Brewers' Braun working on shift to RF
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
PHOENIX--Ryan Braun is going to have his hands full this season.
The fallout from his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal last year will likely be unrelenting. Throw in a move from left to right field, and Braun is going to be challenged on the baseball field like never before.
“I haven’t really been out there a whole lot,” said Braun when asked about the switch. “I guess everything that I’m accustomed to in left field will be opposite in right field. So, I don’t anticipate it necessarily being easy, but it’s just, most importantly, getting used to reading the ball off the bat.”
The emergence of Braun’s replacement, Khris Davis, down the stretch last season helped set Braun’s move in motion.
With the Brewers eager to give Davis more playing time in 2014, and Davis limited to playing left field because of his throwing arm, talk of moving Braun to right began early in the offseason. It became a reality in December when Milwaukee traded Norichika Aoki to Kansas City, with Braun communicating his willingness to make such a shift beforehand.
Manager Ron Roenicke revealed last week that thoughts of moving Braun to right actually surfaced in his first year as Brewers manager in 2011. It didn’t happen, though, and Braun went on to win the National League Most Valuable Player in left field while Corey Hart remained in right.
“That’s never an easy decision,” Roenicke said. “Usually, when you see that good a defensive outfielder and he can throw, you think of him as a right fielder. I kept asking, ‘Are more balls in baseball hit to left field or right field?’ Because that’s where you want your best fielder, right?
“From what I gathered, it was pretty consistent to both fields, so I didn’t think there was a need to move him at that time.”
Position switches aren’t foreign to Braun, who was a shortstop in college and played third base through his first major-league season with the Brewers in 2007 before being switched to left. Braun improved to the point where he was a finalist for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 2011 and ‘12, but rated out as slightly above average according to the metrics over the course of his six seasons there.
Scouting reports and video helped him make that initial transition.
“I felt in left field the thing that helped me most was taking balls live during batting practice, really getting used to the way the ball comes off the bat (from) right-handed hitters, left-handed hitters,” Braun said.
“I’m starting to figure out how our pitchers approach hitters, paying attention to scouting reports and having an idea of where I’m going to play when positioning myself in right field.”
Braun’s arm isn’t the cannon possessed by prototype major-league right fielders, but he can make up for that with great accuracy. His athleticism also should be plenty good for the position.
“Ryan has the ability to play center field—he’s an athlete,” said Brewers Gold Glove centerfielder Carlos Gomez. “He used to be an infielder. I don’t think he’s going to feel (the move) at all.”
What’s likely to cause Braun the most issues early on are the nuances of the position —getting reads off the bat, taking precise routes to the ball and dealing with caroms off the wall. Right-center field in Miller Park can be especially tricky due to the large cutout just to the left of a large patio area.
In order to better deal with all that, Braun might play deeper to start, which will allow him to get comfortable reading the ball off the bat and cover less ground going back on balls. Aoki, by comparison, played a deep right in each of his two seasons with the Brewers.
“It won’t be that easy a transition, even though he’s a very good leftfielder,” said Roenicke, who himself played all three outfield positions during his big-league career.
“It’s different when the ball turns the other way, and for so many years it always goes to the line. Now it goes the other way. But I think he’ll do fine. You can’t hit fungoes right-handed that way and hook it. So you have to play games. There’s going to be some plays that he turns the wrong way. But he’s a good enough athlete.
“I’m hoping with time that he’ll be really good out there.”
With full-squad workouts having just begun, Braun will have roughly six weeks as well as a month’s worth of games to get himself acclimated. In past springs, Braun, like most veterans, played sparingly early before ramping things up toward the end of camp.
That could change this year, however.
“We haven’t really discussed it too much yet, so I don’t really know what the plan is,” Braun said. “Most importantly, it’s about getting reps, whether that’s in batting practice or in games, possibly going and playing in minor-league games where I can be an all-time defender, which would be new for me.
“The more reps I can get in right field over the next six weeks, the more beneficial it will be to me as the season starts.”
Because of an early-season neck strain, a right thumb contusion, a four-game leave for a family medical issue and then his 65-game suspension, Braun’s offensive numbers were his lowest for his career—a .298 average, nine home runs, 38 RBI and a .498 slugging percentage.
Braun has been utilizing padding on the handles of his bats and in his batting gloves to try to prevent a repeat of the thumb issue, which led to a three-week stint on the disabled list.
If he’s able to stay healthy, Braun will once again hit third in a lineup that, when healthy, will contain plenty of pop from top to bottom.
Just being back on a baseball field—challenges or not—has Braun in a good frame of mind.
“It’s great. It’s exciting,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve had a lot of downtime with my extended offseason. I’m certainly excited to be back, excited to be in Arizona, excited to meet my new teammates, looking forward to the challenge of learning a new position.
“I’m just excited to be back to playing baseball.”