The tables have turned on Ryan Braun.
We’re talking about the National League MVP race, a race Braun won last season. He is having the best offensive season in the league this season (really, it isn’t even that close). He clearly has been the best player.
There are a few “buts” in this argument, however. Braun’s Milwaukee Brewers are at .500 and are creeping into playoff contention. Then there is that whole positive-testosterone-test thing he must overcome. Finally, there is another legitimate contender for the award: San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, who plays for a division leader.
Braun was in the opposite position last season when Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp had a better individual season—even by Braun’s admission—but the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters dinged Kemp for playing for a non-contender and gave the award to Braun.
If voters hold true to their “standards” and “integrity,” Braun won’t win the NL MVP Award this season. But he should. (Disclaimer: I don’t believe the MVP absolutely has to come from a playoff team, and I supported Kemp last season. It basically comes down to each person’s definition of “valuable.&rdquo
Let’s examine those standards, which tend to change from year to year depending on the player in question. Braun is well liked by some members of the media. He smiles big, he usually grants interviews to those who work for national outlets and he really hasn’t done anything wrong on or off the field (yes, we’ll get to that later). Baseball writers can be a fickle bunch, and an engaging personality is all some need to love a player for life.
That alone can be enough for some to overlook that Braun currently plays for a non-contender. At 71-71, Milwaukee is four games out of the second wild card spot, tied with the Philadelphia Phillies and behind the Pittsburgh Pirates, Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals. That makes four teams the Brewers must outlast.
That doesn’t qualify as contention with 20 games to play, unless, of course, you’re trying to make a case for Braun or the Brewers. Then it is plenty of time and they are serious contenders because they have won 17 of their past 22 games. For those referencing the Atlanta Braves’ collapse last September, the Cardinals were 8 1/2 games back in the wild-card chase last season with 21 games remaining. And they also had the San Francisco Giants in front of them.
The MVP voting doesn’t have to be done until the end of the season. If Braun’s team doesn’t contend for a wild card, he won’t win the award—based on voting trends last season and in other seasons. Even Braun knows this.
“Speaking from experience, I think the main reason I won the award last year was that our team had more success. I think Matt (Kemp) had a better year, individually,” Braun told CBSSports.com during the All-Star break.
If the Brewers sneak into the postseason, Braun will be the clear-cut MVP and voters should reflect that sentiment. But that isn’t guaranteed to happen.
And in walks the integrity argument. We have seen how the BBWAA treats players who are eligible for the Hall of Fame but have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs or have been “suspected” of using them—regardless of who is doing the suspecting.
Braun falls into that category. He tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone during the playoffs last October. There is no disputing that. Not even Braun really disputed that in his appeal, choosing instead to attack the chain of custody. He won the appeal, but the word “technicality” forever will be attached to that victory (rightfully so). Braun never has publically addressed the actual positive sample, which the Montreal-based anti-doping lab said wasn’t tampered with.
In the aftermath of the positive test, many in the BBWAA (I am a member but didn’t vote for MVP) believed they had egg on their faces after voting for Braun. Some felt duped. Others, for some reason, felt betrayed. Some won’t ever vote for Braun again—for anything.
But again, Braun is a little different. In most of those Hall of Fame cases, the players being rallied against had a contentious relationship with the media at one time or another. Unfortunately, some BBWAA members can hold onto a grudge like a pit bull latching onto a T-bone.
But Braun doesn’t lend himself to a grudge on a national level for all the reasons already noted. He probably always will have that going for him. As a result, some of his transgressions either will be overlooked or voters will be more apt to say, “Hey, he won his appeal so he isn’t a cheat in my mind.”
Actually, there is nothing wrong with that. Braun did win the appeal, so if a voter chooses to not hold the positive test against him, that voter is well within his/her rights.
Braun leads the league OPS (.980) and homers (38), and he is second in RBIs (100), runs (92) and slugging (.595). He also is the No. 1 reason the Brewers’ offense has been so good despite losing Prince Fielder to free agency, losing others sluggers to injuries and dealing with some underachieving seasons from some regulars. He has even turned himself into an adequate left fielder.
Braun is the best player in the league this season, and the knocks against him are limited. But the ones that do exist might be enough to keep him from a second consecutive MVP award, an honor that should be his.