Go back to 2014, a year after Ryan Braun was suspended by Major League Baseball. Are you there yet? OK great.
Just three years removed from winning the NL MVP award, Braun’s (as of then) Hall of Fame career seemed to be fizzling out, like Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. He had already shown a loss of power in 2013 with just nine home runs in 253 plate appearances, and he showed no signs of a comeback in 2014. In fact, Braun was considerably worse in all facets of his game. His ability to get on base vanished, he stopped pulling the ball and ended up posting his lowest contact percentage since his rookie campaign. A thumb problem could easily explain all of his troubles, but nonetheless, Braun, once of the most feared hitters in baseball, became anything but a threat at the plate.
Jump ahead a year to 2015. After undergoing a thumb procedure called cryotherapy, Braun began to look a little like his former MVP-self. He bashed 25 home runs and accumulated his highest WAR since 2012. Though he was nowhere near the player he was just a handful of years ago, Braun was once again a feared hitter.
And now we get to the present day, where Braun has been the subject of many, many trade rumors. MLB Trade Rumors listed him as one of the top 10 trade candidates this summer, even taking into account that he might be hard to move given the money he’s owed and his injury/PED history. Why is his name such a hot topic? It’s simple, really. Braun, by far, is having his best offensive season since 2012 when he hit 41 home runs and outperformed his MVP year. According to FanGraphs’ wRC+ leaderboard, Braun is MLB’s 19th-best hitter with a 145 wRC+.
The above chart shows why teams are interested in him, despite the heavy baggage he carries. One of the main reasons Braun has returned to prominence is his eye at the plate. Before the last three seasons or so, no one ever really questioned his plate discipline. Posting high walk rates and respectable strikeout rates was always the kind of player Braun was, but he’s on an entirely different level now in 2016.
Braun’s walk rate (10.0%) is almost a career high, and his 14% strikeout rate is down from 20.2% a season ago. At age 32, that’s damn impressive. He’s done this by swinging at more pitches inside the zone and swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone (see chart below).
Because he’s stopped swinging at bad pitches (i.e. balls), Braun has significantly cut down on his whiffs and his zone contact percentage (89.6%) is its highest since 2010. I don’t know if he’s more confident now that his thumb is seemingly healed, but the player he was from 2013-15, at least in terms of plate discipline, is no longer.
We all know that when Braun makes contact, good things usually happen. We don’t need to look at his .336 career BABIP to understand that,. When Braun puts the ball in play, he’s of great value, and because he’s doing it with such consistency and force, his name will keep popping up in trade talks until he’s inevitably dealt.