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March 23, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Meaning of Russell Branyan

by Sam Miller

A couple weeks ago, Mariners catcher Jesus Montero was on second base with two outs when a teammate singled. The third base coach held Mariners catcher Jesus Montero at third, and the radio announcers seemed shocked that the third base coach wasn’t more aggressive with two outs. This is what it means to be a radio announcer during spring training. Of course the Mariners aren’t going to send Mariners catcher Jesus Montero into a home plate collision during the first week of spring training games. Nothing that happens on the scoreboard matters. But it’s hard to follow baseball without caring, and so we end up caring.

And now that Google has accepted that this is a super sexy story about Mariners catcher Jesus Montero, let’s talk about Russell Branyan. Branyan signed a minor-league contract with the Yankees this winter. He got an invitation to spring training. The invitation was printed on very nice card stock, the Yankees being all class, but then Branyan forgot it on his refrigerator door and now he has to beg the guy at the door to let him in. The guy at the door is not budging:

“Infielder Russell Branyan and catcher Austin Romine, who are both suffering from back inflammation, continue to have no timetable for getting into Grapefruit League games. Branyan is still technically considered day-to-day.”

At this point, it’s extremely hard to imagine Branyan making the team. After signing Branyan, the Yankees added Raul Ibanez to DH and re-signed Eric Chavez to back up the corners. The team’s depth chart lists five designated hitters, and none of them is Branyan. (One of them is Derek Jeter, which is precious.) This is, quite possibly, the end of Russell Branyan’s career. Unlike Jesus Montero scoring from third base, this is a spring training story I actually care about. I suspect a lot of you do, too, because Russell Branyan might very well be the official mascot of the Baseball Prospectus era. I used to list Russell Branyan on my Friendster profile, under “Who You’d Like To Meet.” In the silly Us vs. Them paradigm that made 2002-2006 so much fun, Branyan was the perfect player for Us. He was always unwanted, his skills were underappreciated, he was stupid strong, and he most likely played for each of our favorite teams at some point.

The Yankees are Branyan’s 17th stop. That’s two more stops than Matt Stairs made, and one more than Terry Mulholland made. This is sort of staggering when you consider that Branyan is only 35; Stairs was famously nomadic (I once asked an agent whether he’d ever had a player tell him to just sign with whomever offered the most money, no matter where it was. His response: “Yeah, Matt Stairs.”) and played until he was 43 years old, and still Branyan already has him beat. Fifteen of Branyan’s stops have come just in the past eight years. To understand Branyan’s career, and to insert a framing device into this piece, we really have to go through those 17 stops.

1. Cleveland Indians: June 1994 to June 2002.
By far the longest stretch of his career with one team, by calendar time and by playing time. Two weeks after he was drafted, Branyan first appeared in a major newspaper, when Mark Shapiro—director of minor-league operations at the time—singled out the seventh-round pick as a top prospect on the short-season Burlington club. In the career that followed, this would be Branyan’s 162-game average line: 30 home runs, 22 doubles, 71 RBIs, and 177 strikeouts in 520 plate appearances.  But this stretch with Cleveland would be the only time a team kept him around for 162 games (and just barely). We wrote this in the 2001 Annual:

Russ Branyan gets compared to Dave Kingman for his strikeouts, and like Kong he also has the gift for making himself unloved. Upon his last promotion from Buffalo, a local reporter wrote about how great the move was for the Bisons. Branyan fought with Kenny Lofton in July and has irritated all of his minor-league managers.

Every Russell Branyan signing brings hope to a new fanbase, or at least to the nerds like me in the new fanbase. But this was perhaps the last time that Russell Branyan’s departure was accompanied by much sorrow, because Branyan was seen as something of an organizational failure. "I think this was harder on me than it was on Russell," said Shapiro.

2. Cincinnati Reds: June 2002 to December 2003.
The story about Russell Branyan is that old baseball men couldn’t get past the strikeouts, so they didn’t see how valuable Branyan was. Cincinnati was a fresh start.

"That's all I heard (in Cleveland)—he's either (strikeout) or (homer)," Branyan said after his first game in Cincinnati. "They brought it up every single day. That's a reason why I feel this is a new opportunity for me, a clean slate. I have a chance to prove myself and hopefully the people here aren't too biased and predetermined to judge me for what I can do."

He tried to shed that label in Cincinnati, and through six weeks or so he was striking out in just about 25 percent of his at-bats and hitting .305/.400/.610. Manager Bob Boone: "His history was big power, big strikeouts. We haven't seen that here. He's been swinging pretty good and has a nice approach to the ball."

