We all know the grimy details of the Ryan Braun scandal by now, so I won't bother to rehash them here. All I want to say is that I've been a Braun fan since he came up in '07 and started tearing the cover off the ball. I've always thought he was a great hitter and correctly predicted last winter that he would win the National League MVP award in 2011 (a decision I don't agree with, but I've already discussed that here and here). When the news was released last Friday that Braun had won his appeal and would not have to serve a 50 game suspension in 2012 for violating baseball's drug policy, I was happy even though the announcement engendered a lot of controversy in the media. The Hebrew Hammer seems to be one of those guys who respects the game, puts his work in, shows up to play everyday, and puts up some pretty good numbers along the way (comparing favorably to Jim Rice so far as a righthanded hitter). In my heart I truly believed he was innocent and that he would be the first player to win an appeal. It's still possible, maybe even probable, that Braun did in fact use performance enhancing drugs, but I'm going to make the case for his innocence.
-First and foremost, there's nothing in Braun's physical profile (six-foot-one, 210 pounds) to suggest PED use. He's not a big, muscular dude with jacked arms (Mark McGwire) and an expanding hat size (Barry Bonds). His body hasn't grown much from his rookie year. If anything, he looks to be on the leaner side compared to many of his power-hitting peers like Adam Dunn, Albert Pujols, and Alex Rodriguez. So where does his power come from? Like Nomar Garciaparra and Hank Aaron before him, Braun has quick wrists that produce incredible bat speed and allow him to drive the ball. His swing is short and compact, much like Jose Bautista's.
-Braun was a superlative player before he reached the big leagues; he wasn't one of those guys (like Joey Bats) that came out of nowhere and developed into an elite ballplayer. The University of Miami star won a host of awards there and was selected by Milwaukee as the fifth overall pick in the stacked 2005 draft class--you may have heard of players such as Justin Upton (first), Alex Gordon (second), Ryan Zimmerman (fourth), Ricky Romero (sixth), Troy Tulowitzki (seventh), Andrew McCutchen (eleventh), Jay Bruce (twelfth), Jacoby Ellsbury (23rd), Matt Garza (25th), Colby Rasmus (28th) and Clay Buchholz (42nd), all in the first round! That's a veritable All-Star team right there, loaded with future MVP winners and Hall-of-Famers. Seattle whiffed by taking Jeff Clement with the third overall pick, a catcher/first baseman who's failed to bat his weight (.223 against 225 pounds) in 363 career at-bats in the Show (that's why the Mariners suck). That's the baseball equivalent of Detroit picking Darko Milicic second overall in the '03 NBA draft ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. Getting back to Braun, he proceeded to annihilate minor league pitching in 2006, and despite a monster spring training the Brewers didn't promote him to the big league roster until May 24th. He missed out on nearly 50 games, almost a third of the season, yet he still blasted 34 homers, knocked in 97 runs and paced the NL with a .634 slugging percentage. I vividly remember supporting his candidacy for NL Rookie of the Year over Tulowitzki, who held several advantages by playing a great shortstop and contributing to Colorado's magical postseason run, but the numbers didn't lie and sure enough Braun narrowly topped Tulo in the balloting. But what if he had been penciled into the lineup on Opening Day with the Brewers? He certainly deserved it, and it's hard to know what the organization was thinking. What might his numbers have looked like with an extra two months of the season? Here's the 162 game projection:
130 runs 209 hits 37 doubles 48 home runs 139 RBI 21 steals 410 total bases
Those numbers leap off the page, especially the 410 total bases, a feat that was almost impossible to accomplish between the 1930s and steroid era. I don't care if he wound up with 40 errors that year (he made 26 at the hot corner and was moved to left field the following season) because it would have been the greatest rookie season of all time. Better than Joe DiMaggio in '36, Ted Williams in '39, Fred Lynn in '75, McGwire in '87, Pujols in '01. That stat line is eerily similar to Jim Rice's 1978 MVP season when the Hall of Famer scored 121 runs, compiled 213 hits, cracked 46 homers, plated 139 runners, and accumulated 406 total bases. There's no doubt Braun would have won the award over Jimmy Rollins with those eye-popping figures. I'm willing to concede that there's almost no way Braun could have hit any of those numbers as a rookie, but he adjusted so quickly to major league pitching (he needed just one week to take off) that he probably would have been in the same area code for a few of them.
Bottom line; the talent has always been there for Braun. The former top prospect is no late bloomer.
-Braun has been a model of consistency throughout his first five big league seasons. In every year except 2010 he's whacked between 32 and 37 home runs, and he's a lock to bat .300, drive in at least 100 runs, and pile up the extra base hits. He's a tremendous all-around player who fills up the stat sheet in every category. Check out how evenly distributed his career highs are:
37 Home Runs-2008
.332 Batting Average-2011
350 Total Bases-2009
83 Extra base hits-2008
He's never had a career year where he went off for more than 40 long balls or won a batting title. Much like Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, he's a reliable offensive machine.
-Lastly, I know it doesn't mean much these days, but Braun seems like a genuinely good guy. He's not a total jerk like Bonds or A-Rod, he handles himself well off the field, and I think he has too much respect for the game he loves and plays for a living to cheat. I don't know how his testosterone levels skyrocketed, and we may never know. He's the only one who knows the truth. Nevertheless, I am disappointed that his test result was released before his appeals process was complete. It should have been kept private until a decision was reached, because when it comes to drugs and baseball the players are "guilty until proven innocent." Everyone made snap judgments and jumped on the bandwagon, some went so far as to argue that he should be stripped of his MVP award. Braun's declarations of innocence fell upon deaf ears, and now his once-pristine reputation has suffered irreparable damage. This test result will always be a mark on his permanent record. If he was clean all along then this couldn't have happened to a less-deserving player. If he did cheat, it's not like he got off scot-free because the past two and a half months have been hell for him. His punishment was watching his name get dragged through the mud for over two months, which is a lot worse than sitting out two months of baseball games.
I was right about Braun in 2007, and again in 2011. I just hope I'm right about him now.