Most of Ryan Braun’s career is probably behind him now, at age 32, with a past that he cannot change. But each day, Brewers hitting coach Darnell Coles watches him prepare for what’s ahead. The next at-bats, against the next pitcher, and unlike in recent seasons, Braun is healthy enough to prepare in the way that best suits him.
“His early work and his routine are phenomenal,” Coles said the other day. “He doesn’t get away from that.”
Thumb and back troubles hampered him the last two seasons, and in 2014, Braun’s slugging percentage dipped to a career-low .453, and some rival scouts saw a change in how he attacked pitches. But Braun has been one of the National League’s best hitters this year, batting .376, and he’s hitting for power again, with a .600 slugging percentage – seven doubles and seven homers. At his current rate, Braun has a shot at reaching base 300 times this season, and he has been cornering opposing pitchers when hitting with runners in scoring position, batting .444. When he’s getting pitches to hit, Coles said, “he’s not missing.”
There have been tangible differences in the next-level metrics, perhaps reflecting the fact that Braun has been able to prepare for each game in the way that Coles describes: the tee work, a front-toss drill, some work with his eyes for pitch recognition, regular batting practice, all of the physical stuff he uses to complement his video preparation.
His rate of missed swings is at 8 percent, his lowest since 2011, the year he won the NL MVP Award. His rate of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone is at 29.7 percent, the lowest of his career; a longtime NL evaluator says that Braun has been laying off the high fastball, a pitch which he often chased in the past as pitchers looked to finish him in two-strike counts. His batting average on balls in play -- .404 – suggests he is hitting with some good fortune, but his strikeout rate is the lowest of his career.
Braun’s rebound this season has altered the perception of him as a player you wouldn’t touch because of his age and PED history into someone worth considering, rival evaluators say. “As he gets closer to the end of his contract, he becomes more attractive,” said one executive, “and he’s probably a better baserunner and defender than people realize.” (Braun is among the top 20 outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved this season, and has 167 career steals.)