Saturday, July 7, 2012

Ryan Braun is having an MVP season....and no one cares.

Earlier today while I was listening to the ESPN Baseball Today podcast, host Eric Karabell and part-time sidekick Mark Simon briefly discussed NL MVP candidates. They touched on four big names; Joey Votto, David Wright, Andrew McCutchen, and Carlos Beltran. All are deserving players, and all play on current contenders. One player they didn't mention, and frankly the elephant in the room of any MVP conversation, is Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun.

                                           Ryan Braun, preparing to give a baseball a new home.

I'm not faulting Karabell or Simon for their omission of Braun (they didn't mention the outstanding Michael Bourn or Carlos Ruiz either), but it brought to light an interesting question; why is no one talking about Ryan Braun?

The first answer is easy. No one quite knows what to do with the steroid PED allegations. Even if the 50-game suspension was overturned, it was done so on something of a technicality. No one knows what he did or didn't do, and despite his continued production, there are still plenty of doubts out there (sportswriters and MVP voters aren't exactly a forgiving bunch).

The second answer is simply that the Brewers aren't currently contenders. Seven games behind first place in the NL Central standings (six behind in the Wild Card) is hardly insurmountable with half a season to play, but they'd have to leapfrog a load of teams and don't really have the ammunition to make any major moves at the trade deadline. While it's beyond silly that an outstanding player on a middling team doesn't get many MVP votes (Matt Kemp and Jose Bautista should have won the awards last year), it's simply a reality that people want to vote for the best players on the best teams. It's a shame because, well.....Braun is better than most (if not all) of the current MVP candidates.

I'll be clear; Braun really shouldn't have won the award last year. As I alluded to earlier, Kemp should have taken home the hardware, but was basically punished for playing on a mediocre team. Braun was great in 2011; Kemp was just a little bit better. And at the beginning of 2012, it looked like Kemp would be vindicated. A huge start (.355/.444/.719 AVG/OBP/SLG, 12 HR in just 36 games) made Kemp an early favorite, but two DL stints have made him something of an afterthought. Braun, meanwhile, has been a steady force on a very unsteady team (he'll get no sympathy from Kemp), and is having an even better season than he did in 2011.

Currently sporting stellar .304/.388/.602 triple-slash line and fantastic counting numbers (24 HR, 60 RBI, 13 SB), Braun also looks like he's finally becoming a complete player. He'll never be a great defender, and his arm's still pretty iffy, but he's cleaned up his routes to fly balls and has done a better job hitting cutoff men. Per Fangraphs, he's saved the Brewers 1.6 runs with his glove, and while defensive metrics aren't perfect, coupled with the eye test you're seeing an improved defender no matter how you slice it. Braun's also played through three different nagging injuries (Achilles, groin, elbow), avoiding a costly DL stint while still providing excellent overall production.

Then there's the three multi-homer games, including a mind-blowing 3-homer/15-total-base game in San Diego's monstrous Petco Park. While his batting average and OBP are down a little compared to 2011, his power numbers are way up (.292 ISO compared to .265 last year and .255 for his career) along with an improved walk rate. All told, he's been worth 4.0 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), on pace for an even better figure than the 7.8 WAR he posted last year. 

Will it be enough? Probably not. Aside from the all the residual PED noise and playing on a sub-.500 team, he's 6th on the WAR leaderboard behind Wright, Votto, Bourn, Ruiz (also playing on a bad club), and McCutchen. For what it's worth, my money's on Votto, who's a previous winner as well as being awesome and on a contending club. There's plenty of baseball to be played, and injuries or a decline in play could knock any of the aforementioned candidates (including Braun) out of the race. But at this point, I have a hard time seeing Braun getting any more than a handful of runner-up votes,even at his current rate of production. Which is a shame, because he's deserving. For real, this time.

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