Things are looking up in the land of cheese and cheeseheads, because while their football team has lost a legend, their baseball team is trying to create one. The Brewers won 83 games last season, the team’s first winning campaign since 1992, when the team went 92-70 behind a rookie named Pat Listach and a couple of veterans named Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. The 2008 Brewers were not led by any surefire Hall of Famers in the twilight of their careers (sorry, Tony Graffanino), but they did have their own Rookie of the Year. And unlike Pat Listach, whose name is nearly synonymous with “sophomore bust” (or more precisely, “rookie fluke”), Ryan Braun appears poised to go on to even more success in the future.
Not that his rookie season was lacking in that department. Braun didn’t even make his major league debut until May 25th, yet he still finished fifth in the league with 34 home runs, and his .634 slugging average led the NL even though he fell 10 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title. (Per the rules, Braun was “credited” with 10 extra at-bats, which would lower his slugging average to .620, still higher than Prince Fielder‘s .618 mark.)
Braun simply had one of the best years for a rookie slugger in major league history. That .634 slugging average also bested Mark McGwire‘s mark of .618 in 1987 as the highest slugging average for a rookie in history. The all-time leaders make for a pretty impressive list:
Year Player SLG 2007 Ryan Braun .634 1987 Mark McGwire .618 1930 Wally Berger .614 2001 Albert Pujols .610 1939 Ted Williams .609
Only three players have hit more home runs than Braun did in their first season in the major leagues, and all three of them played in many more games:
Year Player HR G 1930 Wally Berger 38 151 1956 Frank Robinson 38 152 2001 Albert Pujols 37 161 2007 Ryan Braun 34 113 1963 Jimmie Hall 33 156
Much of Braun’s amazing rookie performance came at the expense of the unfortunate left-handed pitchers forced to face him. He hit a perfectly respectable .282/.319/.526 against right-handed pitching, but against left-handers he turned into the Scourge of Southpaws-in 111 at-bats, Braun hit .450 with eight doubles, two triples, and 15 home runs, leading to a ridiculous .964 slugging average. With thanks to Bil Burke, here is a list of the highest single-season slugging averages against left-handed pitching in our database (since 1957, minimum of 100 PA against LHP):
Year Player SLG 1994 Jeff Bagwell 1.095 2002 Barry Bonds .976 2007 Ryan Braun .964 1966 Dick Allen .889 1996 Juan Gonzalez .887
Unfortunately, Braun’s aptitude with a bat was matched by his ineptitude with a glove. He made 26 errors at third base, leading the majors in errors at any position. His fielding percentage was a remarkable .895. In the live-ball era, only one player at any position has scored a lower fielding percentage in 100 games or more:
Year Player Pos G FPct. 1984 Joel Youngblood 3B 117 .887 2007 Ryan Braun 3B 112 .895 1978 Butch Hobson 3B 133 .8991 1993 Gary Sheffield 3B 133 .8994 1927 Les Bell 3B 100 .904
Braun’s career at third base already appears to have come to an end, as Bill Hall moves in from center field while Braun scuffles to the safer pastures of left field. Which is a shame, because moving Braun breaks up arguably the most talented young infield any of us have had the pleasure of witnessing. Next to the 23-year-old Braun last season, the Brewers lined up 24-year-old J.J. Hardy at shortstop, 24-year-old Rickie Weeks at second base, and 23-year-old Fielder at first. All four starting infielders were under the age of 25, and all had average-or-better seasons at the plate. Fielder became the youngest player in major league history to hit 50 homers, and finished behind only Braun in the slugging average race. Hardy hit .277/.323/.463 with 26 home runs at shortstop; only Yount’s 29 homers in 1982 ranks higher among Brewer shortstops in history. Weeks hit .235/.374/.433, with 78 walks and 25 steals, and is one of the trendiest picks in baseball for a breakout season in 2008.
Let’s forget about quality for a moment and just look at quantity; all four of the Brewers starting infielders were under the age of 25 last season. (Hardy turned 25 in August, and Weeks did as well in September, but “baseball ages” are calculated as of June 30th.) In major league history, how many teams have had four starting infielders (min: 100 G) who were 24 or younger? Try none. How many teams have had three starting infielders who were 24 or younger? Again, try none. If you lower the threshold to 80 games, then one team makes the list: the 1988 Blue Jays, who had Fred McGriff (153 games at first), Manny Lee (98 games at second, 23 at short), and Nelson Liriano (80 games at second, one at third).
