Ryan Braun’s Complicated Legacy

The announcement was inevitable, with only its timing in question. On Tuesday, Ryan Braun formalized what had been presumed since last winter, namely his decision to retire from baseball. The 37-year-old slugger made his announcement via the Twitter feed of the Brewers, the team that drafted him out of the University of Miami with the fifth pick in 2005, and the one with whom he spent his entire 14-year major league career.

Braun hit just .233/.281/.488 for a career-low 99 wRC+ last season, as back and right index finger injuries limited his playing time to 39 games and 141 plate appearances. In late October, the Brewers declined their end of a $15 million mutual option, choosing instead to pay him a $4 million buyout. It was the first time he’d ever reached free agency, as he spent all but his 2007 rookie season playing under two long-term extensions, first an eight-year, $45 million deal that covered 2008-15, and then a five-year, $105 million deal that covered 2016-20.

Braun and the Brewers remained in touch through the winter, and he went so far as to visit the Brewers during spring training. Even so, he told MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy in February that he was enjoying his time with his family and business interests and didn’t foresee resuming his career, saying, “I’m continuing to work out and stay in shape, but I’m not currently interested in playing.” Braun reiterated that stance in May, when Team USA reached out to ask whether he was interested in pursuing a spot on the US Olympic squad, which ultimately won a silver medal with the similarly unsigned likes of Ian Kinsler and Scott Kazmir taking on pivotal roles. Team Israel had expressed interested as well, given Braun’s Jewish heritage.

By the numbers, Braun put together an impressive career, even given the injuries that limited him to an average of 130 games a year from 2014-19, with never more than 144 in a season over that stretch. He hit .296/.358/.532 with 352 home runs, 216 stolen bases, a 135 wRC+, and 43.9 fWAR (47.1 bWAR). After rocky beginnings as a third baseman — his -32 Defensive Runs Saved in 2007 is a record low for the position — he became a defensively solid left fielder. He made six All-Star teams, won the NL Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, and finished second and third in the voting for the latter award as well within his career-opening six-season run of receiving MVP support. He hit 30 or more homers six times, leading the NL once in that category and twice in slugging percentage. A swift and smart baserunner, he reached the twin plateaus of 30 homers and 30 steals in the same season in both 2011 and ’12.

What’s more, Braun defined an era of baseball renaissance in Milwaukee. Including its one-off season as the Seattle Pilots, the franchise made the playoffs just twice in its first 38 campaigns, back in 1981 and ’82. With Braun bopping 34 homers in just 113 games en route to Rookie of the Year honors in 2007, the Brewers finished above .500 for the first time in 15 years. The next year, they made the playoffs as the NL Wild Card; it was the first of five times the team reached October with Braun. In 2011 and ’18 they won NL Central titles and advanced as far as the NLCS, only to fall just short of trips to the World Series.

For all of that, Braun’s career is tainted, not only by his connection to performance-enhancing drugs, which resulted in a 65-game suspension in 2013, but to his actions when he was previously caught — only to become the first player to have such a suspension overturned. In December 2011, less than a month after Braun beat out Matt Kemp for the NL MVP award, Major League Baseball suspended him for 50 games for testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone, later discovered to be synthetic; the sample was taken after the Brewers’ first postseason game in October. With a spokesman citing “highly unusual circumstances,” “Ryan’s complete innocence,” “impeccable character and no previous history” of violations, Braun challenged the suspension. In February 2012, an arbitration panel overturned it due a technicality involving the delay between when he submitted his sample and when the collector submitted it to the lab.

“Today is for everybody who has ever been wrongly accused,” Braun proclaimed at a press conference after the result was announced. “The simple truth is that I’m innocent. The truth is always relevant and the truth prevailed.”

“I would bet my life this substance never entered my body,” he added.

After reporting to the Brewers’ spring training facility, Braun continued to lay it on thick, going so far as to publicly smear the sample collector, a man named Dino Laurenzi, Jr., by telling reporters, “There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way that the entire thing worked, that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened.”

More than a year later, after Braun accepted a 65-game suspension for receiving PEDs through the Biogenesis Clinic, Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan reported that in attempting to rally support for his cause among his peers, Braun “told players around baseball before spring training 2012 that the man who collected his urine that tested positive for synthetic testosterone was anti-Semitic and a Chicago Cubs fan in an effort to gather support throughout the game.” ESPN’s Buster Olney reported the allegations of anti-Semitism as well.

