Today I am proud to present what I hope will be the first of many contributions from my friend and colleague Matt Bruce.  While he would never use the word, Matt is brilliant and anything he writes on baseball should be devoured.  Here he revisits a discussion we had in the late 1990s.

Hello, Mets fans.  I write from the Left Coast, as a fan of a team whose shtick doesn’t work in the playoffs.

Ten years ago, when Brian and I worked together at Howe Sportsdata, we made a bet: I claimed that Russell Branyan would have a better career than Garret Anderson.  If counting stats are any part of the consideration (as they should be) then it’s no contest, but their rate stats remain an interesting comparison.

One of Brian’s points was that, for all the derision stat-heads heaped on Anderson, the things he did well are still a key part of scoring runs and preventing runs.  He may have made too many outs — including a .307 on-base percentage in his 2000 breakout season — but he’s still carved out 37 career wins above replacement (by WARP3), and neither 300 home runs (for Mr. Single!) nor a career .300 batting average is out of the question.

Meanwhile, success for “the next Jim Thome” was much less of a sure thing than I would have claimed then.  In 2001, Branyan’s first full season, he had 361 plate appearances, 20 home runs, 54 RBI — and 132 strikeouts.  He was traded straight-up for Ben Broussard in 2002, before and after which he combined for 435 plate appearances, 24 home runs, 56 RBI — and 151 strikeouts, all big league career highs.  He’s been with six organizations since then, and amassed a 7.4 WARP3 in 2,343 plate appearances.

In other words, Russell Oles Branyan needs about 316 plate appearances per marginal win; Garret Joseph Anderson about 229.

On the other hand, despite a 65-point gap in career batting average, Branyan is surging ahead of Anderson in OBP (.328 to .327) and slugging (.485 to .468).  Big league managers were unwilling to trust someone who struck out so much, but in Seattle he may finally have (and use) an opportunity to stick.

At Saturday’s Mariners-A’s game, a friend of mine (who, coincidentally, grew up a Mets fan) wondered what Branyan thinks of Jack Cust: All these years that Branyan had been Branyan, and now here was a player even more like him than himself!  Aside from the strikeouts, Cust has been a remarkably productive (and quintessential) Athletic, hitting .256/.408/.504 and .231/.375/.476 in his full seasons.  Those are essentially the same line, with (depending on how you look at it) fewer balls falling in 2008 or more in 2007.

We talked about how some fans are frustrated that Cust doesn’t spoil more two-strike pitches, but also how the stereotypical Cust at-bat doesn’t really begin until the count is 3-2 (and he takes a borderline pitch).  Just as we were discussing this, he crushed a first-pitch fastball for a two-run homer off King Felix.  It seems that Cust thoroughly outsmarted the kid; who knows what Branyan’s career might have been like had he pulled off a few similar maneuvers.

Then again, the verb “outsmarted” might not be so frequently applied to the man whose previous claim to fame was the video of an Orioles game several years ago, when as the potential winning run he kept falling down between third and home.

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