Considering Russell Branyan


This is exactly the time of year when your friendly neighborhood Florida Marlins start considering moves. After the big contracts have been signed and most options on other squads have been exhausted, the Marlins generally attempt to swoop in for some one year deals. It seems no different here, as apparently the Marlins have expressed interest in lefty first baseman Russell Branyan. On this, I have a couple of things to note.

What can we expect from Branyan?

CHONE has Branyan at 1.2 WAR projected, but that is in only 337 PA. The Fans are right in line with CHONE in terms of projecting wOBA (CHONE has a wOBA of .359, while the Fans have him at .361), but the Fans are also quite a deal more optimistic about Branyan’s playing time, putting him at 501 PA.

Which one is more correct? I don’t know for sure, but I will say this. Branyan never held a full-time job before last season with the Seattle Mariners. That’s what happens to players who are labeled two things: “injury-prone” and “strikeout machine.” We know the latter is fairly unimportant if you can contribute in other ways (more on that in a little bit), but the former is a big problem. Branyan posted a career high in PA last year, and projecting him to do the same again this season would probably be irresponsible. But, with the view on Branyan changing from “part-timer” to “viable starter,” I think you will see that the team that signs him will give him his due time at the plate. Even making him the big half of a platoon (the righty-hitting half) should give him around 400+ PA. Let’s give him 400 PA, so that he loses a little time to injury. With an averaged out projection of .357 wOBA, those 400 PA would be worth around 10.6 runs above average. Pretty good, I’d say.

What abou Branyan’s defense? While the eyes may see a lumbering man with little agility (and, again, injury problems), the stats seem to suggest that he is at least an average defender at first base. CHONE projects Branyan at just about average, BtB’s Steve Sommer’s projections have him at around -1 runs per 150 games. That latter projection includes some weight in the Fan’s opinion as well. The Fans over at FanGraphs have him at around an average defender as well, while the Fans Scouting Report tallies put him in the same category of defensive first basemen as Jorge Cantu and Prince Fielder. Overall, I think it would be fair to use the -1 runs per 150 games projection by Sommer, putting Branyan’s contributions with the glove at around -0.7 runs. Call it -1 run just to be conservative.

Add all of that up and what do you get?

9.2 wRAA + -1 defense + -7.5 position (1B) + 13.3 replacement = 14.1 Runs Above Replacement, or 1.4 WAR

You’ll note that that is close to my projection for Cantu over a full season; Branyan lags a full year of Cantu by about three runs! Considering most of the remaining PA would go to Gaby Sanchez for a total of about 0.5 WAR, and you might be looking at almost a league average setup at first base over the course of a full season! I’d say that is a pretty impressive feat. In comparison, playing Sanchez for the majority of PA may give something like 1.0-1.2 WAR, with the remaining playing time going to some other combination of lefty first baseman or Wes Helms. I’d imagine that is some 0.5 WAR worst than a Branyan-Sanchez setup.

Now, for a little ribbing

I’m going to go ahead and be “that guy” that ribs the newspaper-affiliated writers for writing something poorly. When earlier news broke out that the Marlins had offered a deal to Branyan, the guys at Fish Bytes, the Miami Herald’s Marlins-affiliated blog, wrote a piece questioning the judgment of the front office. In the piece, either Clark Spencer or Manny Navarro (the piece does not list the author) discussed Branyan’s skills and concluded that he would not be a good fit for the Marlins. This would have been fine, had the author(s) not discarded many of the things Branyan does well, things that are actually fairly obvious from looking at basic baseball stats.

I’m going to assume here that the author(s) did not do the research and that they simply glossed over some periphery stats or scouting reports on Branyan. In other words, I’m going to assume they know that, for example, OBP is freely available and an extremely important aspect of offense. Here’s some quotes from the article:

Upon hearing of ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark report about the Marlins offering a contract to first baseman Russell Branyan, my immediate thought was, “You mean Mike Jacobs isn’t still available?” Branyan is a left-handed hitter with wallop, but one who also strikes out often and doesn’t stand out defensively.

<snip>

Branyan does one thing well: hit for power. But he doesn’t hit lefties, strikes out a ton, and hasn’t been successful off the bench. He has played more than 100 games in only three seasons since breaking into the majors in 1998.

If the Marlins wind up with this guy, I’ll be surprised.

As you can see, the piece compares Branyan to one Mike Jacobs. Except there seems a slight difference.

Name BA OBP SLG wOBA
Russell Branyan .234 .331 .491 .349
Mike Jacobs .254 .313 .476 .335

Yeah, it’s in bold there. The difference between a .331 OBP and a .313 OBP is pretty large. That doesn’t even get into the fact that Branyan has a career SLG 15 points higher than Jacobs’ as well, despite a 20 point deficit in batting average. Overall, it gives Branyan a 14 point edge in wOBA! In this environment, the difference between a .349 wOBA and a .335 wOBA is seven runs in 600 PA. It was the difference between Nick Markakis and Ryan Ludwick last season.

But I don’t need to tell you that. Apparently the readers of Fish Bytes already knew that. To wit:

Russell Branyan also gets on base, which is pretty important, too. He has put up OBP’s of .347 and .342 the last two seasons. His main tool is power, but he is one of the best power-hitters in the game when he plays consistently.

Strikeouts really aren’t very bad at all. Sure, if given the choice between a strikeout and a soft grounder to short I would take the grounder, but the difference is extremely negligible.

Posted by: Noah

<snip>

Sorry, but Branyan is NOT Mike Jacobs. As Noah pointed out, he can actually take a walk, something Jacobs has never learned. He posted and .867 OPS last season. This would be a perfect move for the Marlins.

Posted by: Matt

Even ignoring the guy who put up the VORP total there, you still have two fans who have made obvious assertions; despite the low batting average, Branyan walks and gets on base at a clip Mike Jacobs has never even imagined. Add to that the power tool that Branyan has and he is a classic power-patience slugger, to the extreme. I’m especially happy that Noah pointed out that Branyan’s strikeouts don’t hurt a whole lot more than any other outs. Noah and Matt, you get my seal of approval!

Factor in the fact that the stats project Branyan to be a better defender than Jacobs and you have a first baseman who is actually a viable starter. But because he “can’t hit off the bench” like Ross Gload did last year, we’re supposed to discount him? Again, I’ll assume the authors didn’t do the research rather than make claims about how anyone could replace the absurd pinch hitting line that Gload had last year. Quite simply, that would have been impossible.

Conclusion

Branyan would be an interesting move at a cheap price with incentives added on. If the Marlins can make a deal happen, it may be worth it. The only thing I dislike about a potential deal is the blocking of Sanchez, but it is likely Sanchez would never have served as anything more than a platoon partner, and in any case, the Marlins have Logan Morrison waiting in the wings. Ultimately, Sanchez’ development should take a back seat to competing, and adding Branyan may help that cause.

Tags: Miami Marlins Russell Branyan