Friday, July 2, 2010

Why we whipped Russell Branyan

Paul Cousineau laments the loss of Russell Branyan in an SBNation post. Actually, I should say he laments the perception that Indians fans treated Branyan unfairly, considering him a “whipping boy” for all the Indians’ problems, when in fact Branyan did pretty much what could reasonably be expected from him. This isn’t an unsupportable position, as shown by Cousineau’s excellent support. Yes, Russell Branyan struck out. Yes, Russell Branyan played subpar defense at first. But Branyan also hit 10 homers and finished the Cleveland portion of his stint hitting .263/.328/.491, good for an .819 OPS that was 3rd-best on the team at the time. In terms of reasonable expectations, it could credibly be argued that Russ actually exceeded them.

Of course, this is part of the problem. The expectations for Branyan were that he would add value, but not a LOT of value. Which is exactly what happened: he added some value. But the team was still bad, and in terms of what fans wanted to see, there were basically two plausible camps:

1) The Indians are rebuilding and need to make every move in accordance with the Posnanski Treatise
2) The Indians might compete in a weak A.L. Central if they exceed expectations

Well, Branyan doesn’t serve EITHER of those purposes. He sure as heck isn’t a long-term solution to ANYTHING: the man is 34 with a balky back, and not really an everyday player despite what hard-core wishcasters would have you believe. Branyan hit 3 homers in 45 ABs against lefties, leading to a .467 SLG. That’s good. He also drew 2 walks and hit .222, leading to a .255 OBP. That’s nauseating. And in terms of competing in the Central, well, Branyan would have had to add a LOT of value QUICKLY, and instead added SOME value TOO LATE.

Now, Cousineau has a point in that a lot of the wrath and frustration directed at Branyan was probably misplaced. Was Branyan more of a drain on the Indians’ hopes than Kerry Wood, who has needed three straight saves to bring his ERA DOWN to 6.62? More than David Huff’s Amazing Repeated Tightrope Fall act? More than Grady Sizemore’s incredible Season of Pointlessness? More than the Middle Infield of Death, or at least Severe Injury? More than repeated bullpen failures, Justin Masterson hammerings, or Tofu Lou Marson? At least Branyan had positive VORP: exactly half of the 20 hitters that have played for Cleveland this season can say the same. (Fun fact: Justin Masterson’s single gives him a positive offensive VORP, better than ten other position players.)

No, the whipping commenced on Branyan for the following reasons:

1) Context

Branyan’s signing might have been the most pointless thing since “Cop Rock.” The reasons are sort of presented above, but to be explicit, the Indians needed to commit to EITHER playing Matt LaPorta every day OR adding someone truly reliably good to the lineup. Branyan has his uses … but not so much on the Indians as currently constructed.

2) Health

Branyan came with known health concerns. “Don’t worry about those, they’re overblown,” we were told. And then he missed most of Spring Training and didn’t debut for the Indians until April 20th.

3) The Over-the-Shoulder Effect

Do you think Matt LaPorta might have struggled some out of the box because he was waiting to be yanked after Austin Kearns got off to a hot start and Russ Branyan was threatening to return any moment? Health may have been a larger issue with LaPorta, and to be perfectly explicit, LaPorta performed poorly. Some of that has to be on him. But correct or not, the perception of Cleveland fans was that Branyan’s hovering revenant was a factor in LaPorta’s suckage.

4) Slow Start

Branyan hit .250/.318/.400 in April. He hit zero home runs and struck out 7 times in 20 AB, a 35% rate. That’s pretty bad. Those are bad numbers for Jhonny Peralta, and Branyan plays WORSE defense at FIRST.

5) Confirmation Bias

Quick, Cleveland fans: in a tight game with men on base, Rafael Perez is summoned from the bullpen. Are you confident, or terrified in a bowel-cleansing manner?

Well, on July 2, the correct answer is, “Confident.” After an atrocious start and a hideous 2009, Rafael Perez did not give up an earned run in June. He velocity is back and his location is a lot better, only walking 2 batters in 10 1/3 IP. But if you watched him in April and May, and recall last season, the sight of Raffy Perez made you weep anyway, as you kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Branyan may have started slow in April, but in early May, he might as well have been encased in dry ice: after a one-hit series against Baltimore and hitless two-gamers against both Tampa and Kansas City (in which we lost all 4 games, scoring 12 runs total), Branyan sat at .197/.284/.424. The .227 ISO is acceptible, if low, from Branyan. An OBP of .284 is simply horrific. So even though Branyan ended up hitting .240/.310/.507 in May, which I’d argue is still pretty bad because a .310 OBP is just flat-out crummy from a first fargin’ baseman, if you came into the season wondering what the heck Branyan was doing on the roster, you pretty much set your position in stone on May 20th: Russ Branyan must die.
6) The Albert Belle Factor

To be explicit, I am not comparing Branyan’s personality to Belle’s. I wouldn’t compare Simon Adubesi to Albert Belle. But when Belle played in Cleveland, he was a jerk, and Indians fans generally loved him anyway. Why? Because he was AWESOME. (You know, that word gets thrown around a lot as a synonym for “really good,” but that doesn’t do justice to Belle. Belle actually ellicited AWE. He was literally AWESOME.)

