The 2014 season has been a struggle for Ryan Braun. His numbers are just fine -- the Brewers' right fielder owns a .288/.340/.507 batting line and a 133 wRC+, similar to his results from 2013 and 2010. He has adapted well to right field and has made up for the expected growing pains with his above-average athleticism.
But those who have watched the Brewers every day can see that not all is right with the former MVP. Braun has dealt with a steady onslaught of injuries all season, beginning with a thumb injury that threatened season-ending surgery back in April. Braun has also gone on the disabled list with an oblique strain and missed time over the weekend due to back spasms.
All of these injuries impact Braun's ability to turn on the ball and pull it with power. The thumb injury makes getting jammed on inside pitches extremely painful, and oblique tightness makes it difficult to achieve the core rotation necessary to drive the ball to left field with power.
There is a level of speculation involved here, as only Braun knows how much these injuries are affecting him. But Braun's pull power has effectively disappeared. From 2007 through 2013, Braun posted an OPS of at least 1.000 and ISO of at least .270. This year, those numbers have dipped to .851 and .203 respectively. Braun ranks 122nd of 178 qualified players in OPS to the pull side, one spot below Yankees second baseman Brian Roberts.
The easy answer here is, of course, that Braun is suffering from steroid withdrawals, but such a view is plainly naive. Braun has been one of the best hitters in the league -- 31st among qualifiers in wRC+ -- despite his sapped power to the pull side. And it's not as if his discipline has improved -- Braun's 6.3 percent walk rate would tie his lowest since his rookie year, and his 18.3 percent strikeout rate is effectively equal to his career norm.
Rather, Braun has adjusted by capitalizing on his power to the opposite field. When Braun came up in 2007, he was almost a pure pull hitter -- 29 of his 34 home runs were to left or left-center field, and just three were hit to right field. In 2011, Braun's MVP season, he used a much stronger lower half to spray the ball all over the field. According to ESPN's HitTrackerOnline, 15 of Braun's 33 home runs landed right of center. Braun's September 23rd home run against the Marlins to clinch the 2011 NL Central race exemplified Braun's new up-the-middle power:
Braun has had even worse results up the middle in 2014 than to pull. He owns a .247 average and a .672 OPS to center field, and the latter ranks in the bottom 30 of the league. The kind of rotation he generated in 2011 just hasn't been there in 2014. Braun has five home runs since returning from the disabled list in May, and four of them have been hit to the opposite field. Most of his power hits have been on a swing similar to this home run off J.J. Hoover on June 14th:
Braun generates almost no rotation, but he makes up for it by waiting back and using a phenomenally short stroke to bang the pitch over Milwaukee's short right field fence. He has been the master of this swing this season, and the result has been an absurd .514 on-base percentage and .985 slugging percentage on balls hit to right field. The resulting 1.500 OPS leads all qualifying players on balls hit to the opposite field, with Colorado's Corey Dickerson second at 1.420.
According to FanGraphs, Braun has produced 17.4 runs above average on 70 balls hit to right field, nearly five whole runs ahead of second place Paul Goldschmidt (12.5). The distance between Braun and Goldschmidt is as large as the distance between Goldschmidt and 14th-place Dee Gordon. Goldschmidt has been the standard for opposite field power since he has entered the league -- the Diamondbacks All-Star has posted an OPS over 1.000 to right field in each of his first four seasons.
Braun's approach when he entered the league couldn't have been more different from Goldschmidt's. Braun was an attacker at the plate who found power through getting his arms extended and crushing inside pitches. But with that ability sapped by injuries in 2014, he has completely changed his style. Out of necessity, he is letting the ball travel more than he ever has in his career, and as a result he has been baseball's best hitter to the opposite field by a wide margin.
The Braun of 2011 or 2012 is the Braun who looked like a perennial MVP candidate, the one who was able to pull pitches 450 feet to left-center or line them over right field walls with ease. But the Braun we're seeing this year clearly isn't a complete Braun. His thumb ailment and oblique injury may not heal to 100 percent at any time this season. Even if his production isn't at a superstar level, Braun has made the necessary adjustments to squeeze everything he can out of his body. It's hard to find anything that better fits the superstar ideal.