- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
- 0 Shares
PHOENIX -- One is black, the other white. One swings from the right side of the plate, the other from the left.
One roams an outfield corner while the other plays a corner infield spot. And one provides the optimal blend of power and hitting acumen in the No. 3 hole in the order and the other pelts the bleacher seats with baseballs as the quintessential cleanup man.
If this were the 1950s or '60s, we'd be discussing the relative merits of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews. Take the same personal profiles, rearrange a few particulars and slap a retractable roof over the proceedings, and the conversation just as easily applies to Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun.
The only constants are home runs, RBIs and the letter "M" on the front of the cap.
Baseball fans in Milwaukee are conditioned to moderate expectations after enjoying only two winning seasons since 1993, but they're fortunate to be watching something special: two homegrown sluggers with gaudy portfolios and a synergy that transcends generations.
"I think the names we hear more often are Robin Yount and Paul Molitor," Braun said. "That comparison is more relevant and closer to our time. But you definitely hear both pairs of guys grouped together.
"I don't think Prince and I are anywhere close to that, but it's great that people recognize that we've accomplished some pretty special things together."
Bill James has certainly noticed. In his new book, the noted baseball analyst lists the 20 "most valuable properties" among the game's young players, and Felix Hernandez, Fielder, Hanley Ramirez and Braun take up the top four spots. It's hard to fathom why Joe Mauer ranks 16th on James' list, but that's a debate for another day.
As the adjacent charts show, Fielder and Braun have posted numbers in their first three years together that stack up nicely with the carnage Aaron and Mathews inflicted in a memorable five-year run with the Milwaukee Braves from 1957 through 1961. And that's just the beginning:
• Fielder, 25, went deep 50 times in 2007 to become the youngest player ever to break that barrier. The previous standard-bearer: Willie Mays.
• With 130 homers over the past three seasons, Fielder trails only Philadelphia's Ryan Howard, who has 140 and is building quite a résumé of his own.
• With 203 hits last season, Braun joined Cecil Cooper, Molitor and Yount as the fourth Brewer to surpass 200 in a season.
Beyond the numbers, the two players perform with a zest and a swagger that resonates with the general populace. They've helped the Brewers surpass 3 million in attendance in each of the past two seasons.
"They're elite offensive players, and they're not even five years into the league," said Brewers infielder Craig Counsell, a 15-year veteran. "It really forms the core of what you're trying to do as a team. It makes us an offensive team right away when you put those two guys in the middle."
Fielder arrived with a special burden because of his famous father, Cecil, and stories of his home run exploits as a 12-year-old taking batting practice at Tiger Stadium. When Milwaukee chose him with the seventh pick in the 2002 draft, few people questioned his ability to produce. The biggest issue, as Fielder knocked down fences in Ogden, Beloit, Huntsville and Nashville, was his ability to keep his weight under control and stay on the field.
It's time to scratch that concern. Fielder has missed 12 of a possible 648 games over the past four seasons, and last year he was the only player in the majors to play all 162 games.
Although Fielder miffed the purists with his celebratory act this past September against San Francisco -- when he untucked his shirt after a game-winning homer, then stomped on home plate as teammates fell around him like bowling pins -- there's a certain throwback appeal to his game. He might be the only player in the majors with a more ferocious swing than Matt Stairs.
As fun as it is to watch Fielder crank, Braun derives just as much enjoyment from watching his buddy bust it down the line.
"I love seeing him try to leg out an infield single," Braun said. "He runs hard to first base every time, and there aren't a lot of power hitters who do that. They say they do, but they don't."
In contrast to Howard, who has big problems with left-handed pitching, Fielder hangs in the box quite nicely against the Johan Santanas, Ted Lillys and Zach Dukes of the world. Fielder's .943 OPS against lefty pitchers was fourth best in the majors by a left-handed hitter last season. Only Raul Ibanez, Hideki Matsui and Chase Utley fared better.
Fielder steps in the box with a core philosophy of hitting the ball up the middle. If he's late, he'll drive it to left center, and if he's early, he'll decapitate the first baseman or send the ball into the right-field seats. The whole thing sounds a lot easier than it really is.