With the youngest infield in major league history, the Brewers missed the playoffs by two games. That entire infield returns, albeit in a new defensive alignment that’s probably worth 30 or 40 runs. Also returning is 26-year-old Corey Hart in right field, a rotation that’s almost entirely under the age of 30 (including Yovani Gallardo, who posted a 3.67 ERA as a 21-year-old rookie), and another slugging prospect in Matt LaPorta is on his way. The NL Central is officially on notice: the Brewers are here to stay.
If ever there was a guy who proved that patience and hard work will eventually be rewarded, it’s Dave Roberts. Roberts wasn’t supposed to be a major leaguer in the first place. Guys who are supposed to be major leaguers don’t last until the 28th round, which is where the Tigers drafted Roberts after his senior season at UCLA. He quickly proved to be more than just a track star in cleats, but he didn’t reach Double-A until he was almost 25. In 1998 he was the Kenny Lofton of the Southern League, hitting .326/.434/.466 before the Tigers traded him to Cleveland. He was even better after the trade, smoking the ball to the tune of .361/.447/.542; his efforts wouldn’t even earn him a courtesy September callup.
He was traded (along with Tim Worrell) for the remains of Geronimo Berroa‘s career, starting a trend in which Roberts would be traded every year or two for a lot less than he was worth. Three years later, the Indians would trade him to the Dodgers for two minor leaguers who would forever stay minor leaguers. At the 2004 trading deadline, he was sent to Boston for Henri Stanley, a name that only members of the SoSH message board recognize. Five months later, he was dealt yet again, this time to San Diego for three players and cash, which sounds nice until you read the names of those three players: Jay Payton, Ramon Vazquez, and Dave Pauley. Hopefully the cash was in American dollars.
Along the way Roberts would get the opportunity to play a little. After a disappointing debut in 1999, he batted just 26 times over the next two years. He finally held down a starting job after joining the Dodgers in 2002, at which point he was 30 years old. He made up for the late start to his career by doing pretty much what he’s done ever since: hit for a decent average (.277), draw some walks (.353 OBP), and steal bases with great efficiency (45 SB, 10 CS). In 2003, he was 40-of-54 on the basepaths. In 2004, he set the all-time NL record for most steals in a season (33) with no more than one caught stealing. He then joined the Red Sox and stole five or six more bases, none of any real consequence. He was on the roster for the team’s playoff run but was of such little use that he didn’t bat once in October; undoubtedly the team would have won without him. (Irony off.)
Roberts then returned to the NL West, where the immense ballparks are a perfect fit for his brand of speed, defense, and all the power of a Florida Democratic delegate. He continues to pick his spots to steal; he’s 80-for-91 over the last two seasons, and for his career Roberts has stolen 238 bases while being caught just 55 times. That’s a stolen base percentage of 81.2 percent. In major league history, he ranks 11th in stolen base percentage among players with 200 or more attempts:
Player SB CS SB% Carlos Beltran 250 34 88.0% Tim Raines 808 146 84.7% Eric Davis 349 66 84.1% Willie Wilson 668 134 83.3% Barry Larkin 379 77 83.1% Tony Womack 363 74 83.1% Davey Lopes 557 114 83.0% Carl Crawford 277 57 82.9% Stan Javier 246 51 82.8% Julio Cruz 343 78 81.5% Dave Roberts 238 55 81.2%
More significantly, Roberts is one of the few major leaguers to earn a reputation as a big-league speedster almost entirely in his thirties. Through his age-29 season, Roberts had only 12 career steals; he has 226 since, and counting. In major league history, no player with fewer than 50 steals before age 30 has stolen more bases after age 30 than Roberts. (The closest is Jimmy Austin, a Browns’ third baseman of yore who stole 30 bases before turning 30, and 214 afterwards.)
Roberts has 214 more steals after turning 30 than before, a number that ranks sixth all-time. He’s about two good months away from moving up to fourth on this list:
Player SB < 30 SB > 30 Diff. Otis Nixon 105 515 410 Davey Lopes 99 458 359 Lou Brock 334 604 270 Honus Wagner 239 464 225 Sam Rice 66 285 219 Dave Roberts 12 226 214
Davey Lopes is probably the best comp for Dave Roberts; both were late bloomers who got their shot with the Dodgers and became everyday players noted for their speed, and who occasionally put up sensational stolen base numbers. (Lopes was 45-of-49 in steals in 1978, 44-of-48 in 1979, and 47-of-51 in 1985, when he was 40 years old and only appeared in 99 games.) Lopes was the better player given his surprising power; the 5’9″, 170-pounder hit 155 career home runs, including 28 in 1979. Roberts, on the other hand, has had random strangers approach him to say “thank you” every day for the last three years, and quite likely will for the rest of his life. Advantage: Roberts.