Ryan Braun is off to a torrid start as we delve into the 2011 season.
He is putting up numbers that some people weren't sure we'd ever see again, as pitchers in recent years have regained dominance as the steroid-era in baseball dwindled to an end.
With a slash line of .372/.466/.721, Braun is defying the odds and putting himself in position to be the front-runner for the NL MVP award.
His nine home runs lead all of MLB and his 21 RBI trail only the 23 RBI by teammate Prince Fielder. Braun is quickly proving he may be the first player to have a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski accomplished the feat way back in 1967.
Braun, currently in his fifth season, has averaged 30-plus home runs and 100-plus RBI in his four year career. The 2007 NL Rookie of the Year showed flashes of greatness from the beginning, slugging 34 home runs in only 113 games as a rookie.
Now, fresh-off signing a $105-million contract extension with the Brewers that will keep him in Milwaukee through the 2020 season, Braun appears to be taking his greatness to the next level.
In many cases, it's easy to write-off a quick or slow start to the season. Not with Ryan Braun, and especially not this season. If anything, we should expect his numbers to improve way before they take a nosedive.
Barring an injury, it's a forgone conclusion that Ryan Braun will join Robin Yount (1982, 89) and Rollie Fingers (1981) on the list of Milwaukee Brewers MVP's, and the first since the team joined the NL back in 1994.
Here is why.
It all begins with who Braun is up against.
Joey Votto, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder seem to be his biggest competition. That is not meant to slight guys like Matt Kemp and Troy Tulowitzki, who have started the season on tears in their own right.
Votto, the reigning NL MVP, is off to a slow start in the home run and RBI department, but in all likelihood will end up putting up similar numbers to last year.
He is the kind of guy that will give the Reds a consistent 100 runs, 35 home runs and 110 RBI per season. However, he probably won't continue getting the pitches he got last season—perks of being the MVP.
Speaking of consistent, Mr. Pujols could be in line to make a run at another MVP award. At 31, Pujols is probably getting into the latter years of his career. He should still be good for a solid 40-homer, 125-RBI season, but at some point we are going to see his numbers begin to regress.
Another concern is my opinion that the Cardinals will not be in the race down the stretch, which in many cases eliminates players from MVP contention.
Finally, Brauny's partner in crime Prince Fielder is looking to make a run at the award himself. The burly Fielder could be Braun's biggest competition (literally and figuratively). We see it all the time in a contract year—monster numbers that will never be seen from the player again (Adrian Beltre, anyone?).
Fielder currently leads the league in RBI but has only four home runs to his name. He has a lot of work to do in order to catch up to Braun in that department.
"My goal at a young age was never to make it to the big leagues but to excel at this level. If you don't strive for greatness in everything you do, you cheat yourself." - Ryan Braun
Most people only know of what a player does on the field, regardless of how much preparation they put in behind the cameras.
To understand why Ryan Braun is so successful on the field, you first need to understand his work ethic and how much time he puts into his overall game.
Most people know that Braun came up as a third baseman in 2007 and was transitioned to left field prior to the 2008 season. But did you know that as soon as management told Brauny he would be switching positions, he immediately got to work at fielding fly-balls? This was during the off-season, well before spring training had begun.
In his first season in left field, Braun's defensive Wins Above Replacement was -1.5. That number improved to -0.5 in his second year and then to +0.1 last season.
Braun may never win a Gold Glove, but he has definitely worked his way into being a serviceable fielder.
The meticulousness carries over to his hitting, as well. Braun is his own biggest critic, and you can frequently find him taking extra swings before and even after games.
He strives to be the best, and when you have his kind of natural talent, a little extra work goes a long way.
People call Braun cocky, but when you back up the talk it's simply confidence.
For the first time since C.C. Sabathia put on pinstripes, the Milwaukee Brewers have a starting rotation to be reckoned with.
Anyone who knows anything about baseball realizes that the best players step up when they are in the best situations. Having a pitching staff that can keep them in games will definitely play into that.
Braun praised Brewers management for their acquisitions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and it seems to have given the team that extra fuel to bring a pennant to Milwaukee.
If the Brewers are in more positions to win games, guys like Braun and Fielder are going to be the ones who drive in those extra runs or hit those game-winning home runs.
It's a whole different attitude and situation when your team doesn't have to score five runs per game to have a chance to win. When, as a player, you know you can win without only relying on offense, it tends to help you relax a bit and not try to force things at the plate.
Maybe that is why both Braun and Fielder are batting over .350 through the first month of the season. They realize that the fate of the Brewers season no longer rests solely on their shoulders, letting them just go out and have some fun.
As I previously mentioned, it's tough for MVP voters to give the award to players who aren't on teams at least in the running for a playoff spot come September.
With their revamped pitching staff and high-powered offense, that should be no problem for the 2011 version of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Currently sitting at 12-11 on the season, the Brewers look to remain competitive for the long-haul.
Compared to years past, the small-market Brewers have received much more media attention than they've been accustomed to.
Remaining competitive could mean more nationally televised games late in the season and more media attention overall, both of which will give Braun a larger platform to showcase his abilities.
If he can help bring Milwaukee their first division title since 1982, voters will be hard-pressed not to hand him the award if he is deserving.
This is probably the biggest key to Braun's success, as batting in front of one of the most feared hitters in the league definitely has its benefits.
Think about it; Braun has nine home runs already while Prince only has four. Opposing pitchers aren't even forced to pitch to Brauny at this point.
It will get to a point in mid-May, which historically is the time Fielder starts hitting the long-ball, where they are going to have to give Braun decent pitches to avoid having guys on base when Prince is at the plate.
As is illustrated by his 16:16 K:BB rates at this point, Braun is seeing the ball very well already this season. Can you imagine how ugly it could get for opposing pitchers when they are forced to throw him strikes?
Braun just set the franchise record for reaching base in each game through the first 23 games of the season. He is locked in and, more importantly, he is confident.
It may be too soon to name Braun the NL MVP, but it's definitely about time to get his crown sized.