velocity and launch angle of every batted ball, and from that data can determine what a player’s stats were expected to be over the course of a season based on his batted ball profile. We can compare these to Braun’s actual stats to see the extent of his “unluckiness”.
In 2018, the difference between Braun’s expected stats and his actual stats was stark to say the least. While he slashed .254/.313/.469, his expected line was .296/.355/.515. Essentially, Braun hit the ball like an all-star caliber player, but got results that would place him as an average regular.
Statcast also measures two statistics called wOBA and xwOBA, which stand for “weighted on-base average” and “expected weighted on-base average”. These statistics account for the true value of each offensive outcome (single, double, etc.) by using the “run values” for each, rather than counting simply by total bases. Given that a single is not actually worth half as much double as is currently represented in slugging percentage, wOBA accounts for that and gives a better indicator of actual offensive output by giving each event its proper value. Accordingly, xwOBA calculates what a player’s offensive output in this regard should have been given his batted ball profile (quality of contact). For Ryan Braun in 2018, he saw a huge negative gap between his expected and actual weighted-on base averages, further adding to the notion that he experienced bad luck. His xwOBA was .368, good for 30th best in the league, putting him in line with the actual 2018 performances of all-stars like Charlie Blackmon, Mitch Haniger, Javier Baez, and Francisco Lindor. The difference between his expected (.368) and actual (.330) performance was the eighth largest negative gap in the league.
To attempt to bridge the gap between his expected performance and actual performance, Braun decided to embark this offseason on a certain process for the first time in his career – a swing change. He actually started to tweak it during September, during which he saw his best numbers of the 2018 season (.265/.375/.588 with 6 home runs). During September, Braun coincidentally also had his highest percentage of hard hit balls of any month last year (66.7%), which was the highest hard hit rate for any player in any month of last year. Not only could a swing change help him change his luck, but it could actually lead to some of the best stats of his career.
With this swing change, he is aiming to increase the launch angle of his average batted ball, which he believes will help him generate stats that are more in line with his high-level batted ball profile. To illustrate, he said the following during an interview in January: “If you want to take luck out of the equation, you hit more balls over the fence,” he said. “If I’m able to do that, luck becomes less of a factor.” Based on that quote, fans in the left field bleachers at Miller Park might want to pay extra attention when Braun is up this year.
In all seriousness, if Braun can pull off this swing change with success, it could lead to a completely revitalized career trajectory, with team success for the Brewers being an obvious byproduct. Rather than being on his last legs, Braun could play at a high level for another three to four years, given his body holds up. With his contract with the Brewers running through 2021, you can bet that Braun performing in line with his expected statistics would be a true difference maker in helping solidify the Crew as a perennial contender in the NL.