2011 NL MVP: The Rise, Fall, and Possible Resurgence of Ryan Braun

The 2011 National League race to the Most Valuable Player award was not without controversy, as Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun won a close battle with LA Dodger Matt Kemp. While Braun’s statistics were undoubtedly high (33 HR, 111 RBI, 41 SB), Matt Kemp outdid him in virtually every category (39 HR, 124 RBI, 41 SB). 

If statistics aren’t enough, Braun’s former teammate Prince Fielder was expected to draw some of the attention, taking would-be-Braun votes on his way to fulfilling his own monstrous season. Ultimately, voters gave Braun the edge because he played for a team within playoff contention, whereas Matt Kemp was able to “be the man” in L.A. with the Dodgers, a team that finished 11.5 games back.

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“Ryan Braun won because Matt Kemp’s teammate, pitcher Clayton Kershaw, won the Cy Young award,” said Troy Provost-Heron, a baseball fan.  “The Dodgers had such a poor record, the team couldn’t possibly have both an MVP and Cy Young winner. Matt Kemp definitely had the better season, though I still would’ve voted for [Braun].”

Slight controversies like this are common in sports, where fans, coaches, broadcasters and writers regularly have extremely divergent views concerning a player’s worth.  However, when word got out in late December that Braun tested positive for steroid use during the playoffs, and faced a 50-game suspension effective immediately at the beginning of the 2012 season, the controversy grew to massive proportions.

Braun’s alleged steroid use stumped Commissioner Bud Selig and the MLB, who thought highly of Braun and cited him frequently as evidence of a drug-free baseball era— a new era in baseball in which a steroid testing process effectively weeds out the users. Selig believed he found his go to guy in Braun, and when sizing up Braun it is hard to refute him. Braun has all the assets, from his GQ chin and well-spoken demeanor, to his work ethic and consistently impressive numbers.  In Braun, Selig found his golden boy, which is why accusations of steroid use were devastating.

Due to a technicality, on February 23rd, Braun became the first player to ever win an appeal with MLB and to have a suspension related to performance enhancing drug use dropped.  The collector who had been in possession of Braun’s test sample, failed to deliver it to Federal Express for shipping in an amount of time that was considered suitable for the test to remain valid.  What may have happened to the sample while it was in the collector’s possession is unknown, but Braun claims issues of tampering.  Major League Baseball has mentioned that they are disappointed in the results of the appeal, but are still confident the system currently in place is most effective.

“If I had done this intentionally or unintentionally, I would be the first one to step up and say I did it,” said Braun at a Press Conference after winning his appeal.  “I truly believe in my heart, and I would bet on my life, that this substance never entered my body at any point.”

It is impossible to know the truth, but Braun doesn’t share the typical physique of other high-profile steroid user, and his weight, approach at the plate, stolen base numbers, and defensive ability at left field have all remained consistent throughout his career.

In contrast, Barry Bonds gained 40 pounds in two years between 1990 and 92 when he started to use steroids.  His speed dropped while his power swing started to dominate the league.  Alex Rodrigues also gained weight and lost mobility, and was moved from shortstop to third base in order to stay effective defensively.

Whether or not Braun actually took PEDs, the failed drug test will always cast some doubt on what was once a perfect baseball résumé.

“His reputation is certainly tainted,” said MLB fan Andre Canellas. “The best way to win back [your] fan’s trust is to have a great season when everyone knows you aren’t taking steroids. Everyone has kind of overlooked A-Rod taking steroids, because he’s still been really good since then.”

Still, passing all of his future drug tests with no set-backs cannot completely erase the past. His future play has to be consistent with what it has been in the past, or people will question whether or not his earlier seasons in the league were valid.  Repeating the statistical season he had in 2011 would be a hard task for anyone, but Braun has more factors going against him than most reigning MVPs would. Putting aside the stresses that come with the title, handling the pressure of the steroid controversy could affect him mentally and physically, especially if it has at all affected his training routines.  He also lost teammate Prince Fielder, who’s batted behind Braun the last 4 seasons, to free agency.  This shouldn’t affect his average or RBI’s, but his runs scored will go down significantly, as well as the team’s offense as a whole, meaning he’ll have to put more of the teams weight on his shoulders.

If anyone can recover from this controversy, it’s Braun.  If he truly never took steroids, he’ll flourish this season like every other, and the accusations will all be in the past.  But if he’s guilty, fans and players will recognize the change in his performance right away.

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