January 14, 2013
Painting the Black
The Second Half of Ryan Braun's HOF Career
Ryan Braun is a future Hall of Famer. That was the consensus I arrived at after polling a few BP staffers last week. It’s a sensible position. Braun is one of the best players in the game by any measure. His power-speed combination might be the truest in the league. Since 2010, Braun ranks seventh in homers and 15th in steals. No player with more steals than Braun is within 30 home runs, and only Matt Kemp is within 10 tallies in both categories.
The Milwaukee outfielder isn’t merely a two-dimensional player, either. His True Average over the past three seasons ranks fourth among batters with 1,000 or more plate appearances (Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista, and Joey Votto sit ahead). Even Braun’s defense, maligned during his early days as a third baseman, is passable nowadays, according to those who watch him the most, like Jack Moore of Disciples of Uecker. Moore broke down Braun like this: decent range, iffy routes, and a strong arm, albeit with a slow and deliberate crow hop and accuracy issues.
So Braun is a great hitter and an okay defender. Big deal. Those descriptions apply to a few others throughout the league. What makes Braun special is his current pace. Braun is just the 16th player to reach 200 home runs and 100 stolen bases before his age-29 season (he has 202 home runs and 126 steals). The other 15 players are a combination of who’s who in baseball lore and players known for unfortunate burnouts after promising starts:
Players with 200-plus Home Runs and 100-plus Steals through Age 28
Jackson, Mays, Mantle, and Robinson are Hall of Famers and Bonds, Griffey, Guerrero, and Sosa might be one day. All but five managed to hit 200 additional home runs from their age-28 seasons until the end of their career. Murphy faded quickly; Cepeda’s knees tormented him throughout his career, limiting him to four seasons as an everyday player after his age-28 season; Strawberry dealt with substance abuse demons; Jones fell out of shape; Sierra got in too good of shape (the added bulk supposedly limited his production). There’s no guarantee Braun avoids those fates—though he has avoided the disabled list to date—but you would probably lean toward him hitting at least 200 more home runs if you had to lean one way or the other.
Let’s take this one step further and see what Braun’s company tells us about his home run and stolen base production* as he ages. For an endpoint, let’s select age-37. That happens to be the last possible year of Braun’s contract, so it works as more than a way to curb the survivor bias and sample size issues wont to plague this kind of exercise.
*Some will wonder what kind of impact Bonds’ outlier stats have on the projections. The difference with and without Bonds is about three home runs. Huge on a micro level, less so on a macro basis like this.
Here’s how the results below work: Each player had change in his home run and stolen base per plate appearance noted for each individual season. The average of those changes were then applied to Braun through three playing time filters: 1) straight 650 plate appearances throughout; 2) a gentle 5 percent decline in playing time each season; and 3) a harsh 10 percent reduction in playing time each season. For perspective, Braun’s PECOTA projection through his age-37, and the players with at least that many home runs and stolen bases are included:
Braun’s Projected Career Numbers Through His Age-37 Season
In words: Braun is on his way to joining elite or near-elite company (save Carter’s inclusion). The kind of company he could keep in Cooperstown one day. Alas, writing about Braun’s Hall of Fame credentials means mentioning his overturned suspension for a failed performance-enhancing drug test. It’s possible that, by the time Braun is eligible (2026 if he retires after his age-37 season), the voters will no longer hold performance-enhancing drugs against players, or the overturned suspension against Braun. Unfortunately, an ossified take on these cases is too easy to envision.
The interesting difference between PECOTA and the aging curve method is the disagreement in stolen bases. You’ll notice how many of the 200/100 club members stopped running after this point in their careers. Braun is projected and expected to continue running, in part because his manager is Ron Roenicke, whom Brewers fans have nicknamed “Runnin’ Ron.” Ron, as it turns out, doesn’t run with everyone. Of the 20 players with the most plate appearances for the Brewers over the past two seasons, just three have set new career highs under Roenicke.
Intuitively, it would make sense for Braun to run less as he ages. That’s because sluggers are more likely to be on second or back in the dugout following their hits. But also because they gain bulk, and there’s no sense in risking injury. There’s no telling if or how Roenicke’s philosophy would change were Braun to pull a hamstring on a stolen base attempt. Hopefully, it won’t come to that, lest baseball be robbed of one of its best and rarest talents.