Is There Really Anything Wrong with Braun?

May 20th, 2010: Ryan Braun in action during the Pittsburgh Pirates vs Milwaukee Brewers game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Photographer Jason Pohuski / Cal Sport Media.5-20-2010: in action during the Pirates vs Brewers game in Pittsburgh at PNC Park.

A lot of things have been going wrong for the Brewers the past few days, but most of the attention has been focused on poor defense (specifically at shortstop) and Yovani Gallardo‘s injury.  There’s another developing storyline that hasn’t been getting as much attention lately, though.

What the hell is going on with Ryan Braun?

The Brewers have scored one run in each of their last three games, and Braun has gone a combined 0-for-12 with four strikeouts, not even reaching base on a walk.  His OPS is down to .803.  He hasn’t had an extra base hit since June 30, and he hasn’t hit a home run since June 28.  Before that, you have to go back to June 24 for his last double and June 14 for his last home run.

Those defending Braun have brought up the game against Atlanta in which he was drilled in the elbow by a pitch from Tommy Hanson.  It’s a convenient explanation — Braun was hitting .359/.443/.594 on May 10, and has hit .248/.278/.386 since.

My only problem with that theory is that it’s been 50 games since he got hit by the pitch.  If he’s hurt, you would think any injury he’d be playing through would have healed by now.  If it isn’t, this slump is either on Braun for not saying anything about it, or the training staff for misdiagnosing another injury.

I don’t think he’s hurt (we haven’t seen him look like he’s in pain when he swings), and I don’t think it’s psychological (he’s not any more afraid of the ball than he was after any of his other 27 career HBP’s).  This isn’t going to be a popular opinion, but maybe Braun isn’t as incredible as we thought he was.

Don’t get me wrong — he’s still a very good player, the type that should be in the All-Star discussion every year (although this year he has no business being there, let alone starting in the game).  Looking past his counting stats, he’s not doing much differently this year than he’s done in the past.  He’s just in the middle of one of the biggest slumps of his career.

His BABIP last season was .353, so some regression there probably could have been expected.  It’s at .316 this year, so while it’s down, it’s not like he’s getting insanely unlucky.

He’s actually striking out less than he did last year, with a K% of 16.8% compared to 19.1%. He’s taking slightly more swings out of the strike zone this year (29.8% compared to 29.1% last year), but they’re not swings-and-misses: he’s making contact on 65.9% of those swings outside of the zone (up from 59.7% last year), and is making more contact overall, connecting on 82.3% of his swings (80.8% last year).

If there’s a culprit, it’s the lack of hard-hit balls.  His line drive percentage was a career-high 19.4% last year, but he’s down to 17% this season — even lower than his “down” 2008 season.  His HR/FB is down to a career-low 11.2% — more than 5.5% lower than his career average of 17.8%.

This is just beginning to look like a prolonged slump in the middle of a down year for Braun, and really, there isn’t much wrong with that as long as we accept that he’s more Matt Holliday than he is Albert Pujols.  And he’s still a steal for that contract, which is more than we can say for Holliday.