When Ryan Braun was named an outfield starter for the National League in the 2010 Summer Classic yesterday—his third straight such honor—the 26-year-old entered uncharted territory for the Milwaukee Brewers.
By getting a third nod (a third consecutive one at that) Braun surpassed the two faces permanently etched on the franchise’s Mount Rushmore: Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, both of whom earned two All-Star Game starts.
Now, with all due respect to Stormin’ Gorman, Greg Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz, and Geoff Jenkins (who, by the way, will be retiring as a Brewer come Tuesday), the discussion of Greatest Brewer Ever quite clearly boils down to Yount and Molitor.
And obviously, any claims currently staking Braun to that throne are outrageously premature—both Yount and Molitor put in at least two decades in the majors (and at least 15 years with the Milwaukee organization).
But despite the premature nature of the question, Braun’s unprecedented excellence begs that it be asked: Is the Mission Hills, CA native on his way to becoming the greatest Brewer in MLB history?
Let’s start by comparing the first four seasons of their careers.
It should be noted that Molitor did not play in more than 140 games until his fifth season in the league, and was more or less a late bloomer due to a nasty string of injuries as well as marijuana and cocaine abuse in his first four seasons.
Despite the potential unfairness inherent in analyzing those seasons, however, that’s the only sample we have to use in comparison against Braun.
Also, since Braun has yet to actually complete his fourth year, we must simply use the pace he has set for the season, even though injuries and other circumstances could affect his production in the second half.
So with those caveats established, here’s the breakdown.
First Four Seasons
In Braun’s first four years, he projects to have 715 hits, 150 doubles, 125 homers, 419 RBI, 71 stolen bases, 396 runs, a .300 batting average, approximately a .360 on-base percentage, and a .550 slugging percentage in 582 games.
Yount, in comparison, totaled 570 hits, 95 doubles, 17 home runs, 181 RBI, 51 stolen bases, 240 runs, a .270 batting average, approximately a .300 OBP, and a .350 slugging percentage in 569 games.
Lastly, “The Ignitor” compiled marks of 534 hits, 93 doubles, 26 homers, 163 RBI, 107 stolen bases, 287 runs, a .300 batting average, approximately a .340 OBP, and a .400 slugging percentage in just 440 games.
Using these snapshots, both Braun and Molitor were outstanding from the moment they stepped between the lines, both batting .300, and Molitor flashing his rarely-mentioned speed, stealing bases at double the rate of Braun.
Yount, on the other hand, started slowly, demonstrating little power until the ‘80s, when he experienced a surge that he credits to an improved weight lifting regimen.
Overall, though, Braun seems to have garnered himself into the best in his early years by a considerable margin.
Numero Ocho has averaged 1.23 hits per game and a home run every 18.78 at bats.
Molitor averaged 1.21 hits per contest with a home run every 69.46 at bats, while Yount averaged a dinger every 126.18 at bats.
Now, it is also imperative we take a step back and contextualize their places in history a little bit.
Braun, in just three-and-a-half seasons, has already left an indelible mark on the major league record books.
After winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2007, Braun went on to register the sixth-most home runs for a player in his first three seasons (103), trailing just current All-Star regulars Albert Pujols (114) and Mark Teixeira (107), as well as three Hall of Fame sluggers, Ralph Kiner (114), Eddie Matthews (112), and Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio (107).
In addition, Braun became the eighth major-leaguer ever to finish a season with 100 runs, 100 RBI, 200 hits, 30 homers, 20 stolen bases, and a .300 batting average when he accomplished the feat last year—an achievement he may very well duplicate in multiple seasons to come.
And finally, Braun has already won two Silver Slugger Awards (given to the best hitter at his position), which compares favorably to Molitor, who earned four, and Yount, who finished with three.
But don’t get me wrong, all of this isn’t to say that Molitor and Yount didn’t reach some amazing plateaus and honors during their playing time.
Both players eventually collected the magical number of 3,000 hits, with Yount accumulating 3,142—good for 17th all-time—and Molitor racking up 3,319, placing him ninth in MLB history.
Beyond that, Yount is the only one of the three to win an MVP award and a Gold Glove, both of which he received in the Brewers’ World Series year of 1982.
Yount also picked up a second NL MVP in 1989.
For good measure, Molitor finished second in his Rookie of the Year balloting, and was also runner-up in the 1993 AL MVP voting.
Moreover, Molitor is part of an exclusive historical club—along with Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Eddie Collins—with 3,000 hits, a .300 batting average, and 500 stolen bases.
Most important of all in this discussion, however, is the simple fact that both Yount and Molitor were able to piece together lengthy careers that eventually secured them entrance into Cooperstown, which is one milestone Braun may be on pace for, but is nowhere near sniffing.
Sometimes lost amid the stat-heavy analysis of hitting in baseball is the other half of the game: Fielding. Despite that lack of attention, though, it absolutely must factor into any “greatest ever” debates.
And in this comparison, Yount appears to emerge as the best of the three.
Although he was spotty in the early part of his tenure (almost, in fact, losing the position to Molitor due to a spring training contract dispute in 1978), he would, with time, figure it out.
From 1985 through the end of his career in 1993, Yount would never commit more than 10 errors in a season.
True, this run did coincide with his move to the outfield on account of a shoulder problem, but lest I remind you that Yount was always considered a very good shortstop, and he did take home a Gold Glove at that position, in 1982.
Unlike the other two, Molitor never really found a true home in the field, playing seven different positions serviceably, but without greatness.
This lack of excellence with the leather, along with a history of injuries, ultimately led to Molitor’s move to primarily designated hitting beginning in 1991 and continuing until the end of his career in 1998.
Last but not least, Braun was at first considered a defensive liability when he committed a staggering 26 errors in just 112 games at third base in his rookie season.
Such a performance did not instill fans with much confidence when Braun was shifted to left field for his sophomore campaign.
Yet, since his move to the outfield, Braun has made just three errors, shown an above-average arm, and proved himself as a more-than-adequate fielder.
It would not be too much of a stretch to anticipate a Gold Glove or two (or three or four) in the future for the man affectionately known as the “Hebrew Hammer.”
So, while for now Yount comes away from this category as winner, it is not a foregone conclusion that he will always own that title.
Without question, this discussion is one filled with contingencies and conditional statements.
That’s natural when attempting to project the eventual level of greatness of a player only a few years into his career.
In baseball—more than other sports even—longevity is crucial to an impressive legacy.
With that said, it is easier to finish with a great career when you get off to a great start, and Braun has indisputably done that.
He has already proven himself as an equal to (or likely superior to) the other two in the batter’s box.
And in the field, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that his upward trajectory as a left fielder will only continue.
As long as Braun stays healthy, and as long as Mark Attanasio is willing to commit a large long-term contract to him in five or six years (or sooner if he sees fit for a raise commensurate to performance), his career promises to be of Hall of Fame caliber.
Therefore, while for now Yount remains the Greatest Brewer Ever, with Molitor a close second, Braun is hot on their trail.
Oh, and while I’d gladly include Prince Fielder in this article since his exploits so far warrant it, I’m just not that naïve.