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Is Ryan Braun Worth Buying Low?


Ryan Braun is 35 years old and playing in his 13th season manning left field for the Milwaukee Brewers (though he played solely at third base his rookie year, when he slashed an unbelievable .324/.370/.634 with 34 homers, 97 RBI, and 15 steals). He faced an uphill battle in his pursuit to put the reputation-damaging PED suspension from 2013 behind him, but seemed to rebound nicely by receiving his sixth All-Star Game selection in 2015. Though his numbers the past two seasons have been a sharp decline from his career averages, there are definitive reasons to target Braun if an owner is already itching to pull the plug.

He is still hitting third in the order for an offense that has been (at worst) a top 10 offense so far in 2019, his Statcast metrics (such as Barrels/Plate Appearance, Barrels/Batted Ball Event, and Hard Hit %) are impressive, and he’s getting extremely unlucky as evidenced by a career-low BABIP.

At the end of the day, is Braun no longer a valuable fantasy commodity or could he be a sneaky buy-low opportunity in 2019 fantasy leagues?

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Opportunity and Offensive Firepower

Though Braun’s numbers have declined and he’s a little older and slower, he still has an everyday role as the Brewers starting left fielder. Unlike many teams, Milwaukee only has one reserve outfielder (the non-imposing Ben Gamel) on its roster. This means the risk of an aging Ryan Braun seeing his playing time slashed due to a cold streak is lessened quite a bit.

In fact, Steamer is projecting him to register 476 at-bats over the course of the season - which is a step up from his 380 at-bats in 2017 and 305 at-bats in 2018. He will continue to see consistent, regular at-bats in a powerful lineup provided he can stay healthy. Which brings us to our next point - the Brew Crew’s big bats.

The Brewers offense remains largely the same as the NLCS participant 2018 team, which boasted top-12 ranks in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, runs, runs batted in, and home runs.

This year, the likes of reigning MVP Christian Yelich, Mike Moustakas, Travis Shaw, and Lorenzo Cain have gotten off to great starts. The Brewers rank in the top-12 in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, and runs batted in. The opportunity is certainly there for Braun to have a productive season, and the early returns are showing that the lineup he has around him could be a major boost to his fantasy value.

 

Surface and Statcast Statistics

Braun battled through some injury issues last year and finished with arguably the worst numbers of his career. He slashed .254/.313/.469 in 2018, adding 20 home runs, 64 RBI, 59 runs, and 11 steals over 405 at-bats. This year, though it’s a small sample size of 45 plate appearances, Braun has some peculiar numbers.

He’s hitting .227/.227/.477 with three home runs, 12 RBI, four runs scored and two doubles. He has 12 strikeouts on the year, which means his strikeout rate is 27.3% (compared to his 18.5% career average). He has zero walks - one would assume this will normalize closer to his career average 8.1% walk rate as the season moves along. He is also sporting the lowest contact rate (72.7%) of his career, which is another statistic that should inch closer to his 79.5% contact rate as time goes on.

Encouragingly, he has a .250 ISO in 2019, which is his highest rate since 2012. When looking under the hood, Braun’s Statcast metrics are a mixed bag. He currently ranks 27th in Barrels/Plate Appearance (11.1%), 38th in Barrels/Batted Ball Event (15.6%), 69th in Hard Hit % (46.9%), 107th in Average Exit Velocity (90.3 MPH), 188th in Sweet Spot % (21.3%), and 211th in Launch Angle (10.2 degrees). The significance of these statistics with this little sample size can be debated endlessly, but seeing Braun among the top 70 hitters in three important metrics is absolutely a positive sign.

 

BABIP Positive Regression

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, is the fact that Braun’s .241 Batting Average on Balls in Play is absurdly low and a ridiculous .086 below his career average .327 BABIP. Even the last few seasons, when his numbers haven’t resembled his normal output, his BABIP sat at .292 (2017) and .274 (2018).

This BABIP, along with his barrel rates and Hard Hit %, point to the idea that Braun is simply getting unlucky with where his balls are being hit. His track record of having a high BABIP suggests that his 2019 BABIP will positively regress to the mean with time, and his fantasy production value will benefit as a result.

 

Verdict

Ryan Braun is a former MVP whose days as a fantasy superstar are over. However, it would be unwise to ignore or underrate his current fantasy value due to a few subpar seasons. He’s getting consistent playing time in a top-tier offense, putting the barrel on the ball at a high rate, and is being hampered by a career-low BABIP that should normalize over time. Projection site Steamer seems to agree, pegging Braun for a .263/.327/.479 slash line (.296 BABIP), adding 22 home runs, 69 RBI, 62 runs, and 10 steals.

He’s in a great situation to provide value and if you can swindle an impatient owner for pennies on the dollar - do it in a heartbeat. Just be sure you can handle the injury risk that comes along with him.

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