It’s been a strange ride for Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun of late. The star slugger had the best season of his career in 2011 and won his first NL MVP award only to later test positive for a banned substance. Just when things were starting to look down, Braun was able to shake the 50-game suspension he was facing due to some faulty logisitcs, and now he is having a season a t the plate nearly identical to his banner campaign last year.
For all the ups and downs, there just hasn’t been a lot of talk about Braun as a possible front-runner for the 2012 NL MVP award, an honor that would make Braun the first consecutive winner since Albert Pujols in 2008-2009 and the extremely controversial Barry Bonds like a thousand times in a row earlier in the new millennium. Maybe the lack of hype around Braun has something to do with the fact that he’s sort of already established this level of production. Sure, he’s hitting .311/.389/.610 with a league-leading 36 homers, 21 steals, and a .420 wOBA. And yeah, FanGraphs has him at a NL-leading 6.9 WAR after factoring in his improving defense and continually good base running. This is all impressive, but it seems like there’s just a general sense of, “okay, we’ve see this before.”
Media attention and general chatter are always more likely to rise from players finding new levels to their game or doing something they weren’t expected to do. Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen is having an incredible year, the kind of season that will elevate his status to that of star player in just about everyone’s eyes. He’s hit .344/.409/.566 with 24 homers and a .407 wOBA, he’s been worth 6.2 WAR according to FanGraphs, and he’s chipped in 15 steals for fun. As great as McCutchen’s season has been, a recent and prolonged slump has him looking less qualified than Braun going into September.
There are plenty of other seasons rightfully getting a lot of attention in the National League. Buster Posey is bashing every baseball that comes his way while being given the undesirable duty of playing the hardest position on the field. David Wright has rediscovered his power (mostly of the gap variety) while posting the highest walk rate of his career. Michael Bourn and Jason Heyward have done a lot of things right at once, while Yadier Molina brings a new offensive approach to go with the best backstop defense in the game. As exciting as the seasons all of these players are having happen to be, I think it’s still Braun who deserves mentioning most.
Even if we all end up agreeing that Braun’s 2012 stands a bit above the rest of the field when all is said and done, will it matter? While Braun was able to avoid a PED suspension based largely on details, there are surely still voters who will deny him anything and everything based on their supposition that he’s a cheater. Maybe I’m wrong, and I hope I am, but there are always seem to be members of the sports media planted firmly on the highest of horses, gazing down at tremendously successful athletes with a startling amount of contempt.
Braun’s success as a hitter has almost certainly never had anything to do with any substance. He’s been raking since day one, and he’s having as good a season as he’s ever had right now when there is just no way he’s on anything. It’s also worth commending how much work Braun has put into playing his position. After a horrendous stint at third base, the team shifted him to left field where he struggled initially. Braun has since turned into a plus fielder according to UZR, a testament to his desire to become a better all-around player. In 2012, I’m pretty sure he’s the best player in the National League. Again.