It’s finally that time of the year. The time to create a list, check it twice and find out who has been naughty or nice.
No, we’re not talking about the holidays: It’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballot season!
Earlier this month, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America released its 2019 Hall of Fame ballot, led by first-year shoo-in Mariano Rivera and final year hopeful Edgar Martinez. The 2019 class may not include any longtime Brewers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look into our crystal ball and evaluate future Crew candidacies.
Christian Yelich has now put himself on the Hall of Fame track with 26.2 wins above replacement (WAR) and an MVP award by age 26, but with at least another decade to go in his playing career, it’s much too early to truly consider his Hall chances. However, Yelich’s outfield mate Ryan Braun, who has paired a ballot-worthy career with a complicated legacy, provides a much more intriguing Cooperstown case.
Braun is currently short of the Hall of Fame standard, but he does have a better case than most expect. His MVP award – and five other seasons with MVP votes (including two top-three finishes) – six All-Star nods, five Silver Sluggers and Rookie of the Year honor give him a trophy case that stacks up favorably with other borderline candidates. Through the first 10 years of his career, Braun was 41 percent better than the league average hitter and ranked seventh among all hitters with a .910 OPS (min. 3,000 at-bats). The names above him? Cabrera, Trout, Votto, Ortiz, Goldschmidt and Pujols. That’s pretty much a who’s who of offensive beasts in the 21st century.
Braun’s performance at the plate has slipped since the start of 2017 amidst injuries and age concerns (he was only nine percent better than the league average bat), but he finished strong to end 2018, signaling hope for the next few years if he can remain healthy.
Noted Hall historian Jay Jaffe created the JAWS model, which averages a player’s total WAR with their peak WAR (using their best seven seasons) into one score and then compares it to the current Hall standard.
According to Jaffe, the 20 left fielders in the Hall of Fame posted an average 65.4 WAR, 41.6 peak WAR and a 53.5 JAWS score. Braun is currently sitting on 46.4 WAR (32nd all-time), 39.2 peak WAR (17th) and a 42.8 JAWS mark (26th). The 35-year-old could top the average peak WAR score for Hall of Famers with one more All-Star campaign – his "worst" peak season came in 2015 with 3.8 WAR – but it’s unlikely he will reach the average mark for career WAR or JAWS, even with an offensive resurgence. Braun’s WAR totals have long been diminished by his poor defensive metrics (minus-7.6 defensive WAR for his career), something that is unlikely to improve as he moves deeper into the second decade of his professional baseball life.
Still, there is hope. Even if Braun falls short in two of Jaffe’s three categories, a strong finish to his career will help him hurdle some important benchmark stats. Braun currently has a .299 career batting average, 322 home runs and 1,802 base knocks for his career. He should be able to clear 2,000 hits by 2020, and if his .879 OPS over the second half of 2018 proves for real, then he could find his way to 400 home runs by 2021 as well. He will be hard-pressed to hit .300 for his career, especially if he is swinging for the fences to chase for 400, but Braun did hit .305 with 30 bombs just two years ago. That skill set is still in there somewhere.
Only 15 players in baseball history are part of the .300-400-2,000 club. Toss in Braun’s 204 career steals, and that list narrows to only Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. With good health – something that has plagued Braun over the past two years – he has a chance to join one of the most select lists in the sport.
Of course, shoddy defense and nagging ailments are not the only pockmarks on Braun’s resume. Not only is Braun’s name permanently stained by his 2013 performance-enhancing drug suspension, his fierce reaction and vehement response to his first positive test in October 2011 – the one he successfully appealed only to then have his name pop up in the Biogenesis scandal 12 months later – are still burned upon the minds of fans, voters and fellow players. The visceral hatred towards Braun has largely assuaged in the years since his suspension, but outside of Milwaukee, the three letters most commonly associated with Braun are PED rather than MVP.
Of course, it doesn’t help that he has not been the same player since he was busted. His fading skills are about more than just PEDs, but it only worsens the optics that his peak performance was simply boosted by unnatural substances.
By the time Braun hits the ballot in the mid- to late-2020s, sentiment towards PEDs will likely have softened even more as the voting block gets younger and the Steroid Era moves further into the rearview mirror. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds will probably crack 60 percent of the vote this winter in their seventh years on the ballot, meaning there is a good chance the two PED-poster children will make the Hall by the time their 10 years are up.
However, though they played the same position, Braun certainly is no Bonds. He is a borderline candidate at best, even with his long-shot odds at slugging 400 dingers with a .300 average. According to Baseball-Reference’s Similarity Scores, Braun’s two comparisons through age-34 are Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, two extremely accomplished hitters who will have equally uphill battles to make the Hall. (Berkman is on the ballot for the first time this year.)
Much like Holliday and Berkman, Braun’s campaign is built upon his role as the offensive centerpiece for an overlooked organization during one of its best runs in history. Braun earned more accolades than Holliday and Berkman ever did, but his nasty PED suspension drops him right back to where those two outfielders find themselves: on the outside looking in.
He will still be remembered as an all-time Brewer – after all, no. 8 will probably finish his career as one of the 25 best left fielders ever – yet Braun will ultimately fall short of the place he at one time seemed destined to land.