Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year is an annual must-read. Sadly, that the national recognition rarely has anything to do with the teams or individuals whom we cover. In turn, WFNY will soon announce its choice for 2014’s Cleveland Sportsman of the Year. Here’s one of the nominations for that honor by an WFNY writer.
Let’s see. Great player? Check. Great teammate? Check. Hard worker? Check? Great in the community? Check. Cool nickname? Check. What more can you ask for from a player?
“He does everything great,” said DH Jason Giambi of Indians outfielder Michael Brantley. “He plays great defense. He throws to the right base. He runs the bases well. He takes great at-bats. He can hit the ball the other way. He can pull the ball. Now he’s showing power.”
Brantley came to Cleveland officially on October 3, 2008 as the Player to be Named Later in the CC Sabathia for Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson trade. At the time of the deal, the Indians would be allowed to choose from a pool of players if Sabathia pitched the Milwaukee Brewers to the playoffs. If they fell short, the Brewers chose who would go to Cleveland. As the story goes, Sabathia was essentially the NL MVP down the stretch, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts. The Indians had narrowed things down to a Class A third baseman named Taylor Green and Brantley. To say the Indians chose wisely would be the understatement of the year.
Since arriving in Cleveland, the unassuming Brantley has improved each and every year. Whether they asked him to play center or left field, he did it. If they asked him to hit lead off, third, fifth, or eighth, he did it. Baseball players are creatures of habit. Certain guys get into a groove and need to stick with it to stay successful. Brantley is a chameleon. No matter where he is in the lineup or in the field, he just produces.
No year was bigger from Michael than 2014. His team entered the season with “Unfinished Business” after losing the one game Wild Card to the Tampa Bay Rays. The team stumbled out of the gate with many of the team’s core players – Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, and Carlos Santana – really struggling offensively. When nobody was coming up with timely hits or even getting on base for that matter, Brantley was doing it all. To say that he carried the offense for a large part of the season is not stretching the truth.
As the months went on, the consistency from Brantley was incredible. Even in his worst month — April where he slashed .245/.321/.404 — he drove in a team high 20 runs and hit four homers. After that, it was smooth sailing for Dr. Smooth himself. Brantley went to the break with fantastic numbers — .322/.382/.519/15 HR/63 RBI/10 steals — which sent him to the first All-Star game of his career.
A year earlier, we saw the Tribe’s All Star second baseman Jason Kipnis tail off after his first time in the spotlight of the Midsummer Classic. With Brantley in 2014, that was not the case. He just kept on hitting as the Indians began to streak towards the finish. In September, when his team needed him the most, Brantley .416/.468/.554 and struck out just eight times in 110 plate appearances. The Indians would be eliminated from playoff contention with just two games to play, but Dr. Smooth did all he could to keep his team in it.
In the field, Michael bounced between center and left with the various leg ailments suffered by Michael Bourn. While adequate in center, Brantley was at his best in left. Base runners and third base coaches needed to beware: you don’t run on The Doctor. His 12 outfield assists ranked third in the American League and he has mastered playing the high wall in left. You want to say AL Cy Young Winner Corey Kluber was the Tribe’s MVP? Fine. I’ll take Brantley who for the second year in a row was my number one player in the Tribe player Power Rankings.
Want more? Brantley notched 200 hits, 20 home runs (his previous career high was 10), 45 doubles, 23 steals, 97 RBIs, team leader in batting average (.327), on-base percentage (.385), slugging percentage (.506), runs scored (94), and he finished fifth in the majors in WAR behind Mike Trout, Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, and Andrew McCutcheon. In a season where his team missed the playoffs, Brantley finished third for AL Most Valuable Player.
So how is he in the clubhouse? Well, ask his teammates and coaches.
“I had to convince him a little bit,” Bourn said. “It’s all about believing that you can do it. When you come up here first, you might just want to stick with what you’ve been doing the whole time. You might not want to take a chance of swinging the bat with a little authority. He’s done that now.”
“His stats are good to begin with, but he’s better than his starts and that’s a big compliment,” said skipper Terry Francona. “He’s a very good baserunner, outfielder, teammate and leader. If you had to have a model, he’s kind of what you’re look for. You don’t manage him, you just send him out to his position and let him play.”
Brantley is all about the team and never about himself. On the day of the MVP award announcement, Brantley wanted to talk about Kluber, not himself:
“I couldn’t be happier for a teammate than I am for Corey Kluber,” said Brantley. “I was only a couple of lockers down from him and I got to see how hard he worked all year. He kept us in every game and gave us a chance to win. He deserves that award. I think Cleveland fans should be excited. It’s going to be a fun season to watch in 2015 and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
He was then asked if he was disappointed that he didn’t win the MVP.
“There’s no disappointment at all. I’m honored to be mentioned in that category. My whole goal is wins and losses. I don’t look at stats. I don’t care where I finish in the MVP. I care about getting that World Series ring. That’s a team effort and this is a team game.”
If that isn’t the Cleveland Sportsman of the Year, then I don’t know what is.