Featured, General, Top 10 Cleveland Sports Stories of 2014

Michael Brantley Breaks Out – WFNY’s Top 10 Cleveland Sports Stories of 2014: No. 9

Michael Brantley Cleveland Indians

If you thought that 2013 was one crazy year in the world of Cleveland Sports, 2014 once again proved that there is rarely a dull moment. There were good times and bad, hirings and firings, wins and losses, homecomings and award winners. As the year comes to a close, like we have done the last six years, WFNY will take a look at what we view to be the ten biggest sports stories to grace our local sports scene over the last 12 months. Each day through the rest of the year, we will be counting down from ten to one. Do enjoy.

It feels a bit odd to classify Michael Brantley’s 2014 season as a “story”. Stories have ups and downs. Stories have adversity and resilience. Stories aren’t boringly consistent and, excepting Herman Melville, they don’t last for six months.

There are a few ways to explain to you how maddeningly consistent Brantley was in 2014. On April 8, about a week into the season, Michael Brantley’s batting average was .321 and his on base percentage was .345. On September 27—the last day of the season—his batting average was .327 and his on base percentage was .385. From April 8 to the end of the season, Brantley’s OBP was never lower than .325 and was never higher than .394. For comparison’s sake, over the same timeframe, Carlos Santana got as low as .298 and as high as .514, despite finishing within 20 points of each other on the season. Here is your picture:

OBP Graph

Brantley’s line looks like something you’d see on a maudlin hospital drama right before they give up on a patient. Santana’s looks like the better story to be sure: steep drops and long climbs back. There’s redemption in those peaks and valleys.

WFNY’s Top 10
Stories of 2014

No. 10: Progressive Field’s Facelift
No. 9: Michael Brantley’s Breakout
No. 8: Wednesday, December 17
No. 7: Thursday, December 18
No. 6: Friday, December 19
No. 5: Monday, December 22
No. 4: Tuesday, December 23
No. 3: Wednesday, December 24
No. 2: Friday, December 26
No. 1: Monday, December 29

But if we widen our apertures a bit, you can see pretty clearly how Brantley’s 2014 was simply the culmination of a much longer story. Originally acquired as part of the trade that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee in 2008, Brantley was the eponymous “player to be named later”—the upside, toolsy guy we received to supplement the Can’t Miss Right Handed Bat™ Matt LaPorta.

Coming into the 2014 season, I think most fans had come to terms with Brantley the player. He did enough things well to belong in a solid major league lineup, but was seemingly missing an elite skill that would make him a great player. He’d been in the majors for parts of five seasons, and the tools he’d demonstrated in the minors—great batting eye, superior base-stealing, smooth fielding—didn’t seem to translate to the majors, at least not in a way that would prepare us for greatness. He seemed an awfully nice young man, but there was something….missing.

To put this in statistical terms, Brantley was average—something like a 2-win player. Not great, not bad, just…there. And there is nothing wrong with average, of course. By definition, you’re better than half the league if you’re average. That’s sort of what Michael Brantley was, and what we were all coming to grips with.

If you think I’m making this up, here’s my jWAR chart on Brantley. From 2011-2013 you can see he was basically worth about 2 wins per season more than Aaron Cunningham:1


And that happened. Now there’s a story. Coming into the season, Brantley had a career line of .277/.330/.382 (.711 OPS). In 2014 he put up a .327/.385/.506 (.890 OPS) line. Adjusted for league and park, Brantley’s OPS was 54 percent better than a league average hitter in 2014, after being the definition of average for his first five seasons (100 OPS+). He posted career-bests in strikeout-rate (8.3%, behind only Victor Martinez and Jose Altuve in the American League) and baserunning runs (7.8 runs above average). Particularly striking was Brantley’s newfound efficiency stealing bases. Coming into the season Brantley had a stolen base success rate of only 70% for his career—below the break-even point from a sabermetric perspective, suggesting he was hurting his team with every attempt. But in 2014, Brantley stole 23 bases and was only caught once, a 96% success rate and the best in MLB among players with at least 5 attempts.

2014 was a bit of an odd season for the Indians. The players from whom we expected major production (Kipnis, Swisher, Bourn) underwhelmed in myriad ways. Thankfully, those players’ collective steps backwards (or sideways) were largely wallpapered over by surprises of the other sort: Corey Kluber became an ace; Lonnie Chisenhall carried the offense for the first two months; Carlos Carrasco finally found himself.

But none of those surprise performances demonstrated the consistent dominance Brantley did. They hit bumps in the road. They had peaks and valleys. They had narratives. Perhaps it says more about me than anything, but for a good portion of the season, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop on Brantley—for him to become the player he’d been for so long.  For him to take off the cape, put the glasses back on, and revert back to what I had been so used to: a perfectly average baseball player.

It is to my shame that it took until August to believe this was more than just a story.  It was real.

  1. You can download the whole jWAR file right here from WFNY. Just hover over the “INDIANS” menu up yonder, and in the bottom right corner you should see a link to “view Jon Steiner’s jWAR database”. I’ll get around to writing a more formal primer, but some of you will already know what you’re doing with it. []