Ryan Braun: The Forgotten MVP

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - People talk about moving the walls in at cavernous Petco Park all the time. I don't think anyone has ever suggested that the Padres move the walls further back. But they might have to the next time Ryan Braun comes to town.

Monday in San Diego, the Brewers leftfielder blasted not one homer, but three. In Braun's final at bat of the evening, he merely tripled to deep right center field.

Last night, Padres starter Edinson Volquez was in the zone from start to finish, surrendering only three hits. Of course, Braun had one of them.

The fact that Braun is a good hitter isn't news to anybody. Remember, this guy was the National League MVP a year ago. But it does seem that one month into the 2012 regular season, Braun has found himself surprisingly under the radar.

That's probably because Matt Kemp has made us forget that there are other outfielders in the league besides him.

Kemp finished a close second to Braun in the NL MVP race last year but so far this year it hasn't even been a contest. Through 24 games, Kemp is batting .409 with 12 HRs and 25 RBIs. That puts the 6'2 slugger on pace to hit 81 homers and 169 RBIs, a.k.a. the greatest statistical season known to man.

The challenge with Kemp is that you can't really intentionally walk or pitch around him because he bats ahead of Andre Ethier, who has been almost as productive as Kemp has this year. Ethier's 27 RBIs leads the major leagues.

Plus the Dodgers are 17-7 while the Brewers sit in the middle of the pack at just 11-13. Add in the fact that Magic Johnson just bought Kemp's team, and you've got the most talked-about franchise in baseball while the Brewers remain a bit of an afterthought.

We knew Kemp wouldn't disappoint in 2012 but Braun entered this season as a bit of a risky pick.

Braun was still a universal first-rounder but not the consensus No. 1 you'd expect him to be after a near Triple-Crown performance in 2011 (.332, 33 HRs, 111 RBIs).

Much of the hesitance surrounding Braun had to do with his tumultuous offseason that included a positive test result for performance enhancing drugs. The administration of Braun's test was called into question and eventually his 50- game suspension was dropped but doubts about Braun's psyche lingered.

Braun's fragile mental state became especially evident as he scuffled to a 1- for-15 start in spring training while enduring endless boos and heckling from opposing fans. He rebounded to hit .281 the rest of the way, however, finishing the spring at .213.

Even if Braun was beginning to get over the mental hurdle of dealing with steroid allegations, a greater challenge still existed, one that would be much tougher to overcome: the loss of Prince Fielder.

With Fielder (now a Detroit Tiger) hitting cleanup for Milwaukee last season, Braun had plenty of protection in the lineup. Nobody in their right mind walks Braun to get to Fielder, so the leftfielder saw tons of good pitches to hit in 2011 and he was able to take advantage.

Milwaukee's cleanup hitter this season? Soft-swinging 33-year-old Aramis Ramirez (.205 with two homers so far in 2012).

Midway through April it looked like Braun would be a safe bet to appear on my list of fantasy busts for 2012. At that point, he was hitting a measly .245 with weak power numbers (1 HR, 5 RBIs) and just a couple of stolen bases.

That was on April 20th. In the 10 games since then, the four-time All-Star has returned to being the Braun of old, smacking six HRs and 12 RBIs while batting .350. Even Kemp hasn't been able to keep up with Braun over that span (.294, 4 HRs, 5 RBIs).

And the best is still to come for Braun. He's always been a better hitter after the All-Star break (.318 versus .306) and his best month for hitting homers has historically been July (.600 career slugging percentage in that month).

Braun is just getting started on the base paths too. He only swiped three bags in April but he didn't waste any time grabbing his first stolen base in the month of May, stealing second with two outs in the sixth inning Tuesday night. Braun had 33 thefts in 39 tries last year and he should be hovering around that mark again when 2012 is complete.

Perhaps Braun's power stats are a little skewed after going berserk with three homers Monday, but if he continues at this rate, he could be poised for the highest regular season home run total of his career.

Right now, he's on pace for 47 dingers, 10 better than his career high of 37 set in 2008 and his percentage of extra base hits is higher than it's ever been (53.8 percent of hits compared to 41.2 percent last season). Braun's strikeout numbers are up (he's on pace for a career-high 155 Ks) but that's common for a hitter making the transition from a spray hitter to a full power hitter.

And don't forget about Aramis Ramirez. He isn't Prince Fielder but Ramirez isn't going to hit .205 all season. Expect the former Cub, a notoriously slow starter, to end up close to his career average of .283 by season's end. If Ramirez does rebound, which I am confident he will, it will be a little harder to completely avoid pitching to Braun and that will surely raise Braun's fantasy value.

My recommendation is to watch out for Braun in the month of May and beyond. In the end, I don't think Braun's stats will be too far off from the prodigious numbers Kemp is already putting up.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.