But this equation requires both parts: I will happily root for a jerk is he is:

a) on my team
b) really good
If either of these elements is missing … well … then he’s a jerk. When Anthony Castrovince noted (paraphrased), “ The Russell Branyan trade was, simply put, a very popular move in the Indians’ clubhouse,” we was giving concrete voice to this sentiment.
Note: the Indians win games at a higher rate without Russell Branyan. Fair or well-attributed or post-hoc or not, the question as I understood it was both “Why?” and “Is it deserved?” This goes to the first of those questions.
7) Too Little, Too Late
Branyan’s fine June (.289/.359/.518, high-quality stuff) came after fans had largely committed to trading anything not tied down.
8) Da Butcher
Russ Branyan is a lousy first baseman. I don’t care what stats you want to pull out, the single play I’ll remember most from the Hopefully Last Russ Branyan Era was the game in which poor Justin Masterson gave up 6 infield singles. On one bunt, Branyan wandered in, not so much “charging” as “not charging,” then stopped at precisely the point at which he could add exactly no value. He was not close to the bag. He was not close to the ball. He walked in, and stood there, all but holding a sign advertising five-cent cigars.
Note: the Indians now replace Matt LaPorta, a stiff and unathletic first-baseman, in the late innings with Andy Marte, a preposterous and mind-boggling first-baseman. I have no positive spin here.
9) Must … jettison … contract
Look, a lot more people would be a lot happier if Kerry Wood’s albatross was shipped off instead of Branyan’s. Wood’s contract is symbolic of Epic GM Fail, as well as Epic Self Fail. Wood didn’t make a positive difference, and now he’s bad. Please, get off my team.
But no one is dealing for that thing, not yet, so Branyan is more representative of a general theme (“Trade the expensive veterans who aren’t long-timers anyway!”) than his contract was specifically odious (it wasn’t).

Anyway, that’s why we hated Branyan.

While I’m here, here are perceived other candidates from other teams:
Boston: Daisuke Matsuzaka (expensive, infuriating), J.D. Drew (J.D. Drew)
New York: Javier Vazquez (2004)
Toronto: last season, Vern Wells/Alex Rios (back-breaking contracts, poor performance); this season, Adam Lind (pumpkinization)
Tampa Bay: Jason Bartlett (poor performance), B.J. Upton (perceived lack of effort)
Baltimore: pitching staff (horror), Garrett Atkins (horror, no HR)

Chicago: Gord Beckham (sophomore slump)
Detroit: Dontrelle Willis (gone now, but contract + infuriating)
Kansas City: Jose Guillen (contract, poor fielding, jerk)
Minnesota: Nick Punto (scrappy, talentless)

Texas: Tom Hicks (finances prevent trading for ace)
Caliheimgeles: Vlad Guerrero (why weren’t you like this LAST year?!?!)
Seattle: Chone Figgins (weren’t you supposed to be GOOD?)
Oakland: Jack Cust (Billy outsmarts … himself)
New York Mets: Jerry Manuel (dreadful tactician), John Maine (poor performance)
Atlanta: (Atlanta fans don’t care)
Philadelphia: Raul Ibanez (you’re keeping our kid on the farm and forcing us to trade Werth!)
Washington: not sure … Adam Dunn? That would be unfair, but he is an unorthodox player to root for.
Florida: Jeffrey Loria (odious)

St. Louis: Jeff Suppan? Brad Penny?
Cincinnati: Dusty Baker (you led off Wile E. Taveras!)
Chicago: Everyone
Pittsburgh: Everyone
Houston: Everyone but Roy Oswalt
Milwaukee: Pitchers

San Francisco: Kung Fu Panda (be good again, dammit!), Tim Lincecum’s weed dealer
San Diego: still pinching selves
Los Angeles: Matt Kemp (see B.J. Upton, horrible fielding, subpar hitting)
Arizona: too hot to hate
Colorado: Anyone not named “Ubaldo” or “Todd”

1 comment:

  1. Back during Russell Branyan's first stint as an Indian, I had the good fortune of attending the Wahoo luncheon (or whatever it was called back then). It was held early in the season and was a great event; Charlie Manuel gave an entertaining speech and many of the Indians players were available for autographs after the lunch. Many of the players were nice as could be; Charlie Nagy stood out in particular as a very personable guy.

    Hands down the worst schmo there was one young Russell Branyan. I remember that he didn't look me in the eye once when he signed my ball, and right after he signed it he got up and left even though all the other Indians were stil signing and there were kids in his line. He didn't offer any explanation, he just bailed.

    So his general douchiness, combined with his overwhelming suckitude AND the fact that he stood against everything the rebuilding Indians should have been doing (free Matt LaPorta!) made this one of the most mind boggling FA signings in history.

    Unless, of course, any of these minor leaguers that the team got from Seattle turn out to be Asdrubal Choo Jr....if so, I take it all back and Mark Shapiro is a freakin' genius.