Not a Rookie: Ryan Braun
One of the best young hitters in baseball is Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, who has gone from college superstar to National League force. Let's track his development as a prospect, and where his career currently stands in context.
Ryan Braun rose to prominence as a freshman at the University of Miami in 2003, hitting .364/.435/.665 with 17 homers and 13 steals, winning All-American and Freshman of the Year honors. He slumped slightly during an injury-plagued sophomore season (hitting "just" .335/.439/.606), but came back strong in 2005 with a .388/.471/.726 monster campaign, hitting 18 homers and swiping 23 bases. This earned him the fifth-overall spot in the 2005 draft, selected by the Brewers. Although his swing mechanics were considered unorthodox, Braun was rated by scouts as a superb hitter who would thrive offensively in pro ball. They weren't sure about his position, due to error-proneness at third base. He was terrific with the bat in his pro debut, hitting .355/.396/.645 in 37 games for West Virginia in the South Atlantic League. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2006 book, ranking him as the Number 22 prospect in baseball.
Braun began 2006 with Brevard County in the Florida State League, hitting .274/.344/.438 in 59 games, swiping 14 bases. This wasn't outstanding performance, but the Brewers saw enough to bump him up to Double-A at mid-season. He took off for Huntsville, hitting .303/.367/.589 with 12 steals in 59 games. Doubts persisted about his glove, but the bat looked excellent, and I gave him a Grade A- in the 2007 book, writing that Braun projected as "a .280-.300 hitter with 25-30 homers in a full season; he could exceed that in his best years." I ranked him as Number Six on the hitting prospect list; with questions about his glove the only thing holding him back at all.
He began 2007 with Triple-A Nashville, but quickly proved himself too good for the Pacific Coast League, hitting .342/.418/.701 in 34 games. Promoted to the majors, he hit .324/.370/.634 in 113 contests for the Brewers, earning Rookie of the Year honors. As you know, he's been excellent ever since, hitting .285/.335/.553 in '08, then .320/.386/.551 last season. His, um, "substandard" defense at third base forced a shift to left field in '08. He's not a very good fielder out there, but his bat is so strong that he remains a very valuable player. His career WARs so far: 3.2 in '07, 4.0 in '08, 4.8 in '09.
Putting Braun in historical context, here are some similar players.
Sim Scores, through age 25: Manny Ramirez, Chick Hafey, Danny Tartabull, Bob Meusel, Raul Mondesi, Ralph Kiner, Mike Greenwell, Vladimir Guerrero, Willie McCovey, and Fred Lynn.
PECOTA Comps: Al Simmons, Vladimir Guerrero, Duke Snider, Ellis Valentine, Larry Walker, Del Ennis, Rich Reichardt, Ruben Sierra, and Joe Medwick. Manny is 11th.
Of the 20 players who score most comparable to Braun with these two systems, there are six Hall of Famers (Hafey, Kiner, McCovey, Simmons, Snider, Medwick), two current players who have a chance to get in (Manny and Vlad), and a bunch of really good players. The worst player on the list is Rich Reichardt, who had a career +115 OPS in the 60s and early 70s.
That is some rarified company. If Braun stays healthy and ages well, he'll definitely rank as one of the very elite hitters of his generation.