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In Sports Commentary

National League MVP Ryan Braun has struggled so far in spring training. (PHOTO: David Bernacchi )

An uneasy feeling about Braun


Listening to the radio and reading various reports on the goings-on in Milwaukee Brewers camp in Arizona over the last few weeks have worked up a feeling I didn't think I'd have again for quite some time.

It's not a knot in the stomach, exactly, but sort of that uneasy squirminess that comes a few hours after you took a chance on that milk in your fridge when the expiration date had passed.

I mean, it was only a couple days and it smelled okay, so what the heck right? And I'll only put a little in the cereal.

But once your stomach rumbles as you get jammed up on 94 due to some construction, you don't think positively – your brain immediately turns to all the worst case outcomes possible.

I get that feeling hearing about Ryan Braun's struggles this spring, about the 1-for-15 he carries into this week's games.

The MVP will play in back-to-back games for the first time beginning today, and maintains the spring is about the "process" rather than results – always has, always will. He says his lack of success, as well as the boo's he's received, don't concern him.

It's all part of the process.

For the better part of my life, I've believed that and paid no mind to spring training results. I've been to multiple training camps and seen hitters spend days either trying to pull or push every pitch in every at-bat, regardless of outcome. It's what the spring is for, to work on those things. So yes, to an extent, March is about development.

But the reason I feel a little anxious about Braun's issues is because I've also seen firsthand the painful and inexplicable decimation of a baseball player, physically and mentally, due to increased pressure and negative scrutiny.

I've seen it twice, actually.

The most baffling example came just last year in Chicago, when the White Sox signed Adam Dunn to as one of a series of offseason moves to tell fans the team was "all in" in its effort to win another World Series.

It was a wise move. Dunn's 10-year average of 35.4 home runs, 88 RBI and .899 OPS put him in the same statistical stratosphere as Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Harmon Killebrew and Ralph Kiner, as well as future Hall of Famer Jim Thome.

For the first time in his career, however, there were heavy personal and team expectations placed upon him. In the first four games of the season, Dunn produced, going 4-for-14 (.286) with a homer, five RBI, four walks and three runs scored. Then he underwent an emergency appendectomy, missed a week, and then re-started a year that will go down as one of the worst offensive seasons in modern baseball history.

Not only did he hit just .154 with 11 homers , but his OPS was 300 percentage points lower than his career average. It was mind-boggling.

A similar situation happened to the Chicago Cubs in 2009 after back-to-back playoff seasons resulted in first round exits.

The Cubs brought in Milton Bradley, who was coming off a season in which he led the league with a .436 OBP and a ridiculous .999 OPS. He was also fresh off a two-year stretch where he hit .316, had over a .940 OPS and totaled 78 extra base hits.

True, he was miscast as a left-handed slugger when the Cubs signed him, but no one could have expected a.257 average with 12 homers and a .775 OPS – his lowest output since 2002, before melting down completely and being suspended by the team.

These were two cases where the intense scrutiny both by the home, road and national media just wore them out. They changed what they did at the plate in trying to find a fix and they snapped on fans and reporters. Even teammates became weary of the constant questions about their performance.

If Braun carries these spring struggles into the season, this will only be magnified.

He's the reigning MVP. He's the only player to win an appeal of a positive drug test. The commissioner of baseball used to own the team. It's going to be a three-ring circus if he doesn't start the season on fire, and the tent will only get bigger the longer he struggles.

When he slumps – like all baseball players do – he needs it to happen post-All Star break when no one will really notice, or can tie it to this offseason.

The first and easiest reason, on the surface, to dismiss this concern and this comparison to Dunn and Bradley is that Braun is a .312 career hitter with a .933 career OPS who has averaged 32.2 homers and 106.2 RBI in five years. He is clearly a better hitter than either Chicago player could ever be.

Yet, he's never experienced what he's going to go through 2012, just as Dunn and Bradley never had.

Also, Braun doesn't have Prince Fielder protecting him in the lineup. This year was going to be different, and more difficult, in that regard anyway. Mix in the increased media attention. Toss in the pressure he'll put on himself to start fast, to show he didn't need Fielder or performance enhancing drugs to do what he's done.

And don't forget Braun has gone from baseball hero, loved and respected by everyone, to a tainted player who will be booed every road trip.

Barry Bonds thrived on that because he loved being a villain. Sammy Sosa crumbled under similar circumstances.

We'll learn a lot about Braun's mental makeup very early in the year, and he may well go on to hit 30-plus homers and drive in 90 runs. His track record says he will.

But I'm going to check the date on the milk, because I've got that feeling all over again.


Talkbacks

Kstohl1 | March 19, 2012 at 2:58 p.m. (report)

I think this article is a little premature considering this is spring training and stats here don't really count until opening day. Now, if the season starts and he tanks, then sure we can all jump on the complaining about Braun bandwagon, but to do so now, is just calling fire with no smoke. Yes, pressure can lead to a player crumbling, but you are also talking about two players on a less-than-stellar ball club and not coming off a playoff run and an MVP title to go with that. Braun personally should be able to rise above all the speculation, and until proven otherwise we should too.

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