Before the start of the season, many prognosticators forecast a downward trend for Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun in 2012. The thinking was that he'd be distracted by his tumultuous winter, including a positive drug test and successful appeal of a 50-game suspension that played out publicly instead of secretly as designed.
Critics also pointed to the loss of free agent slugger Prince Fielder, who batted behind Braun and provided protection. The thinking there was that he wouldn't see nearly as many strikes and therefore would have fewer pitchers to hit.
As the midpoint of the season nears, Braun has debunked all of those negative thoughts. His primary offensive numbers are either better, equal or only slightly behind a year ago: .308 average, 22 home runs (tops in the NL), 55 RBI, a .602 slugging percentage and 168 total bases.
Through July 1, 2011, Braun was hitting .321 with 16 homers, 61 RBI, a .560 slugging percentage and 169 total bases.
On Saturday night against Arizona, Braun socked two homers in his third multi-homer game of the first half.
"It's not surprising me," manager Ron Roenicke said before the Brewers' 2-1 win over the Diamondbacks on Sunday. "I knew it was going to be a little different dynamic as far as how he goes into opposing ballparks. But saying that, there are some parks that are on him anyway.
"He was prepared for it; he knew what was going to happen. Sometimes, in some of the parks, it pushes him and motivates him to do better, which is a good thing for us. But it's a different year for him."
Braun doesn't pretend that the Brewers haven't missed Fielder. He also admits to sometimes swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, trying to do too much. But, overall, he does not act stunned over his productive first half.
"Absolutely, it has been different," Braun said. "But that's far from my focus. My focus is on trying to win games. I think that's the biggest difference. I think we were playing a lot better last year than this year.
"The challenge for me has always been plate discipline. It's a constant work in progress. Sometimes I'm better at it than others, but I still feel like I've gone out of the strike zone more than I would have liked to."