Russell Branyan, depending on the specific parameters, is the reigning king of Three True Outcomes. The Seattle slugger has a career TTO of 50.77, which is unmatched among players with at least 3,000 plate appearances. If the minimum is lowered to 2,000 PA, he ranks second behind Jack Cust (53.68) and just ahead of Mark Reynolds (50.09), Rob Deer (49.06), and Adam Dunn (48.98).
Now in his 13th big-league season and with his eighth team, the 34-year-old Branyan has a lifetime stat line of .234/.330/.490 with 189 home runs. On the year, he is hitting .237/.323/.487 with 25 round-trippers.
David Laurila: How do you think most fans view you as a player?
Russell Branyan: I think that people who really watch my game, and have watched me over my career, appreciate my perseverance. I’ve battled through a lot of ups and downs, and true baseball fans that know the game really well understand that to play at this level takes a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work.
I think that a majority of the fans… obviously, they like the home runs. I think that the majority of the fans appreciate my passion for the game. We go to different towns and I get a lot of support. There are always going to be the fans out there who give you a hard time, and that sort of thing, but for the most part the fans appreciate the way I play the game.
DL: To a certain subset of fans, you’re one of “Three True Outcomes” guys. What does that term mean to you?
RB: You know, I really haven’t gotten to the bottom of that. I know the basics of it, that I’m either going to walk, strike out, or hit a home run. But that’s a part of my game that I’ve continued to work on. I’ve tried to make myself a better all-around player as far as my at-bats are concerned—making better contact, moving runners better… but I’m a big swinger. I try to be a little more disciplined up at the plate and not chase pitches, but it’s a difficult game.
I definitely have power, and I want to use my power, and I like to use it in any count. I hit as many home runs in a two-strike count as I do in a no-strike count and I definitely don’t want to give up that aspect of my game. That might contribute to the strikeouts. But overall, I try to go up there and have quality at-bats. A walk is often as good as a hit, and a home run is obviously a quick way to put a run on the board.
DL: Do you see you and Jack Cust as being basically the same style of hitter?
RB: I think people could put us in the same sentence. Jack is a very disciplined hitter and he draws a lot of walks. He’s been a big run producer over there in Oakland. I think that it boils down to consistency. We’ve been consistent hitting home runs and we’ve also had our spells where we’re not making productive outs. If we can combine the home runs with productive outs, and continue to draw our walks… yeah, I think that we are very similar players.
DL: Do strikeouts matter?
RB: It’s the timing of them. You definitely don’t want them piling up in bunches, because swinging and missing is not a good thing in this game. If you’re swinging and missing at pitches, there is obviously something going on with your swing, or your timing, or your belief. I think that a lot of it, both with myself and other power hitters, when we start striking out, can be a belief. You don’t want it to become mental.
But do strikeouts matter? They matter when there is nobody out and there are runners on second and third, and you make that out with a strikeout. If you can’t get that run in with a ground ball or a sac fly, the timing of that makes it matter.
DL: Have coaches, or organizations in general, tried to change you over the years?
RB: Most teams that I’ve gone to, they’ve liked my swing and have just talked to me about my approach, about hitting in counts that can determine an outcome, like where you go from a 1-1 count to a 2-1 count as opposed from a 1-1 count to a 1-2 count, which you do by not chasing marginal pitches. Really, what teams have focused on with me is trying to get me focused. They’ve wanted me focused on getting a good pitch to hit, that I can drive.
Just like last night… I had a rough game last night. [John] Lackey is a tough pitcher; he can really pitch to the edges of the strike zone, and in crucial counts last night, 1-1 counts, I chased pitches out of the zone. That put me in a hole. He’s a guy that can really pinpoint his location and it hurt me last night. And that was something I geared toward in my preparation before the game, to not let that happen. I wanted to focus and really bear down, and I found myself in the hole, two strikes, and then bearing down, as opposed to taking my at-bat and really focusing on it before I stepped to the plate. I feel that I kind of gave an at-bat or two away by chasing pitches out of the zone, and those are instances where you can learn. You vow that you’re not going to let it happen again, but it’s a long season with a lot of at-bats, and the competition is some of the best in the world, so there are going to be days where you’re not going to be at your top level and you’re not going to be able to execute your plan.
DL: Some organizations are going to appreciate what guys like you and Jack Cust bring to the table more than others. How aware of that are you when you change teams?
RB: I think that it’s all in how a team is built. If a team is built around on-base percentage, or if a team is built with that pop in the middle of the lineup and you’ve got table setters, or if a team is built on pitching and defense…I think it all depends on how a team is built.
I think that guys like Jack Cust and I really help a team out, especially if you have great pitching where there are going to be a lot of one-run ballgames, a lot of 2-1, 3-2 ballgames, where a big swing of the bat can change the outcome of a game. We’ve seen it here [in Seattle] with our pitching staff and our defense. We’re going to play a lot of tight ballgames and one swing of the bat can change the game.
DL: What about the mindset of the organization, though? Do you ever think, “Team A is a better fit for me than Team B because of the way they value my specific skill set?”
RB: With me, it’s been more a case of trying to go to a team where I have a better chance of playing on a daily basis, because I feel like I‘m a better player when I get to run out there every day.
DL: You’ve grounded into fewer than 30 double plays in over 3,000 plate appearances. How meaningful is that to you?
RB: I can’t stand hitting into double plays. I pride myself on hitting the ball in the air. We recently had a series in New York where I made one, maybe two, outs on the ground. That was a three-game set. I pride myself on getting a good pitch to hit and driving it. I want to hit the ball in the air, because that’s where I’m going to do my damage—hitting balls that land on the outfield grass or land in the seats. I’m not going to do any damage hitting the ball on the ground, to the infield, because with my speed I’m just not going to beat out those ground balls.
I think that’s basically my style. A coach once told me that with a strikeout, you stay out of the double play. I don’t think it’s that simple, but it’s definitely a plus when you have a guy up there in a certain situation and you know there is a high [probability] that he’s going to stay out of a double play. He’s going to keep the inning going and allow the next guy to hit, even if he makes an out. Double plays… there are only 27 outs and those are precious outs. If you make two on one swing of the bat, it’s obviously not a good thing.
It’s a part of the game, but I never go up to the plate thinking about not hitting into a double play. It’s just a part of my own game to hit the ball in the air.
DL: Part of your career was played in what is known as “the steroid era.” What does that term mean to you?
RB: That’s a tough question. There were things going on in that era of Major League Baseball that weren’t regulated. We weren’t tested for steroids and I think that guys, for different reasons, abused that. I don’t want to call it a privilege… maybe an inadequacy. They found an area where they felt like they could benefit from using drugs—from using steroids—and they took advantage of it.
I’m proud to say that I never stuck a needle in myself, or used a pill, or what have you, to make myself stronger or to recover faster. But it was out there. To be able to survive through that era and not use a steroid, or use a drug, to survive and continue to play, and be a valuable commodity, I pride myself on that.
I’ve come out of that era a better player, because I think there was some legitimacy to that. I think that numbers were inflated in that era. To see myself come out of the era, and be a better player… I think it’s going to prolong my career.
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. That’s where my perseverance, and belief in myself, continued to drive me, and I was able to make it through those times.
DL: Any final thoughts?
RB: I’m a pretty low-key guy, a pretty simple guy. I’m from the South. I’m from a small town in Georgia and learned valuable lessons growing up there. My dad taught me my work ethic; he taught me to work hard and accept what comes my way. I’m just a simple guy who found a passion in the game of baseball, and I think that I’ve played the game the right way. I’m proud of that.