Ryan Braun’s season and PEDs

BP Milwaukee’s J.P. Breen writes about Ryan Braun’s fine season, which brings up some questions that a lot of people probably don’t want to think about too hard …

It’™s been well-established that Braun struggled with nerve issues in his hand/thumb last year, which prevented him from even keeping both hands on the bat through impact. The fact was largely ignored by many. I talked about Braun’s bad habits that developed because of the injury. I also suggested that his early season slump would subside and the 31-year-old would pick it up. Since April 28, Braun is hitting .300/.373/.543 with 24 home runs –€” a .916 OPS that is eerily close to his career .913 OPS.

In other words, Ryan Braun can still rake.

Those leading the PED witch hunts now have to cope with the fact that the Brewers’ right fielder hasn’t tanked post-PEDs. This poses significant problems for the PED narrative. How does one hold that Braun’s numbers during his prime were a sham, now that he’s once again performing near his career norms? Does one plug one’s ears and ignore this season? Does one push in all the chips and baselessly assert that he must be back on the juice? How does one pick and choose which negatively-testing players are actually positive without defaulting to dislike or he fits the narrative?

What this entire discussion ignores, though, is that Ryan Braun is not the only wrench in the whole post-PED argument. Many of the highest-profile hitters who have been connected with PEDs in the past are tearing the cover off the baseball this year. Alex Rodriguez, the league’™s favorite anti-hero, recently launched his 32nd homer and has a 137 OPS+, which is only five points below his career average. Nelson Cruz moved to Seattle, one of the worst offensive environments in the majors, and has 42 home runs. Furthermore, David Ortiz is nearly 40 years old and is hitting .273/.361/.555 with 35 home runs.

Just getting this out of the way, Braun has not returned to his previous superb production. He’s going to finish this season with around 40 runs above replacement; in his best years, he was in the 60-75 range. Big difference there. Of course, we can explain part of that difference by aging. But he’s not the hitter today that he was five years ago.

I’ll also mention, because I think it’s a part of Braun’s story, that he behaved abominably. He lied to everybody who would listen, and he explained away his failed drug test by accusing the tester of anti-Semitism.

People make mistakes. I’m just saying Braun’s not an easy fellow to defend.

The larger point here is fair, though: the preferred narrative, for the scolds anyway, is that sports drugs destroyed the integrity of not just the drug users, but rather the integrity of the statistics and the competition. But if acknowledged drug users come back as good or better than before — Breen also mentions Jhonny Peralta and Melky Cabrera, and there are others — then what’s the narrative? Because if it’s just about cheating and not about performance, then you have to talk about bat-corkers and spitballers and sign-stealers.

Granted, there aren’t any easy answers here. There are people who think sports drugs haven’t helped baseball players at all. I’m not one of those people. Nor do I think every player who ever used drugs should get a free pass. What I do think is that most of the narratives are not as nuanced as they might be.