Which Fielder and Braun Will Show Up in 2011?

In trading for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum this offseason, Milwaukee is primed to contend for the National League Central title. Those moves coupled with the decision not to trade impending free agent Prince Fielder show that the Brewers are all in for 2011. Whether that gamble will pay off in a World Series title depends largely on which versions of Fielder and Ryan Braun The Brewers next season.

Both Fielder and Braun had solid, but ultimately disappointing seasons in 2010. Fielder posted a line of .261/.401/.471, and Braun tallied .304/.365/.501. They finished with an identical .380 wOBA, and Braun just edged Fielder in WAR; 4.2 to 4.1, respectively. Given, those numbers are fantastic if you are Skip Schumaker , but for these young stars, last year was a step back. Graphing their wOBA by season shows the story of two inconsistent sluggers:

As the third and fourth hitters in the Brewers’ lineup, it is no surprise that when Fielder and Braun are going well, the offense goes well. Milwaukee’s runs per game since 2007 match the on-again-off-again pattern of their two best hitters: 4.94, 4.63, 4.85, 4.63. When the year is an odd number, Fielder and Braun mash and the Brewers offense hums.

Of course, it is possible to win a World Series with less than 4.6 runs per game. The Giants scored only 4.3 runs per game last year, but the Brewers, even after acquiring Greinke and Marcum, are probably not a team who can rely on pitching and defense to win a championship. A return to the offensive output of 2007 and 2009 is the only legitimate chance the Brewers have to cash in on Fielder’s walk year.

While Fielder and Braun have nearly identical wOBA graphs since 2007, they are very different players. Fielder is a high-walk, high-strikeout power hitter, has been since the day he was called up. Braun is developing player who is evolving year over year. In order to make an educated guess about how these two players will fare next season, we have to isolate the reasons behind their fluctuations.

For Fielder, his offensive fluctuations are almost entirely due to his inconsistent power:

Fielder’s isolated power jumps up and down, matching his wOBA production. Digging deeper into Fielder’s batted ball numbers reveals the reason for his biennial power outage. His ground ball, fly ball, and line drive rates are reasonably consistent year to year, but Fielder’s home run per fly ball rate reveals the reason for his every-other-year struggles.

The HR/FB percentage is usually considered a luck factor, and if that is true, Fielder should expect a rebound in 2011. However, the amount of rebound is debatable. Fielder’s career HR/FB number is 20%, slightly better than last year. Optimists would say that 2007 and 2009 are closer to his true level. If that proves to be true, and a HR/FB rate of about 23% returns next year, the Brewers’ first basemen could see another 50 home run, .420 wOBA season.

The HR/FB percentage graph also helps explain Braun’s inconsistent production, but to a lesser extent. Braun has seen a shockingly consistent downward trend in his power. Braun’s power struggles were thoroughly dissected here, in a post by David Golebiewski back in July. Braun has seen a similarly consistent increase in contact rate, so his overall production has not been submarined by his falling power.

Braun’s evolution away from power and towards contact means that his production is dependent less on home runs and more on balls in play. As such, a combination of HR/FB percentage and batting average on balls in play reveal the reason behind Braun’s year-on-year-off production.

Over the past four years, both HR/FB percentage and BABIP have alternated up and down swings for Braun. There is always argument how much a player controls these statistics, but Brewers fans will definitely hope Braun’s HR/FB percentage and BABIP were unlucky last year.

The evolution of less power and more average is not a bad transition for Braun; there is value in either approach. Considering Braun’s age and talent, there is a good chance that he can can harness both and take his value to another level. However, no approach will work as long as his HR/FB percentage and BABIP are conspiring against him every even-numbered year.

There are countless factors which will determine if the Brewers will be contenders come October: Greinke changing leagues, Casey McGehee’s followup to a breakout season, John Axford establishing himself as a closer, and the defense, just to name a few. But there is no doubt that Milaukee’s offense is highly dependent on the HR/FB percentage and BABIP of their two young sluggers. If Milwaukee fans are looking to be optimistic; they can cling to the fact that 2011 is an odd number.

Jesse has been writing for FanGraphs since 2010. He is the director of Consumer Insights at GroupM Next, the innovation unit of GroupM, the world’s largest global media investment management operation. Follow him on Twitter @jesseberger.

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Braun’s numbers slipped almost completely because of his injury that he tried to play through, I’d expect his numbers to rebound if he is healthy. Fielder was just swinging for the fences way too much last year.

Ari Collins

If Fielder was swinging for the fences, I’d think he’d have a higher K% and ISO. Instead, his ISO was dramatically lower (his lowest in a full-time season), and while his K% went up, it only moved from 23.4% to 23.9%.

Seems like BABIP and HR/FB are more at fault.

If you don’t think it was a luck dragon at work, maybe a narrative that fits the numbers better would work. Could any Brewers fans tell us if you think he wasn’t making as hard contact last year? His LD% was up a bit from the previous (better) year, but still below his career average. Did he change his swing at all? Any ideas?

I’m a big Fielder fan (and congrats Prince on your still-below-market $15.5M contract!), hope he bounces back next year.