Such chutzpah! Of all the ballplayers caught using PEDs either via investigations or tests over the past two decades, Braun is the only one I can recall who impugned the workers involved in the testing process. What’s more, he used his religion as a shield, invoking anti-Semitism as a motive for what the arbitration panel ruled was an improperly handled (but untampered) sample. Even without the knowledge of what came next — the underlying evidence of Braun’s PED regimen, and his admission that he was using a testosterone cream and lozenges to deal with “nagging injuries,” meaning that he was in fact doping at the time of the mishandled sample — it was an incredibly disappointing display.

Braun was 29 years old when he was suspended. To that point, he offered durability to go with a package of power, speed, and patience; from 2008-12, he averaged 154 games, 34 homers, 22 steals and 5.4 WAR while hitting for a 148 wRC+. Post-suspension, he slipped to averages of 130 games, 22 homers, 14 steals and 2.1 WAR per year. That’s not to say that he was simply a product of whatever he was putting into his body; it’s a pretty typical aging pattern. So typical, in fact, that the ZiPS projection Dan Szymborski created for Braun from 2014 onward is uncanny:

ZiPS Projections vs. Actual – Ryan Braun (2014)
2014 .297 .363 .500 582 90 173 32 4 26 97 55 22 138 1 3.6
2015 .294 .358 .502 554 85 163 32 4 25 93 51 17 132 0 3.2
2016 .289 .353 .487 532 79 154 30 3 23 86 48 17 120 0 2.7
2017 .285 .348 .469 508 72 145 27 3 20 78 44 14 110 -1 2.1
2018 .282 .341 .449 483 65 136 24 3 17 70 39 12 110 -2 1.4
2019 .277 .332 .429 452 57 125 21 3 14 61 34 10 96 -2 0.8
2020 .269 .320 .401 349 42 94 15 2 9 43 23 7 93 -3 0.0
2021 .258 .306 .364 283 31 73 10 1 6 32 17 5 76 -3 -0.6
Total .284 .344 .460 3743 521 1063 191 23 140 560 311 104 113 -10 13.3
Actual .276 .338 .492 2920 436 807 171 18 141 473 254 86 119 -2 12.7

That 2021 line — a season that Braun didn’t even play — distorts things a little bit; without it, the projection is for 13.8 WAR and a 116 OPS+, albeit in about 18% more plate appearances than he actually took during that span. Prorated, for the 2014-20 period Braun was forecast to produce 2.4 WAR for every 650 PA; his actual production prorated to 2.6 WAR.

Was Braun on a Hall of Fame path? Color me skeptical, though assuming he had never been caught with PEDs, such an outcome wasn’t out of the question. Braun was certainly among the game’s top players in 2011-12, with only Miguel Cabrera surpassing his 165 wRC+ and 13.8 WAR, but he had gotten a comparatively late start to his career, debuting at 23 years and six months. His 202 homers through his age-28 season ranked 59th, his 29.8 fWAR 178th, his 33.1 bWAR 131st, and 33rd among left fielders.

I asked Dan to go back and project Braun from 2013 onward, replacing his suspension-shortened season with a full one and bolstering the remainder of his projections going forward:

ZiPS Projections vs. Actual – Ryan Braun (2013)
2013 .304 .373 .534 596 181 32 102 59 26 144 4.5
2014 .306 .373 .548 566 173 32 100 55 21 152 4.4
2015 .300 .367 .528 547 164 29 94 52 20 142 3.8
2016 .295 .362 .518 525 155 27 87 49 17 130 3.3
2017 .293 .356 .492 502 147 23 79 44 15 118 2.6
2018 .285 .348 .465 473 135 19 69 40 12 116 1.7
2019 .280 .337 .445 443 124 16 60 34 10 101 1.1
2020 .270 .324 .409 374 101 11 46 26 7 95 0.2
2021 .261 .310 .382 314 82 8 35 19 6 82 -0.4
2022 .254 .303 .365 181 46 4 18 10 3 76 -0.5
Ages 29-38 .289 .352 .485 4521 1308 201 690 388 137 122 20.7
Thru Age 28 .313 .374 .568 3477 1089 202 643 305 126 147 33.1
Total .300 .356 .521 7998 2397 403 1333 693 263 134 53.8

Just the impact that a full 2013 season has on the rest-of-career projection is striking; Braun’s 2014-20 forecast improves from 13.8 WAR to 17.1. But even if he had produced some bigger seasons with the bat from 2013-15, his projected slide to replacement level at age 36 leaves him well short of both 2,500 hits and 500 homers. With a projection of 53.8 career WAR, accompanied by a 40.0 WAR seven-year peak, that’s a 46.9 JAWS, which would tie with Hall of Famer Joe Medwick for 17th on the list of left fielders but fall 6.8 points shy of the standard.