But in a year and a half with the Reds, the strikeouts stabilized, and he ended up whiffing in 33 percent of his plate appearances. His career average is 32 percent. He was granted free agency in 2003, while still in his arbitration years.

3. Atlanta Braves: February 2004 to April 2004.
And this is where the trip starts to accelerate. Coming off a 112 OPS+ in a year and a half with the Reds, Branyan signed a minor-league deal with the Braves, was sent to Triple-A, hit .179/.452/.286, and was traded two weeks into the season for Scott Sturkie. Scott Sturkie was out of baseball by the end of the year. You might say Scott Sturkie was cooked.

4. Cleveland Indians: April 2004 to July 2004.
(Because Scott Sturkie sounds like Scott’s Turkey.)

5. Milwaukee Brewers: July 2004 to January 2006.
Back in the majors with Milwaukee, Branyan begins to become the slugging, traveling icon we love. His nickname—Russell the Muscle—dates back to his Cleveland days, but it’s in Milwaukee that it starts showing up in newspaper stories. He hit a 490-foot home run off Greg Maddux that was the longest in Miller Park’s history. And this:

Branyan, who played for the Reds, hit a leadoff homer after a leather-lunged fan screamed out, "Russell, you're overrated!"

"It was loud, wasn't it?" Branyan asked. "I didn't even know I was rated. How can I be overrated? I couldn't get a job this off-season. Now I'm overrated."

He hit .247/.355/.506, with 23 home runs in 424 plate appearances, for Milwaukee. That was over two seasons, because he couldn’t stay healthy. The Brewers signed him to a non-guaranteed contract, then released him instead after acquiring Corey Koskie.

6. Tampa Bay Devil Rays: January 2006 to August 2006.
On May 20, Branyan came into a game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning and flied out. He stayed in the game as the right fielder, and his turn came again in the ninth, against the Marlins’ Logan Kensing. Branyan got a hanging slider and hit a two-run home run, the only walk-off of his career, and by far the most significant WPA swing he ever created. Jonny Gomes put a shaving cream pie in his face. Branyan hit .201/.286/.473 for the Rays and was gone again.

7. San Diego Padres: August 2006 to July 2007.
Kevin Towers tried repeatedly to land Branyan when he (Branyan, but I suppose Towers as well) was younger. According to a San Diego Union-Tribune piece from 2002, the Padres made at least three substantial offers for him:

“At baseball's winter meetings in 1999, Towers dangled starting pitchers Sterling Hitchcock or Andy Ashby in front of the Indians. No deal. Last year, the Padres were willing to part with catcher Wiki Gonzalez and infielder Damian Jackson to acquire Branyan. Strike two.

“This spring, the Padres reportedly floated the name of pitching prospect Dennis Tankersley in front of the Indians—who again refused to bite. Then, on June 7, the Indians traded Branyan to the Reds for minor league outfielder Ben Broussard.”

Branyan’s car was stolen during spring training as a Padre.

8. Cleveland Indians: August 2007 to August 2007.
Two days he spent with the Indians. He played one game, for their Triple-A club, and was waived. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.

9. Philadelphia Phillies: August 2007 to August 2007.
He was purchased by a team in a pennant race. He spent 22 days with that team in the pennant race. He was then traded to a different team in a different pennant race. One of those teams made the playoffs, and it wasn’t the one Branyan ended up with. L

10. St. Louis Cardinals: August 2007 to October 2007.
In St. Louis, Branyan backed up Albert Pujols, the best player Branyan ever played with. Branyan has played with many great players, because Branyan has played with a great many players—675 of them, one out of every six players who has appeared in the majors since his debut in 1998. Here’s probably the best lineup you can make out of Russell Branyan’s teammates:

C. Yadier Molina
1B. Albert Pujols
2B. Chase Utley
3B. Scott Rolen
SS. Barry Larkin
LF. Ryan Braun
CF. Ken Griffey, Jr.
RF. Ichiro Suzuki
SP. Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver, Cliff Lee, Dan Haren
RP. Francisco Rodriguez

He played with both Chris Youngs, both Alomars, both Fielders, a Sean, a Shawn, a Chone, and a Shawon.

11. Milwaukee Brewers: February 2008 to November 2008.
After spending time with four teams in 2007, Branyan couldn’t get an offer for the 2008 season and considered going to Japan.

"I was confused," he said. "I had a tough year last year, but I was in the big leagues the majority of the year. I really didn't know what to make of it. I even called teams personally. I couldn't even get a minor-league deal with a big-league invite (to spring training)."

