MILWAUKEE — Last April — before he was an MVP, before a positive drug test had ruled the news and before a certain big cleanup hitter packed up and left for Motown — Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun was busy having one of the best months of his career at the plate.
Through 17 games — the same amount of games the team has played in 2012 — Braun was batting an incredible .373 with five home runs and 12 RBI. Perhaps even more impressive, however, is that those April numbers were actually down from Braun’s numbers in the first part of the 2010 season.
That year, Braun started the season’s first month batting .382, hitting five home runs and knocking in an out-of-this-world 20 runs (good for more than one per game).
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So with such a good track record to start his past two seasons, what has happened to this year’s edition of April domination?
“I think early in the year, everyone wants to get off to a good start,” Braun said Friday. “Sometimes, you dig yourself a deeper hole and get into more trouble by doing that.”
Braun isn’t quite in a hole just yet, but he has looked like himself only on occasion in the first 17 games. He was batting .255 before his big showing Monday night against the Houston Astros. He started the current homestand hitless in four straight games.
Since then, however, he has overcome a clubhouse-wide bug and started to round into form. Braun has two home runs in his past three games, including one Monday night.
Overall though, it has been a slow start, no matter how you spin it. And with the small sample size leading to possibly overblown panic in Milwaukee, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has been straightforward about Braun’s status.
“He’s getting out of his zones with his swings,” Roenicke said last Friday. “When he’s good, he doesn’t chase very much. . . . He’s chasing.”
In fact, you would have to go back to 2008 — Braun’s second season — to see an early season slump that’s comparable. His slow April start that year amounted to just a .235 average, three home runs, and 10 RBI in the season’s first 17 games.
So is there cause for concern? Not much.
Considering slumps overwhelmingly constitute the narrative of the first month of baseball season, the chances of one of the game’s best players following suit the rest of the season are likely slim.
And when you consider how many All-Star or even MVP-caliber players who have struggled in the first three weeks of the season, then the gravity of an April slump diminishes even further. Braun’s slow start has been notably overshadowed by the slumps of other big-time stars around the league, many of whom have had much poorer starts than last year’s NL MVP.
After signing with the Angels in the offseason, Albert Pujols has experienced one of the slower starts of his career, hitting just .246 with four RBI. He’s also in the midst of one of the longest homer-less streak of his career (65 at-bats through Monday).
Toronto Blue Jays star Jose Bautista, the home-run king the past two seasons, is hitting a paltry .214 with three homers. New York Yankees franchise second baseman, Robinson Cano, is hitting .254 with one home run and three RBI. And Kevin Youkilis, one of the key cogs for the Boston Red Sox, has watched his batting average dip below the .200 mark.
Though you can’t fully ignore a slow start, it would be foolish to sound the alarm on any of those struggling players.
Of course, there are a few reasons to be concerned about Braun’s outlook for the 2012 season, more than those other struggling All-Stars. He doesn’t have Prince Fielder behind him anymore, protecting him in the four spot, and as Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said last week, there’s no question that he will be pitched differently this season. There’s also a boatload more pressure on Braun than the others — he’s now a reigning MVP, and a controversial one — and, undoubtedly, his team’s best weapon to score and knock in runs. He openly admitted on Friday that he and his teammates may have been trying a bit too hard during the team’s recent struggles.
But the fact of the matter is any speculation on the direction of Braun’s season is just that — speculation. At least for now. And for those Milwaukee fans looking for solace, remember that Braun’s April 2008 slump — the one most comparable to this season’s cold start — ended with Braun hitting the highest home-run total of his career and finishing third in NL MVP voting.
“Brauny, you know it’s going to happen with him,” Roenicke said.
And if April slumps turn into October hardware, it’s an easy bet that the Brewers won’t have much problem with weathering Ryan Braun’s early season storm.