Ryan Braun: No Longer a First Round Selection?

The boys from Fantasy Assembly got together with some of our friends over at Fake Teams and Rotowords to run the earliest of early mock drafts.  The draft began October 28 at Couch Managers and allowed each owner up to 24-hours to make their selection.  Be sure to check out all the mock draft analysis both here at FA and on Fake Teams.

Quite an alarm was raised when owners in some of our private leagues found out that Ryan Braun was not selected in the first round of this redraft, 12-team, rotisserie-style league.  Braun was selected #13 overall, the 1st pick of the second round.  He was the 5th outfielder selected, behind Mike Trout (#1 overall), Andrew McCutchen (#4), Adam Jones (#6) and Carlos Gonzalez (#7).  While you may not get strong arguments in favor of Braun over any of these selections, the consensus appeared to be that Freddie Freeman at #12, and Paul Goldschmidt at #3 were selected too high and Braun would have been a better 1st round selection.

The argument in favor of Ryan Braun being a first round selection will point at his overall numbers and say, “See, this guy is a stud, 5-category performer.”  And if you go back and look over his 5 full seasons (2007 was his insane rookie year when he played in 113 games, and 2013 was his suspension year when he only played in 61), he is clearly a dominating performer across all 5 roto categories (HR, RBI, runs, SB, average).

2008 151 663 37 92 106 14 .285 .335 .553
2009 158 708 32 113 114 20 .320 .386 .551
2010 157 685 25 101 103 14 .304 .365 .501
2011 150 629 33 109 111 33 .332 .397 .597
2012 154 677 41 108 112 30 .319 .391 .595
AVG 154 672 34 105 109 22 .312 .375 .559

There have been some blips on the radar that could raise some concerns for certain owners.  What happened in 2010 when he only hit 25 homers and stole 14 bases?  There is no doubt that when he has been on the field Braun has produced.  However, you can look a little deeper into the numbers that do not appear on his baseball card and start to see a story that may not have as happy an ending.

Braun has seen his walk rate increase over the past 6 full seasons, from 6.3% back in 2008 up to 10.7% in his shortened 2013 season (it was 9.3% in 2012).  As with most power hitters, he has also seen an uptick in his K%, topping out at 22.1% in 2013 (18.9% in 2012).  Taken by themselves, these 2 statistics appear to illustrate a power hitter with a strong grasp of the strikezone (note his batting average north of 0.300), willing to take a walk in the right situation.  Or, perhaps a power hitter in a weaker lineup who is being pitched around in many situations and pressing slightly in others.

Let’s dig a little more into the issue of pressing at the plate.  Braun hit a career high 51.8% groundballs in 2013.  This is certainly not the most efficient way for a guy to hit balls over the fence.  Due to this, his flyball and linedrive rates also declined.  This manifested in a decrease in his HR/FB ratio, to the lowest level in his career since 2010 (remember that he hit only 25 homers that year).

But is Braun simply pressing to do too much?  Did the pressure of the media coverage of his drug test failure, impending suspension, lack of reliable lineup protection, simply cause him to lose some focus at the dish?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps pitchers found a way to get the immortal Brewer out at the plate.

Taking a look at the pitches Braun faced, there was a clear reduction in one pitch associated with a clear increase in another.  Throughout his career, Braun had faced about 16% sliders every year, until 2013.  In 2013, he faced a mere 11.3%.  Pitchers had also not challenged him with the cutter, but that changed in 2013 when he saw cutters (according to PitchfX) 10.9% of the time, up from 5.5%, nearly a 2x increase.

OK, so now we have a picture of Ryan Braun as an elite superstar who may have some kryptonite at the plate, however he continues to make contact with balls in the strikezone and even those out of the zone that he elects to swing at.  He is returning in 2014 not off an injury-shortened season, but off a drug suspension.  Assuming he puts in the work and comes into camp in shape (and I have no reason to believe he will not be in shape and motivated to prove he is still a great player), why does he not warrant a first round pick?

My personal feeling is that he does warrant a first round pick, just not at the top of the round.  To me it comes down to the value proposition of the position.  In a 12-team league, where you play 4 OF but also have a MI and CI slot, I think it is more important to address the MI and CI area early so you are not left scrambling there.  If you are selecting at the top of the round, somewhere in the top 10 (and not in the top 2), I think you are better served to select a player like Hanley Ramirez, Troy Tulowitzki, Adrian Beltre, David Wright or one of the top OF (Andrew McCutchen or Carlos Gonzalez).  Sure, Braun could deliver you a season unparalleled, going 40-40 with a great average, driving in and scoring a ton of runs.  Even if he is “average Ryan Braun” he should be expected to hit 34 homeruns and steal 22 bases.  I think we would all take those numbers from our first round pick.  But if there is a slight downward trend, and Braun ends up in the 25/15 range, would you have been better served to select Adrian Beltre in round 1 (netting 30+ HR) and then grab a speedster (keep Billy Hamilton on your list of guys to grab 2-3 rounds early) to address the stolen base category.

I ended up selecting Matt Kemp in the 3rd round, with the 34th overall selection, and I think I ended up with a better value pick than Braun even in the 2nd round.  I took Hanley Ramirez in the first round and Jason Kipnis in the second.  I stand to get 20 HR out of each of them, with more steals from Kipnis, and possibly more power from Hanley.  Both should score plenty of runs and I expect Ramirez to drive in his fair share.  But most importantly, I have completely locked down my MI slots.  Sure, I had to grab another MI player later in the draft, but guys like JJ Hardy, Ben Zobrist, Everth Cabrera will be floating around out there several rounds later for good value picks.  Remember, the draft is not won in the first round, but your early picks set the tone for the rest of your draft.  Instead of scrambling when the MI run happens in the 12th round and you realize you have no 2B, you can sit back and ponder which potential high-upside starter or setup guy you should be targeting.


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