It was late January when Melvin called Branyan's agent, Dan Lozano. Branyan had played for the Brewers from 2004-'05, so club officials knew him. They also knew Branyan lived in Nashville, where a veteran corner infielder was needed.

Branyan hit .250/.342/.583 in 152 plate appearances. David Laurila interviewed Branyan for us in 2010.

DL: Have you ever looked back at the seasons where you had 200 plate appearances and wondered, “What if…?”

RB: I don’t really look at that way. I look at it as, if this era would have ended sooner, or if I would have come into the league later, would I have had a better career? Because I think my career took awhile to get jump-started. These last couple of years I’ve been given an opportunity to play every day and I’ve been able to put up some numbers. Earlier, when I was in my 20s, it was tough finding jobs. It was tough getting the at-bats.

12. Seattle Mariners: December 2008 to November 2009.
The nicest stretch of his career, when Branyan set a career high with 505 plate appearances, hit 31 home runs, and was in this photo that you’ve seen and will see again.

13. Cleveland Indians: February 2010 to June 2010.
After his 31 home runs with Seattle, Branyan was looking for a three-year deal in the $20 million to $30 million range, according to reports. He signed instead for a one-year deal that would pay him $2 million, according to Cot’s. That was, and is, the highest salary of his career. Salary data may be incomplete, but in his 14-year career, Russell Branyan has earned about as much as, or slightly less than, Juan Pierre made in 2011. 

14. Seattle Mariners: June 2010 to November 2010.
Sixteen stops (not counting the Yankees) and 3,398 plate appearances averages out to 212 major-league plate appearances per team that has acquired him. He had 238 plate appearances in this, his second stint with Seattle. He hit .215/.319/.483 for the Mariners; his career line is .232/.329/.485. He led the 2011 Mariners in home runs, despite playing just 57 games. He also missed time when he was injured on a pizza parlor chair. He was granted free agency after the season, and he signed elsewhere for $1 million. These five months are the to-scale replica of Russell Branyan’s career that hobbyists can build out of balsa wood.

15. Arizona Diamondbacks: February 2011 to May 2011.
Impossible trivia time: Russell Branyan has played with four different players three different times. If he makes the Yankees, CC Sabathia will be the fifth player on that list. The other four are … Josh Bard, Kane Davis, Milton Bradley, and Josh Wilson, who left Seattle for Arizona at the same time as Branyan.

16. Los Angeles Angels: May 2011 to October 2011.
I did meet Russell Branyan, incidentally, just as I said I hoped to in my Friendster profile. After the Diamondbacks released him, the Angels picked him up. It was two weeks after Kendrys Morales was declared out for the season, and the day that Howie Kendrick was put on the DL with a hamstring strain, and Branyan was the left-handed bat to be platooned with Mark Trumbo. (Trumbo started hitting right-handers almost immediately after, and that platoon never really took.) Branyan got his first plate appearance that same day, as the potential tying run in the ninth. He swung at Grant Balfour’s first pitch and hit a deep line drive to the warning track in center field, a loud out that ended the game.

The reporters went downstairs to talk to the newest Angel, who would, naturally, be the centerpiece of all the notes columns in the next day’s papers. We waited and waited—I want to say close to an hour—until the clubhouse was virtually empty. Finally, Branyan emerged, wearing either a towel or a suit, this being my awful memory we’re relying on here. He answered questions for perhaps two minutes, then motioned to the door and said the bus was leaving and he had to leave. It was probably the most veteran move I ever saw in a clubhouse, and the most Russell Branyan answer possible, the subtext of which was basically: You think my arrival is a story. You are going to write my arrival as though it’s a story. My arrival is not a story. I’ll be gone soon. And he was.

Love that guy.

17. And now the Yankees.  
So what is the meaning of Russell Branyan? It’s probably something like this: We’ve all mellowed in the stats vs. scouts thing. There’s really no stats vs. scouts thing left, actually. Scouts are great and stats are great. It turns out that a lot of things that we were screaming about were right, and a lot of things we were screaming about weren’t quite as right as we were screaming that they were. Similarly, Russell Branyan was, clearly, a useful major leaguer who made some teams better and generally gave his teams no reason to regret carrying him. He also was worth just 3.0 WARP in his very best year and otherwise never topped 1.5 WARP. He was good. He wasn’t all that good. Russell Branyan’s career is the compromise we finally all agreed on.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Russell Branyan,  Stats Vs. Scouts

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