Last year, one of the best hitters in baseball was Adam Dunn. Dunn achieved a degree of notoriety for breaking Bobby Bonds’ single-season strikeout record. To many, this was more of a triumph than a failure; Dunn has been dubbed a True Outcomes Hero for his refusal to put the ball in play. His strict adherence to the principles of hitting for the Three True Outcomes - the strikeout, the walk, and the home run - was music to the ears of many baseball fans.
Things are not all rosy for True Outcomes heroes, however. In a world where batting average continues to be overvalued, sluggers who hit for tremendous power and who get on base often but let their average slide will often face resistance. One such slugger is Russell Branyan. Once lauded as the ultimate modern day True Outcomes Hero, Branyan is spending March fighting for his first full-time major league job with the Brewers.
Branyan, a left-handed hitting third baseman and occasional outfielder, was selected out of high school in the 1994 amateur draft by Cleveland. Branyan struggled in rookie ball, but Cleveland elected to promote him to low-A for his first full professional season. Branyan spent two seasons in the Sally League, and his power numbers were phenomenal. He hit one home run every 13 at bats and notched a whopping .296 Isolated Power. However, Branyan also showed poor command of the strike zone, striking out once every 2.7 at bats. His unimpressive .264 average in two seasons at the Sally League was not what the Indians were looking for.
In 1997, Branyan was promoted to high-A Kinston, where he simply tore the cover off the ball with a .290 batting average and a .663 slugging percentage. On top of that, his plate discipline showed improvement, with his strikeouts down and his walks up. Promoted late in the season to Double-A, however, Branyan couldn’t keep his batting average up, hitting only .234. Nonetheless, his overall production was fine due to the grace of the True Outcomes, as he walked at an outstanding rate and hit a home run every 12 at bats.
In 1998, Branyan adjusted to AA, tearing through pitchers to the tune of a .693 slugging percentage. Unfortunately, his season was cut short by injuries.
Promoted to Triple-A for 1999, however, Branyan fell apart. He struck out 187 times in 395 at bats, putting up a putrid .208 batting average. He managed only 40 singles, but offset that with 42 extra base hits, including 30 home runs. While he continued to draw walks prodigiously, he didn’t do it with enough frequency to save his season. Given a brief audition in the big leagues at midseason, he failed to impress.
Given a second shot at Triple-A at age 24, Branyan managed to improve his power numbers and create a little extra distance above the Mendoza line. Called up to the big leagues on May 31, Branyan made a big impression, smacking six home runs in his first twenty-three plate appearances. Splitting time as a fill-in at DH and in the outfield, he finished his first significant stay in the majors with an excellent .238/.327/.544 line.
In 2001, Cleveland’s third baseman, Travis Fryman, started the season on the DL. Demonstrating faith in our hero, the Indians gave the starting third base job to Branyan, and he did not let them down. In the Indians’ game against the Yankees on June 2, Branyan hit his 12th home run of the season, raising his seasonal line to .247/.333/.549. Things were going well for Branyan. Unfortunately, this game also marked the return of the injured Fryman, who pinch hit for Branyan in the eighth inning.
On the basis of Fryman’s excellent 2000 season, Branyan’s spot in the starting lineup disappeared. This left precious little playing time to Branyan, as Marty Cordova and Juan Gonzalez were having very good seasons in the outfield corners while Jim Thome and Ellis Burks had excellent seasons at first base and DH. Branyan only managed 175 plate appearances over the remainder of the season, and he atrophied to the tune of .216/.297/.418, finishing the season at a disappointing .232/.316/.486. Meanwhile, Fryman couldn’t be dislodged from the starting lineup despite hitting only .263/.327/.335.
In 2002, Branyan looked to finally have his shot, as the departures of Marty Cordova and Juan Gonzalez via free agency left left field open. Unfortunately for our hero, nothing went right. Branyan performed terribly, and on June 7, with Branyan hitting .205/.278/.379, Cleveland flipped him to Cincinnati for Ben Broussard. Cincinnati, with its characteristic glut of outfielders and Sean Casey and Aaron Boone at the corners, had no starting job for Branyan, who ended up playing primarily when Casey was injured.
In the little playing time he had with the Reds, he acquitted himself very well, hitting .244/.349/.516. Unfortunately, Branyan also injured his shoulder with the Reds. In December 2002, he had arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder, and he wasn’t healthy again until June.
Upon his return, there was no abundance of playing time. For the next two months, Branyan saw mostly pinch-hitting duty, and in 76 plate appearances was hitting .226/.368/.484. Finally, a starting spot opened for Branyan when the Reds traded Aaron Boone to the Yankees at the trade deadline. There was much rejoicing, but it was to be short-lived; in his second day as the starting third baseman, Branyan suffered a high-ankle sprain and missed most of the ensuing month. Perhaps not fully healthy, Branyan slumped in September and finished the season hitting .216/.322/.438.
The Reds, not confident in Branyan’s ability to stay healthy and perhaps not fans of his offensive approach, elected not to offer Branyan arbitration in the offseason, making him a free agent. He agreed to a minor league contract with the Braves, but Atlanta wasn’t too taken with him. The Braves decided to hand their third base job to the underwhelming Mark DeRosa and relegated Branyan to Triple-A. After less than a month, the Braves decided to unload Branyan to Cleveland for a player to be named later, who turned out to be the supremely unimpressive journeyman minor league reliever Scott Sturkie.
Playing once again for Buffalo, Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate, Branyan hit .288/.374/.591 in 366 plate appearances. The Indians weren’t too interested in giving him a major league roster spot, though, as corner infielders Casey Blake, Ben Broussard, and Lou Merloni were each in the midst of career years.
Finally, on July 26, Branyan was dealt to Milwaukee for future considerations. The Brewers immediately called Branyan up to the major league club to take over for the slumping Wes Helms. Over the balance of the season, Branyan started the majority of Milwaukee’s games at third base and hit a tasty .234/.324/.525. Having once again demonstrated that he can adequately handle major league pitching, our hero seemed poised to finally be rewarded with an everyday job.
Sadly, that everyday job may prove illusory. Reports indicate that Brewers manager Ned Yost remains infatuated with Helms, and Helms arrived at spring training as the Brewers’ obligatory “in the best shape of my career!” guy. In addition, the charred remains of prodigal son Jeff Cirillo are in Brewers camp, and Brewers intelligentsia has proclaimed that there’s a three-man race between Cirillo, Helms, and Branyan for the hot corner.
Helms is certainly talented in his own right, and Cirillo himself was once an excellent player. However, Helms is unlikely to repeat the 2003 performance that his proponents tout, and even then he only hit .261/.330/.450. Meanwhile, Cirillo is three years removed from his last decent season. Branyan’s potential is clearly northward of either of his competitors.
The sensible move is to make Branyan the regular starter and to trot out the right-handed Helms on days when the opposition starts a southpaw. Unfortunately, there’s reason to doubt that Yost and the Brewers will do so.
All that True (Outcomes) Believers can do now is hope Milwaukee comes to its senses by rewarding our Hero with the starting job he so richly deserves.