Looking over the depth chart for the defending NL Central champion Milwaukee Brewers, one is reminded that Ryan Braun, 35 years old and entering his 13th major league season, still projects as the team’s starting left fielder. Some observers, perhaps even Brewers fans, might feel skeptical about Braun’s chances of a bounce-back season, considering how things have gone these last few years:
Here we see steady decline in every category. After reviewing this table, it would be easy to conclude that age has caught up with Braun, that he will probably contribute nothing more than league average offense in 2019, and that the Brewers should perhaps even consider upgrading in left field.
But thanks to StatCast, we have reason to believe otherwise. According to Baseball Savant, which uses launch angles and exit velocities to calculate expected results, Braun’s expected batting average and slugging percentage, hard hit rate, and average exit velocity were all 92nd percentile or better in 2018. Here were some of his expected results versus his actual results last season:
There’s a wide discrepancy between what actually happened and what “should” have happened based on the quality of contact. But how much should we trust expected wOBA in Braun’s case? It’s reassuring that since StatCast was first introduced in 2015, Braun’s expected wOBA (.359) and actual wOBA (.357) are nearly identical after 1,441 balls in play.
Furthermore, Craig Edwards has found that for hitters, “there’s evidence to believe that xwOBA is descriptive, predictive, and reliable, maybe even in small samples,” although speed and the shift may cause a hitter to under- or overperform his expected wOBA. Braun, for his part, had a below average sprint speed last season and routinely posts higher-than-normal ground ball rates, perhaps making him more susceptible to shifts.
But the Brewers are a smart team. If Braun was merely unlucky last year, they’d know about it. And according to Braun himself (courtesy of AP’s John Hand), he and the Brewers “talked about it at length last year, that all the numbers suggested that based on my batted ball profile that I was unlucky. But also that I’m still hitting the ball hard and doing a lot of things well.”
Indeed, there are compelling reasons to believe that Braun was simply a victim of bad luck last season, but he hasn’t used that as an excuse to be passive. Braun reportedly tweaked his swing this offseason in an effort to “take luck out of the equation” by adding more loft and hitting more home runs. It’s easy to understand why a player with a 95th percentile hard hit rate and 93rd percentile average exit velocity would want to improve upon an average launch angle that was just 5.8 degrees last year, considerably lower than 11.7 degree MLB average.
If Braun hits the ball as hard as he did last year but with more elevation, he could return to being one of the most feared hitters in the National League. But even if he changes nothing, Braun seems very much poised for a bounce-back season.
Ben Kaspick is the founder of CoveCast, LLC, a sabermetric San Francisco Giants analysis website and podcast featured at CoveCast.net. He has written for RotoGraphs since 2016 and also contributes to SB Nation's Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter @Cove_Cast.