Our projected Braun would be just three rungs ahead of Lance Berkman (52.0/39.2/45.6) and ahead of just six of the 20 enshrined left fielders, including Ralph Kiner (48.1/.42.7/45.4), Jim Rice (47.7/36.4/42.1), and Lou Brock (45.3/32.0/38.7) among those elected by the BBWAA. Given the writers’ recent treatment of Berkman (1.2% in 2019), I don’t think this version of Braun would have gotten much traction from the voters, though to be fair, Berkman retired at age 37, falling short of both 2,000 hits and 400 homers, milestones that this version of Braun would have surpassed. Of course, whether Braun could have done all of this without later running afoul of the game’s drug policy after flouting it so brazenly is another question entirely, and we’ll never know that answer.

The record shows that after receiving his suspension Braun did issue a statement apologizing for “some serious mistakes, both in the information I failed to share during my arbitration hearing and the comments I made to the press afterwards… For a long time, I was in denial and convinced myself that I had not done anything wrong.” He also publicly apologized to Laurenzi, and met with him privately as well, over dinner at the collectors home. Braun said in November 2013, “We’ve made amends and I think we’re both excited to be able to move forward and put this behind us.”

Thereafter, Braun did his best to rehabilitate his image and demonstrate solid citizenship, continuing his previous involvement with charitable organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, and Sharp Literacy. He was the Brewers’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award in both 2014 and ’16. During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, he joined Christian Yelich in a partnership with several local companies to provide meals for front-line health care workers at four Wisconsin hospitals. In the team’s statement announcing his retirement, Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio praised Braun for “his commitment of countless service hours and more than $1 million to community causes over the years.”

The Brewers and their fans viewed Braun as someone special and treated his retirement announcement accordingly, announcing a celebration of his career at American Family Field on September 26. I remain less reverential. As someone who defended Braun on the grounds of due process and breaches of confidentiality — foundational necessities for a fair and functional drug testing program — both at Baseball Prospectus, after his 2011 suspension was announced, and again in 2013, when MLB’s leaks during the Biogenesis investigation painted a picture of a league overzealously pursuing individual stars without having demonstrated their guilt, I’m one of those people described in Braun’s confessional statement, one of “[t]hose who put their necks out for me [who] have been embarrassed by my behavior.”

I suppose that merely puts me in the same boat as a previous generation of reporters who felt betrayed by the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and other stars after their PED misdeeds were revealed. I chide them in my annual Hall of Fame coverage, where I differentiate between PED allegations that date to the “Wild West” era before the game’s testing-and-suspension regimen was introduced, and those that came after the point at which MLB and the union began cracking down, but I get it. What’s more, it’s fair to point out that the other allegations around some of those players, such as those against Bonds for domestic abuse, have no parallel in Braun’s litany of misdeeds.

Yet the other matter that still sticks in my craw is Braun’s reported invocation of anti-Semitism. The list of Jewish ballplayers isn’t a long one in the grand scheme, but the annals are full of stories of Jewish fans celebrating the likes of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax as they publicly acknowledged their heritage. Pride in the feats of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic and the most recent Olympics is an extension of that. Braun, whose father was an Israeli-born descendent of Holocaust survivors, told reporters early in his career that he didn’t have a bar mitzvah or celebrate the holidays, which isn’t uncommon within the aforementioned list, and doesn’t preclude someone from tapping into that goodwill. Braun did so, proclaiming, “I’m extremely proud to be a role model for young Jewish kids,” and accepting the “Hebrew Hammer” nickname.

Braun is hardly the first role model to fall short, but to the eyes of this Jewish scribe (and descendent of a family similarly decimated by the Holocaust), crying wolf as he did still feels like a particularly acute betrayal of the legacy he invoked. Greenberg hit home runs, won championships, served his country (not content to limit himself to working as a physical education instructor and playing ball for military teams in the manner of peers such as Joe DiMaggio, he worked with B-29 Superfortress bombers as part of Operation Matterhorn in the China-Burma-India Theater), and projected an image of great strength at a time when Hitler was murdering Jews. Braun, whose surpassing of Greenberg’s 331 career home runs in 2019 was noted throughout the Jewish press, was proclaimed in a headline as “the all-time Jewish home run hitter” on the occasion of Tuesday’s announcement, but demonstrating himself as a mensch on par with Greenberg is another matter.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

Hmm, complicated indeed. The headline to Schoenfield’s ESPN article is “Ryan Braun Leaves Behind a Complicated Baseball Legacy”.