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Braun consistently hitting ball hard, with results

Veteran outfielder enjoying elder-statesman role for Brewers
MLB.com

Stroll through the Brewers' clubhouse and the sight is consistent. Ryan Braun, the 11-year Milwaukee veteran, makes his rounds to the club's many young hitters, conversing confidently with a nucleus behind one of the year's biggest surprises, a core of blossoming sluggers who won't go away.

In the midst of their most critical road trip of the year -- a nine-game weave through the National League West -- the Brewers entered Thursday with two distinct and realistic avenues to the postseason. They're 3 1/2 games out of the NL Wild Card and 3 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central. Not many forecasted they'd be here with less than six weeks remaining.

Stroll through the Brewers' clubhouse and the sight is consistent. Ryan Braun, the 11-year Milwaukee veteran, makes his rounds to the club's many young hitters, conversing confidently with a nucleus behind one of the year's biggest surprises, a core of blossoming sluggers who won't go away.

In the midst of their most critical road trip of the year -- a nine-game weave through the National League West -- the Brewers entered Thursday with two distinct and realistic avenues to the postseason. They're 3 1/2 games out of the NL Wild Card and 3 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central. Not many forecasted they'd be here with less than six weeks remaining.

"I think this year's been unique in that we came into the year with no expectations, and obviously to be in the position we're in is a lot of fun for us as a group," Braun said last weekend in Denver.

Even with missing roughly a month with a left calf strain, Braun is in the midst of another year near his trademark .300 plateau. Most rewarding, Braun says, has been his paternal-like role on his surrounding cast, many in the midst of breakout seasons -- such as Domingo Santana, Travis Shaw, Keon Broxton and journeyman Eric Thames -- who have built a reputation on power.

The Brewers rank second in the NL with 185 homers, and a sizable 17.1 percent of their hits have been for barrels -- a Statcast™ metric illustrating the most optimum hits -- 10th best in MLB. As such, Braun's role in a maturing lineup has been less demanding, yet Braun has been as contributive as any to their hard-hitting emergence.

Video: PHI@MIL: Braun hits sixth career grand slam in 2nd

According to Statcast™, Braun is ripping line drives and fly balls with an average exit velocity of 97.1 mph, eighth highest in the Majors (minimum 100 batted ball events), and 32 percent of his batted balls have been hit with an exit velocity of 100 mph or higher -- fifth highest, and ahead of Giancarlo Stanton and Manny Machado, among other sluggers who have multiple homers of more than 450 feet.

But Braun isn't raking like the rest counterparts on the Statcast™ leaderboards -- his 13 homers rank sixth on the Brewers -- and that's rooted in his mechanical approach. With one of the game's most efficient bat paths, Braun has specialized in staying inside and on top of the baseball. The hands are upright in front of his face, the back (right) leg is pivoted inward to create more load and the plant (left) foot generates tremendous torque, creating a revered inside-out swing that makes him a threat in any quadrant of the strike zone and to any part of the field. But the collective product admittedly sacrifices power.

Tweet from @DKramer_: Braun is ripping the ball throughout the strike zone (left), and spraying his line drives mostly oppo, admittedly sacrificing power (right). pic.twitter.com/9Cj0DcoGGQ

"If I was probably pulling more of those, I would be hitting more homers, because it's easier to backspin pull-side home runs," Braun said, examining a spray heatmap of his line drives and fly balls. "But the goal is to just stay in the middle of it. The goal is to hit the ball hard and stay in the middle of the field. I feel like if you do that, that's how you have the most room for error."

An up-the-middle approach keeps Braun's bat in the zone longer, allowing him to drive mistake pitches straightaway, pull offspeed with power or go opposite field if he's a tick late on a fastball. Staying gap to gap has also helped him with plate discipline, an admitted area of weakness throughout his career.

The carryover has correlated with a significant uptick on Braun success with inside pitches. This year, he is hitting .423 on the inner-third, fourth best among right-handed batters (minimum 50 at-bats), and by far a personal best since pitch tracking was implemented.

"It's easier to miss balls pull side and go deep than it is when you stay in the middle of the field," Braun said. "I think ultimately, it gives me the best chance to hit extra-base hits, to get on base, to have a good on-base percentage and a high OPS, which I think are the things that I think matter the most as a hitter."

Video: MIL@CIN: Braun, Shaw drive back to back homers in 3rd

Braun's execution is manifested through routine -- from the cage, to BP to the on-deck circle. The X-factor? His tee.

Roughly 15 to 20 minutes before first pitch, for every game, Braun takes cuts from a tee, generating movement solely from his upper body, keeping everything below his waist motionless. The practice eliminates all external variables, such as pitch location, and allows him to consistently focus on his bat path and the trajectory of the ball.

Tweet from @DKramer_: In his final round of BP, Ryan Braun likes to "let it fly a little bit" -- reminding himself most of his bat speed and power is pull side. pic.twitter.com/LqB5b4XENq

"He's developed this beautiful bat path that not many people have," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "It's a beautiful baseball swing, there's no question. It's known as a beautiful baseball swing. You'll see guys from other teams come to just watch him, watch him swing."

It's the players within Braun's own clubhouse who are observing most intently. Less than a year removed from swirling trade rumors with the Brewers seemingly far from contention, Braun has embraced his role as elder statesman. As Milwaukee marches toward the home stretch of a pennant race, with mostly youngsters but a few veterans sprinkled in, Braun says this has been one of his most fulfilling seasons.

"Whenever he talks, everyone listens to him, because he has great advice," said Thames. "He's been around for 10 years. He's seen a lot of pitching. … If you're around a veteran like that, he's been as good as he's been for a long time for a reason, so you want to pick his brain as much as you can."

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Milwaukee Brewers, Ryan Braun