It's pretty obvious why he's known as “Russell the Muscle."
Seattle Mariners first baseman Russell Branyan has never had a problem hitting home runs. Since making his Major League debut in 1998, Branyan has displayed such awe-inspiring raw power that the nickname is only fitting.
However, for several years, Branyan's pop was overshadowed by his lack of discipline at the plate. His free swingin' style led to triple-digit strikeout totals and low batting averages.
Branyan also had a difficult time staying healthy. His unprecedented hot streaks (last season with the Brewers, he became the first batter in franchise history to bash 10 homers in less than 25 games) would come to screeching halts once he landed on the disabled list.
After playing for the Brewers last season, Branyan was cut loose as a free agent. Since signing with the Mariners, he's enjoyed the best season of his career. As of Aug. 11, Branyan leads the M's with 27 homers and 68 RBI. He's also cracked 20 doubles, while carrying an impressive .529 slugging percentage.
But, most importantly, Branyan has stayed healthy throughout the season.
Branyan's spent the past few seasons hopping from team to team, searching for a home. Last season, he was stuck in a platoon situation at third base with Milwaukee's Bill Hall. However, Seattle offered Branyan a starting role at first base from day one and the slugger's rewarded the M's with consistent offensive production.
Branyan's surprising season has helped propel the Mariners, (who were saddled with baseball's worst record in '08), to a 59-54 mark through Aug. 11. Seattle's currently in third place in the competitive American League West.
In June 2008, I had the pleasure of interviewing Branyan when he was in the midst of a stellar run with the Brewers. Here is my profile of Branyan from July 3, 2008:
Brewers' Branyan One of Baseball's Hottest Sluggers
Georgia native in his second stint with Milwaukee
By Kevin Damask, of The Lakeland Times
After spending the past two seasons as a baseball nomad, Milwaukee infielder Russell Branyan is thrilled to be back with the Brewers.
And the man who speaks in a slow, southern drawl, who Milwaukee fans fondly refer to as “Russell the Muscle," is living up to that moniker.
Since being called up from Triple-A Nashville on May 24, Branyan has become one of baseball’s most-feared hitters. As of June 29, he’s belted 11 home runs in just 83 at bats for an astounding .747 slugging percentage.
He became the first player in franchise history to hit 10 home runs in fewer than 25 games (20).
“It’s only been a short period of time, but I feel good,” Branyan said. “I’m just glad to be back.”
Branyan spent parts of the 2004 and '05 seasons with the Brewers. However, since his previous stint in Milwaukee, the infielder has bounced around the league.
As a free agent, Branyan signed with Milwaukee in February, just prior to the start of spring training. With a loaded Brewers’ roster, Branyan knew he would spend time in Nashville, but that was fine with him.
“I’ve been living in Nashville, that’s my offseason home. I moved there about five years ago,” Branyan said. “It was nice to get up everyday, being at your own house and then going to play baseball. The guys tease me about being in a summer league or beer league, or whatever. But it was the first time in my career where I was able to stay home and play in the same city. But I would trade it in to come and play up (in Milwaukee) any day.”
The comforts of home served Branyan well. At Nashville, he bashed 12 homers in 45 games. He carried a .359 batting average and drove in 36 runs.
After his games, he was able to come home to his wife Jill, daughter Kylie and son Carter.
“I think it helped being at home. There were less distractions as far as moving family and that sort of thing,” Branyan said. “I tried to refocus on the game and do well. I got the chance to play everyday and it helped.”
After his torrid run through Triple-A, it was hard for the Brewers’ brass to ignore him. Milwaukee has a great deal invested in third baseman Bill Hall, but he struggled and manager Ned Yost grew impatient. Yost benched Hall and that opened the door for Branyan.
“Anytime something like that happens, you want to pinch yourself,” Branyan said. “Because you are going back to the big leagues and playing at the highest level. So it was a big surprise, but it felt like things were starting to pay off. I worked really hard this winter and through spring training and everything just kind of lined up for me.”
Throughout his career, Branyan has displayed the type of raw power that would make Mickey Mantle blush.
However, high slugging percentages sometimes come with large strikeout totals and Branyan has accumulated 786 whiffs in 743 games. In 2001, as a member of the Indians, Branyan led the American League with 132 strikeouts. But he managed to bash 20 homers with 54 RBI in 113 games.
This season, Branyan’s cut down on his Ks (31 strikeouts in 83 at bats).
“I think I have more patience at the plate,” Branyan said. “I try to focus on swinging at better pitches.”
While Branyan’s career with the Brewers had been sporadic, he’s left his mark on the field—literally. He owns three of the five longest home runs hit at Miller Park. On May 31, he crushed a majestic 465-foot moon shot into Miller Park’s “Dew Deck.”
On June 14, Branyan hit a dramatic game-tying homer against the Minnesota Twins that electrified a packed house in Milwaukee.
Branyan has a sweet, smooth home run swing. However, at 6-foot-3 and a slender 195 pounds, Branyan does not have the Hulk-like physique of Mark McGwire or the bulk of Prince Fielder.
So what’s his secret?
“First, you have to put the ball in play and you got to have some power,” Branyan said. “You got to get good pitches to hit. I have been real fortunate with that. It’s been kind of blessing. Because without that, I wouldn’t be here.”