Braun still drawing a crowd in Brewers camp
Milwaukee slugger is more focused on move to right field than media attention
PHOENIX -- Whether he likes it or not, Ryan Braun remains the big story in Brewers camp. An ESPN.com reporter was on earlier in the week to write about his transition to right field. CBS Sportsline and MLB Network talked to Braun on Friday, and USA Today dropped in to camp on Saturday.
Not even Hank the Dog -- the Cactus League's most popular canine -- can completely deflect the spotlight from Braun's comeback bid.
"I think for you guys, it's a dramatic story," Braun said after reporting for duty. "For me, it's really not. I get it. I understand where you guys are coming from. But for me, it's the same as it's been every year in Spring Training."
He's sticking with that sentiment despite the fact he has not hit a regular-season home run since May 22, when Braun was already dealing with the pain at the base of his right thumb that sapped his power. He has not played a regular-season game since July 21, the day before he was suspended by Major League Baseball for ties to Biogenesis.
After sitting out the Brewers' final 65 games, Braun has announced his return with some authority. He entered Sunday's split-squad action having reached safely in nine of his first 12 spring plate appearances, with two home runs among his six hits.
Braun homered in his first at-bat coming off the suspension, during the Brewers' Cactus League opener against the A's. When he homered again this week, Braun swore that Spring Training statistics don't mean a lick.
But it beats the alternative, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said.
"He's a special hitter that can get it back together quickly," Roenicke said. "It's not something we didn't expect. I'm a little surprised that every at-bat he's had, he pretty much squares up the ball. That's a little surprising. I just think that most guys take longer to do it.
"There are some athletes that you put them on the 15-day [disabled list and when they return] they're lost for half a month. And there's other guys you do it, and the first day back they get three hits. It's hard to explain. I know it's a better athlete that comes back quicker, but I don't know what the difference is between the timing of it."
Getting up to speed at a new position could take a bit longer. Braun won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2007 as a third baseman despite committing 26 errors, and he moved to left field the next season.
Steadily, Braun got better in the outfield, improving to 7.6 wins above replacement defensively (per FanGraphs.com) in 2012. His metrics took a big hit in 2013 because of diminished playing time and a neck injury suffered early in the season, which led to more playing time for 26-year-old Khris Davis, who slugged .596 in Braun's absence. When it became clear Davis figured big in the Brewers' future plans, right fielder Norichika Aoki requested a trade, and the resulting deal opened right field for Braun and left field for Davis.
"Being a good defender out in left certainly lets you believe that [Braun] is going to be a good defender in right," Roenicke said, "because he has the skill set for right with his arm. He throws well. He's accurate. And then he has the speed to cover the ground that you need.
"The typical left fielder may not have that same skill set, although you see [Carlos] Gonzalez for Colorado, who I think is just an outstanding defender. Why is he still in left? It's just the personnel you have on your team dictates where you want guys. With Ryan, the skill set to be able to play both corners allows you to maybe put another part in that other side that could be really important to your team right then and in the future.
"[Braun] has played really well so far. He's covered ground. He's gotten good jumps. He hasn't had the really tough ball, which is going to be the line drive that's over his head, it's going to be moving towards the line. He hasn't had those."
Roenicke will suggest that Braun play a bit deeper than usual once the Brewers head north to Miller Park, where right field is deceivingly spacious for such a hitter-friendly park. Braun also will have to contend with some challenging features along the outfield wall, including the chain-link fencing that protects fans in a party area.
Asked at the start of camp about the biggest challenge of such a switch, Braun said it was, "just getting used to the way the ball comes off the bat. I think it took me a couple of years to really get comfortable in left field, to get to the point I felt like I was an above-average defender, and everything in right field will be opposite of what I'm accustomed to in left field."
Considering the stakes, with Braun vowing he would be "better than ever" at the plate this season, one wondered whether he considered declining the invitation to add a position switch to his plate.
Braun laughed at the question.
"Not at all," he said. "I'll play wherever they want me to play."
With one exception.
"Third base," he said. "Obviously, that didn't go so well. But I still think I could be a really good shortstop, so maybe I'll get an opportunity to do that one day."