Maybe you've heard about what Ryan Braun did Monday night in San Diego, and maybe you haven't. If you're reading this, you probably have. If you haven't, you're about to. Monday, the San Diego Padres entertained the Milwaukee Brewers, which is a weird way to put that sentence since the San Diego Padres seldom entertain anyone. The Brewers had Braun playing left field and batting third, and Braun would come to the plate five times. The first time, he flew out to center. The following screenshots show what Braun did the next four times:
In Braun's second at-bat, he homered to right-center field. In Braun's third at-bat, he homered to the top deck down the left-field line, where Khalil Greene used to like to put the ball. Now you're thinking about Khalil Greene. Quit it, and get back to thinking about Ryan Braun. Khalil Greene will still be there for you to think about later. In Braun's fourth at-bat, he homered to left-center field. In Braun's fifth at-bat, he tripled to right-center field, just shy of where he homered earlier.
It would've been easy for me to just tell you that Ryan Braun hit three home runs and a triple, but I think the pictures add a certain something. They make the achievement seem more real, and less like a collection of numbers. Remember when Kerry Wood struck out 20 dudes? It's one thing to hear that a pitcher struck out 20 dudes. It's quite another to see highlights of a pitcher striking out 20 dudes. Images can sear a performance into your memory.
Obviously, Braun's performance was outstanding. He's one of few players to ever hit three home runs and a triple in a game. With that said, I doubt this'll be a performance many of you remember a month or three down the line. Two weeks ago, Curtis Granderson went 5-for-5 with three home runs. Do you remember that? Last August, Casey McGehee went 3-for-4 with three home runs. Do you remember that?
It's that fourth home run, that Braun didn't hit. Throughout baseball history, there have been 13 games in which a hitter went deep four times. The first guy to do it was Lou Gehrig in 1932, and the last guy to do it was Carlos Delgado in 2003. Throughout baseball history, there have been 504 games in which a hitter went deep three times. It's an amazing performance, but it makes for a story of the day, as opposed to a story of the month or a story of the year.
But, back to Braun. Braun didn't simply hit three home runs and a triple in the same game. He did that in Petco Park, on the last day of April, at night. It'd be one thing if he did that in Petco Park during an August Sunday matinee. But hitting conditions don't get much worse than the ones Braun was facing Monday night, and still he racked up 15 total bases in five trips to the plate. The first trip to the plate contributed zero of them.
There's a degree of difficulty, here. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Petco Park is literally where hitters go to die. They show up on Tony Gwynn Drive, they ask politely to be let in, they lurch to a power alley, and they fall down dead, waiting to be buried beneath the outfield sandbox. The Padres are reportedly considering moving the fences in, because they've figured out that all the dead hitters are bad for business. They drive fans away, and they do the opposite of drive seagulls away. Seagulls don't pay admission.
The record will show that Ryan Braun went 4-for-5 with three home runs and a triple. What will be forgotten in time is that Ryan Braun did that in perhaps baseball's most pitcher-friendly ballpark. And also during a period of reduced offense league-wide. The average OPS right now is .711. When, say, Mike Cameron went deep four times in a game in 2002, the average OPS was .748. The average OPS in Comiskey Park was .786. Cameron hit four home runs, while Braun hit three home runs and a triple, but given the context, perhaps Braun's performance was better. Or more impressive, if you consider those two different things.
Records are kept rather matter-of-factly, and all that's there are: numbers. Which is fine, because they're just records, and records ultimately don't mean that much, but I wish we had some way of factoring in the degree of difficulty. If you wanted to get super detailed, you could even factor in the opposing pitchers. Delgado hit his home runs off of Joe Kennedy, Jorge Sosa, and Lance Carter. How difficult was that, in 2003, in Toronto? Was it more or less difficult than Braun hitting two home runs off Joe Wieland, one home run off Ernesto Frieri, and a triple off Joe Thatcher, in 2012, in San Diego?
I wish we had access to that kind of math. As is, we can talk about records and historical comparisons, but oftentimes we really do just end up comparing apples to oranges. Even if we don't realize it. Playing conditions are always different, so expected results are always different and the baseline is always different. Records treat things as the same. Ryan Braun is one of many players to hit three home runs in one game, but few three-homer games have been as unlikely. Plus the triple. Can't forget about the triple.
In short, Monday night, Ryan Braun did an amazing thing. He did something that deserves to be appreciated more than it'll probably be appreciated. That's too bad for Ryan Braun. But I guess Braun can choose to be thankful that he's even playing right now in the first place. That's good for Ryan Braun! So there. I suppose it evens out, for Ryan Braun.