Back when Branyan first signed with the Mariners, the fan response was positive. He was to be a left-handed power bat in a lineup that needed a left-handed power bat, and his ability to draw some walks was projected to provide a welcome break from the rest of the team's dependable hackability. People were happy about that. People were happy to have Branyan in the mix, and the only thing that kept us from doubling over with uncontrollable glee was that Branyan also came with well-known drawbacks, notably his low average and tendency to strike out. But he was nevertheless a cheap, productive player, and the move was welcomed as a good way to kick off the Zduriencik winter.
If we liked Branyan at the time, though, we love him now. Through nearly a third of the season, he's been the best hitter on the team and one of the best hitters in the league, destroying the ball with regularity and standing as a source of triumphant power in an otherwise flaccid lineup. His strength has been exactly as advertised, and where once there were fears that he might strike out too often to be a solid everyday player, he's hit the ball with such force that his team-leading 46 strikeouts have been completely overlooked. If you were to stop any given Mariner fan on the street and ask for his thoughts on Branyan, I imagine he'd have nothing but good things to say.
So what's the deal? How has Branyan gone from being a slugging bench bat to a hugely productive regular at the age of 33?
There are two things at work, here. I might as well start with the negative one. Through 172 plate appearances, Branyan is currently running a .385 BABIP. Against his career average of .312, it's easy to see that he's been overachieving on balls in play, and over the rest of the year we can expect his BA to be somewhere closer to .260. A .260-hitting Russell Branyan is still highly productive, but it's not as productive as the version of Branyan hitting .311.
But there's more. Why would we regress this version of Branyan to ~.260 instead of his career BA of .236? Because he's not striking out as often. Players who reduce their strikeouts increase their balls in play, and players who increase their balls in play increase their average.
Branyan has struck out 46 times in 172 PAs so far, for a K% of 27%. That's incredibly high, but it's not as high as his career mark of 34%. In fact, applying the two percentages to his 172 trips to the plate shows a difference of 12 strikeouts - that is, were Branyan whiffing at his career mark in 2009, he'd have struck out 58 times by now, rather than 46. Considering he's only played in 41 games, that's huge.
And in case you were wondering if Branyan was just lucking into the timing of his swinging strikes, the answer is no - he's not just striking out less, but he's also making more contact. For years, he was a guy who'd run a contact rate around 60%, hitting ~70% of pitches in the zone and ~30-35% of pitches out of it. This year, though, he's running a contact rate of 71%; 82% in zone, and 49% out of it. Russell Branyan, who was forever known for swinging a power bat with a million holes, is now making contact like Jim Thome.
This is a big development, and what's interesting is that it isn't entirely new. He was actually flashing these improvements a year ago, with the Brewers and the AAA Nashville Sounds. Branyan ran a 70% contact rate in the minors before getting called up and running 68% in the NL, posting a combined OPS over 1.000. That didn't look anything like the Branyan of before, but based on the ease with which the Mariners were able to sign him to a contract, nobody really bought into it as a sign that this was no longer your pappy's Russell Branyan.
And we get to reap the benefits. This could all just be one big statistical fluke, but contact rate is one of those statistics that stabilizes quickly, and over the past two years we have a sample of 996 Branyan swings and 302 Branyan misses, instead of something more like 400 Branyan misses. Labeling it as an anomaly, then, doesn't seem like the most sensible approach. Surprising? Absolutely. But not a fluke.
I don't know what's responsible for Branyan's improvement, but last spring he started doing some intense regular eye exercises, and that seems like a pretty good answer. It's not real hard to understand how eye performance could have a significant effect on things like making contact, and the whole story fits the timeline of Branyan seemingly improving overnight sometime in early 2008. While I'm usually skeptical of these sorts of retroactive explanations, this one feels more legitimate, because the data fits it so well.
Whatever the case, something's working. The eye exercises may not be the least bit responsible for Branyan's improvement, but by this point we have enough of a sample to show that he really has improved, and an improved version of the old Russell Branyan is a Russell Branyan who deserves a regular job. While Branyan's a 33 year old with a double heaping of old player skills, what matters is that, in the here and now, he's an excellent bat and a good overall value. If giving Branyan an everyday job was an experiment, then Jack Zduriencik has arrived at a groundbreaking conclusion.