Indians

The Evolution of Michael Brantley

Brantley1-300x227

Kipnis and Brantley

As I have discussed in this space before, my estimation of Michael Brantley has not often aligned with those around me.  Where I saw a player failing to live up to his on-base pedigree, others saw someone with innate clutchiness.1   Where I saw a player who seemed to lose his base-stealing ability upon meeting better opponents, others saw a gritty gamer whose presence made the team stronger.  Where I saw a below average defensive center fielder, others were relieved finally to be rid of Grady Sizemore’s noodle arm.

Because I was so often on the opposite side of what I considered to be cock-eyed optimism, I was deemed a naysayer.  This, to me, wasn’t entirely fair.  As I’ve written several times, Michael Brantley is fine just the way he is.  He is something like an average, everyday baseball player in the best professional baseball league in the world. Players like that are really valuable, and Cleveland should know, after the disgraces that have been roaming left field since Manny Ramirez left town.  There’s nothing wrong with average and there’s nothing wrong with Michael Brantley.

Except Brantley isn’t playing like an average player right now.  Here is where he ranks among the 27 qualified left fielders in some juicy categories:

Stat Value Rank
wOBA

.383

5th

OBP

.363

8th

SLG

.507

3rd

wRC+

151

5th

HR

4

T-3rd

RBI

18

2nd

BB%

10.0%

10th

K%

7.5%

1st

BABiP

.262

23rd

We’ll get to the BABiP in a second, but everything else on that list screams “above average” to me.  No matter how you slice it, Brantley is raking right now, and he’s almost certainly been the Indians most valuable position player on the young season.2

Perhaps the most fascinating nugget here is the relationship between slugging percentage and on-base percentage.  When Brantley was included as the PTBNL in the CC Sabathia trade, we were told that he was a speedy on-base guy. Someone like…well…someone like Michael Bourn (used to be): Not much pop in his bat, but the eye, legs, and glove to make him a valuable player.  To this point in his career, Brantley has largely played in that mold, albeit slightly underwhelmingly so.  His career OBP coming into 2014 sat a tick above average at .330 while his slugging percentage (a rough gauge of his ability to hit for power) was an anemic .382.  Because he’d been touted as an on-base machine, I always figured the improvements would come on that side of the equation.  But if what we’re seeing so far this year is any indication,3 Michael may be grooming himself as a power hitter.

On the young season, Brantley’s ISO (his slugging percentage minus his batting average—a raw measure of extra-base-hit ability) sits at .225, more than twice what it’s been for his career prior to the 2014 season (.105).  The question, of course, is whether this is a blip or a real development; signal or noise?

My tendency is to suggest that this is—like most statistical anomalies in a season that’s less than one month old—a blip.  While Brantley is technically entering his prime as hitter (he’ll turn 27 in three weeks) it would still be….statistically aberrant for this power surge to be sustainable.  We can hope, and I certainly do, but the smart money has Brantley’s slugging percentage much closer to .400 than .500 by the time September rolls around.

That said, I do want to mention one more positive development.  In the table above you see that Brantley’s batting average on balls in play—that is, the percent of batted balls that become hits—is a measly .262 so far this season, way below his peers.  League average is typically around .300 and Brantley’s career average is .303, which would make sense as he’s faster than the average player. 4

Why bring this up at all?  Well, Brantley has been able to put up a very good on base percentage, even though he’s not having balls fall in for hits at quite the rate you’d expect.  How is he doing that?  That would be his walk rate.5

For his career, this highly touted on-base machine has averaged a walk-rate of only 7.4%, below the league average of 8%-9% over the last five years. And if I’m being completely honest with myself, the core of my Michael-Brantley-is-not-the-greatest-thing-in-the-history-of-great-things spiel has to do with his below average ability to BE PATIENT AND TAKE A WALK.  If you can’t hit for power and you can’t steal bases and you can’t play an above average center field defense, at least do the ONE THING we were told you’d be really good at!

And this season he may finally be doing it.  Brantley’s double-digit walk rate has more than wall-papered over his crummy luck on batted balls. After posting a .330 OBP for four years, it’s bounced up to .363—while league average OBP has dropped all the way to .317 this season, its lowest level in years.

Let’s be clear: a 10% walk-rate is not going to set any records.  Carlos Santana is walking in 22% of his plate appearances; Jason Kipnis in 17.3%.  Brantley still has plenty of room to improve, and if he really is about to enter his offensive prime, we’d like to see that figure continue to tick upward as he learns to wait on those pitches he really can drive.6

We might also pause to remember how small the samples are that we’re dealing with.  Brantley has just 80 plate appearances on the year and has walked eight times.  Just one fewer walk and none of this conversation matters: His walk-rate would be a league-average 8.7%. We’d be wise not to make molehills into mountains, while still accepting that that’s all we can really do in April.