"When it comes to hitting, he's a savant in a way," Counsell said. "He understands it better than most of us. He's able to make adjustments so quickly and adapt and get better."
Brewers closer Trevor Hoffman gained some insight into Fielder's approach on team flights in 2009. He routinely sat behind Fielder on the plane and listened to his young teammate pepper catcher Jason Kendall and other veterans with questions.
"Prince's learning curve has been such a quick one," Hoffman said. "That's a credit to him -- asking questions, learning what pitchers are trying to do, and constantly trying to peel back that onion and get as much information as possible."
Like Fielder, Braun arrived in pro ball with hype to spare. He was a first-team All-American and a Golden Spikes Award finalist at the University of Miami, and the fifth overall draft pick in a loaded 2005 first round that included Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman and Troy Tulowitzki.
Braun has always carried himself with a self-assurance some people might call brashness. But that never fazed Fielder.
"People might take him as cocky, but to me he's just being honest," Fielder said. "Anytime a guy comes out and is sure of himself, what's not to like about it? He was confident, but wasn't overbearing by any means in my eyes. I'd rather have a guy be superconfident than be scared."
From the moment he arrived in the majors in May 2007, Braun displayed a fluid swing and a comfort level in big spots. He admittedly can get himself in trouble by swinging at pitches he should lay off, but that's becoming less of an issue each year.
According to FanGraphs, Braun swung at 29.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone in 2009, compared with 34.3 percent the previous season. His walk total increased from 42 to 57, and his on-base percentage improved from .335 to .386. It helps, of course, that he has Fielder behind him to motivate pitchers to get down to business.
If there's a major distinction between the two sluggers, it's Braun's commitment to routine and Fielder's flair for improvisation.
"He'll change his bat and stance at least twice a game," Braun said. "He can go from a 33 to a 35 [ounce] bat in the same game. If I tried that, I would have no chance."
Fielder, a husband and father of two, reveals little of his interests away from the field. Braun, in contrast, is a budding entrepreneur. He's an endorser for Sam Bats and Muscle Milk, has a clothing line called Remetee, and is about to launch several restaurants in Wisconsin. First up: Ryan Braun's Tavern & Grill in Lake Geneva.
For Brewers fans, the biggest question is how long the team's 3-4 combination will remain intact. Before the arrival of Marvin Miller and Scott Boras, Fielder's agent, power-hitting tandems stayed together until their bat speed waned and their Hall of Fame status was secure.
Aaron and Mathews were teammates from 1954 through 1966. Willie Mays and Willie McCovey played together for 14 years. Ernie Banks and Billy Williams were fellow Cubs from 1959 through '71, and Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell spent a decade together in Pittsburgh.
These days, synergy is a more fleeting proposition. Although Braun is signed to a club-friendly eight-year, $45 million deal through 2015, Fielder is about to receive the breathless, Adrian Gonzalez-style treatment on Internet forums. He's under contract for $10.5 million this season and will have one year of salary arbitration left before he's eligible for free agency in 2011.
"You'd love to stay, but it's a business, and it has to play out how it has to play out," Fielder said. "Hopefully I can be here for 30 years, but it's not something I'm going to stress out about."
Braun won't sweat Fielder's contract updates, either, although it has crossed his mind that the guy who casts such an ominous shadow in the on-deck circle might not be around forever.
"As a teammate, I don't think there's anybody we can replace Prince with who could give us as good an opportunity to win as he does," Braun said. "I realize how fortunate I've been and how much he's helped me.
"Ultimately we would love to keep him here, but I think everybody kind of recognizes the situation. He needs to do whatever is in his best interests and the best interests of his family."
Double trouble has been a way of life for Brewers opponents since 2007. Will Fielder and Braun forge a long-term partnership, or pursue parallel Hall of Fame tracks in separate destinations?
The "M" word that ultimately will determine the answer to that question is not "Milwaukee."
Together, Milwaukee mashers Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun form a lethal 3-4 combination in the Brewers' lineup, but for how much longer?