Is Michael Brantley Figuring It Out?

I have been admittedly bullish on Michael Brantley since the Indians acquired him from the Brewers in 2008. I like guys who don’t make outs, and throughout his minor league career, Brantley’s on base percentage was a remarkable .388. I love batters who walk more than they strike out, and Brantley certainly did that in the minors (292 BBs and 218 Ks). I adore players who are successful base stealers more than 75% of the time: Brantley stole 162 bases in 201 minor league attempts—an 81% success rate.

Michael Brantley was my kind of player. In the minor leagues.

The problem, of course, is that his minor league success has not translated remotely to the Big Leagues. His MLB OBP is a measley .317. He’s struck out more than twice as often as he’s walked. Entering this season, Brantley had been successful on only 71% of his stolen base attempts (below the break-even point from a run expectancy perspective), and even more troubling, he’d attempted only 38 steals total.

In other words, all the tantalizing talent we saw in the MiLB numbers just didn’t seem to be translating. Much like the 1B he’ll forever be linked with, it was starting to appear that Brantley had 4-A skillz. He’d always rake at AAA, but never adjust to the superior pitching the Bigs.1

This is the part of the conversation where I remind you that Michael Brantley is still only 25 years old—and a young 25 at that. His birthday was only three weeks ago. Brantley is younger than Carlos Santana and Nick Hagadone and Jason Kipnis and Josh Tomlin and Jason Donald and Matt LaPorta and every other member of the roster not named Lonnie or Jeanmar.

My point is not that we should forgive him his bout of suck due to his youth, but rather that we might have reason to believe that he is still making significant adjustments to his game that could reasonably result in a different player than the one we’ve seen for the past several years.

So, with our small sample size radar pinging loudly in our ears, let’s take a look at how Brantley’s performed since May 10th, an admittedly arbitrary endpoint2:













Now, 93 plate appearances isn’t a lot, but it’s not nothing either; most everyday players end the season with about 600-700 plate appearances over the course of a season. And while Paul Cousineau rightly points out that Brantley’s BABiP during this span is an abnormally high .383, we can also go ahead and acknowledge that his slugging percentage would suggest not “lucky groundballs with eyes” but “gap shot doubles”. That’s a particularly good sign, as gap power is typically a “skill” whereas squeaking a dribbling single past a chubby Jhonny Peralta–while certainly fun to watch–might not be a sustainable performance strategy.

Let me be clear: the Michael Brantley we’ve seen over the last month is definitively NOT what we’d predict Brantley to be in the future. But this iteration does give you some hope of the OBP and base running skill he demonstrated in the minors. It does remind you that players can continue to develop in their mid-20s—most of them, in fact, do. It does make you feel a little bit better about a spot in the lineup that we were ready to write off the minute we heard about Grady’s back surgery.

And sure, it reminds me how much fun it is to be bullish on players. Too often I write in this space about mirages and flukes—about what can’t be sustained, and the cracks looming beneath the surface. It’s refreshing to remember that sometimes the opposite can be true. Sometimes, players break molds and develop new skills. Like real, live human beings, sometimes they change—and sometimes, for the better. Here’s hoping on you, Michael.

AP Photo/Tony Dejak

  1. It’s moments like these when we pause to recognize how rare players like Jason Kipnis really are. Players who hit in the Big Leagues from day one, without substantial adjustment time just don’t come along all that often. []
  2. I should point out here that these numbers do not include his HR last night. WooHOOO! []

  • Mongoose

    Thanks Jon.  I always love your articles and have learned many things from them.

    I have always liked MB, but even more so since my nephew from FL called me and said he wanted to come to CLE to watch the Indians play because he went to High School with MB.

  • “…whereas squeaking a dribbling single past a chubby Jhonny Peralta–while certainly fun to watch–might not be a sustainable performance strategy.”

    This made my day.

  • CBI

    I’m sure there is a joke I can make about a Wendy’s single not getting past Peralta, but I can’t think of one.

  • maxfnmloans

    I was going to add my applause of Jon use of the phrase “chubby Jhonny Peralta” in my post commending his excellent work, but then I read your post and decided you win. I’m not even going to try

  • Jack

    What about Santana? When is he going to be good at baseball? When will his swing take less than 4.5 seconds? When will he drive-in runs without making outs?

  • JNeids

    Couldn’t have waited until after the game to post this? Quick, write something about Lebron overcoming his fear of clutchtitude.

  • mgbode

    2010  143 OPS+
    2011  125 OPS+ (coming back from knee injury)
    2012   102 OPS+

    Ugh, trending downward.  BA and OBP are nearly identical from last year’s numbers though.  The problem is he just isn’t driving the ball as well this season.  He’s walking and getting singles, but those 2Bs and HRs just aren’t there often enough.

    I have pretty good faith that he’ll come around as the season progresses though.

  • Steve

    While gap doubles may be better signs than groundball singles, they still can temporarily fall in at a rate that just won’t keep up. Even knocking Brantley back down to a still-fantastic .320 BABIP turns him into a 280/310/420-ish hitter. Just meh, and still severely lacking in OBP. If this newly-found little bit of power is for real, then he might actually be a major league hitter. But until the guy proves he can take a walk (just one in the month of May) or drive the ball with authority for more than a month at a time, I’m not getting my hopes up at all.

  • Renner1613

    Do Brantley’s improved numbers over the past month have anything to do with Choo taking over the leadoff spot?

  • Thepaledragon

    What is his K/BB rate during that period? Because is IsoD is very low (not an issue when he’s hitting so well, but when his BABIP drops, can his walks rise to maintain that level of OBP?)