Nevertheless, the peripherals seem to point in the right direction as well.  Brantley is seeing fewer pitches in the strikezone than at any time in his career (41.6%), but those strikes he does see he’s finally swinging at (above 65% for the first time in his career).   In other words, as pitchers have thrown him fewer strikes, he’s managed not to compromise his plate discipline, and has been rewarded with an all-around offensive boost in production.

So while I certainly wouldn’t bet on Michael Brantley’s numbers to stay steady for the rest of the season, I think it’s entirely possible—and perhaps even likely—that he’s a better hitter today than he has been at any time in his career.  After all, this is what’s supposed to happen to 27 year old baseball players; they get better.

Michael Brantley may never become the player I thought he’d be.  But that’s ok.  This version will do just fine.

Photo Credit: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

*2014 stats referenced in this piece do not account for Tuesday night’s loss to the Royals

  1. Look, Brantley has been better in what has generally been termed “clutch situations”.  For the record, I’ve never argued that he hasn’t been.  For his career, Brantley is a .315/.386/.433 hitter with runners in scoring position. The question isn’t whether, heretofore, he has performed well in high leverage situations (even better than RISP, actually: .343/.409/.429).  The question is whether that sample of excellent performance is enough to convince us that what has happened in those clutch situations is repeatable, and not the product of randomness.  Brantley has had a total of 210 at bats in what Fangraphs deems “high leverage”.  That’s basically a third of a season.  Is it unreasonable that a career .277/.331/.386 hitter might have two months of numbers better than that?  Not to me, but we’ll fight about clutchiness another day. []
  2. For those of you inclined to believe and/or care about such things, FanGraphs has Brantley leading the team in Wins Above Replacement, while Baseball-Reference has him trailing Kipnis and Gomes. However, neither calculation takes into account his situational hitting, at which Brantley has (again) excelled.  His “win probability added”—a stat that accounts for how he’s shifted his team’s chance of winning games—ranks fourth in all of MLB. []
  3. math, we should point out, suggests that it is NOT an indication []
  4. Speed is of course a component to turning batted balls into hits, right? Right. []
  5. His home runs also help out here, we should mention. []
  6. This is called a “virtuous cycle”.  The more patient hitter not only walks more (and raises his OBP), but hits for more power, as he only swings at pitches he can punish (and raises his slugging percentage).  Since batters really only have two concerns: (1) not making outs; and (2) hitting for power; being patient would seem to be somewhat important. []

  • Kildawg

    Perhaps Jason Giambi is having a positive effect on developing Brantley as a hitter. Old Man Giambi still knows how to hit balls hard and long distances without the supposed boost steroids provide. There, figured out the main reason Giambi is still on the team.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Thank goodness they chose Brantley as the PTBNL with Milwaukee otherwise the CC deal would have been almost as bad as the Cliff Lee trade!

    Btw, cock-eyed optimism that’s your cue Steve!

  • boomhauertjs

    Glad to see that you’re coming around on Dr. Smooth. Maybe he’ll become the power hitter we were told LaPorta was going to be…

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Giambi is Kipnis’s Obi-Wan!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You like that Dr. Smooth nickname? For some reason I don’t I think I like Mr. Smooth better but not much.

  • Natedawg86

    Dr Smooth

  • mgbode

    now, if we could only write such positive early season articles on bourn, swisher, and santana, then we’d be in business.

  • pihc

    Don’t know where you people have been. Brantley has been the tribe’s most consistent hitter for awhile now. I know. You folks want a big muscular type that can’t talk very well, makes 35 mill per year, doesn’t walk very well and can crush the ball to the 10th row now and then. However, I’ll take a guy that gets hits with runners on base in clutch situations. I’ll take that over a guy that has 2 hits this season for my clean up hitter any day of the week.

  • markn95

    He’s also valuable because he can play a well-above average center field.

  • Pat Leonard

    I think Jon would probably argue that this isn’t the case. Historically he’s been a below-average center fielder, which is why the Indians went out and got Michael Bourn and allowed Nyjer Morgan to roam out there until Bourn got back.

    He definitely is above average defensively as a left fielder though.

  • I just realized I can hover over the footnotes to preview them rather than having to scroll down to them.

  • Per Fangraphs, he’s a terrible defensive CF and a below-average-to-average defensive LF.

  • Deefr

    More folks should look into the myth of “clutch-hitting” There is, over the long haul, no such thing as a clutch hitter. It’s not an actual ability any player has. There is no magic formula to make a .270 hitter suddenly become a .350 hitter with RISP. With small sample sizes, it can, and does happen. As you pointed out, Brantley has done well do far. But remember David Ortiz about ten years ago? He was unreal in so-called “clutch situations” Not so much anymore. Expecting Brantley to always hit .330 with RISP, is not reasonable because he’s not a .330 hitter in general. What good offensive teams have, is a lot of opportunities by having a high OBP. Better to be 4-15 with RISP than 1-3.