May 5, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians left fielder Michael Brantley (23) at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
The Cleveland Indians are being paid back for a major investment made just this past winter as outfielder Michael Brantley has come screaming out of the gate, hammering the ball like never before. As of this writing he’s hitting .289/.342/.504, far and away the best numbers he’s posted as a major leaguer. The term we’re looking for here is “breakout season”. We experienced one from second baseman Jason Kipnis last year, and from the early looks of things, we’re getting another treat from Brantley.
It’s still early and we’re talking about the same time frame as when Mark Reynolds carried the team offensively last year. It was a weird time, anything was possible. For all Mark’s special skills, namely bombs, his hitting low contact style is incredibly streaky and prone to be taken advantage of. It caused his disappearance from the lineup last year after a slump engulfed him while Brantley has been a mainstay since he broke in three years ago. Brantley is about the exact opposite of Reynolds – he’s been a pretty light hitter to this point in his career, his slugging percentage topping .400 only once in the last three years. The majority of his hits are up the middle and though there’s a disparity between left and right, 6 to 12 this season (37 total hits) and 38 to 53 a year ago (158) just to give you a sense, it’s certainly not as pull happy as Reynolds. Teams can’t shift on Brantley because he can beat it with ease. Plus, despite the bombs he produces the same amount of offense as the supposed slap hitting Brantley.
Dingers are the shit, but if you’re getting the same net output in OPS+ and not actually hitting the ball much I feel like you’re being cheated. Brantley’s approach is one that lends itself to success as he grows. He makes a lot of contact, and when you get to it, isn’t that the point of hitting? To actually hit the ball? Okay, so strikeouts aren’t all that bad. After all, they’re just an out like any other, and you do stay out of the double play. One problem with strikeouts, they also don’t put any pressure on the defense, they just let the pitcher do all the work. By the simple act of hitting the ball in play, you’re pulling a whole ton of probability your way. Even if it’s not a laser off the bat what if the fielder loses the ball in the lights, what if it hits a clump and takes a bad hop away from the shortstop, or a squirrel runs on the field and headbutts it? What if anything? That last one might actually just let people advance a base. Judging from last year, Brantley does a damn good job of not striking out – fifth in the league making contact 91.7% of the time on swings. It includes a lot of dribblers and soft fly balls, but it also leads to him barrelling one up now and again.
By hitting the ball, you get a chance for something to happen. As with anything, the more you hit the ball the better you get at it. That’s pretty much a given, it’s called learning. You understand the bat and your swing and the zone a bit more. That’s where I think some of this newfound power is coming from for Brantley. He’s been making contact baseballs at the highest level at a very high clip, 91% for his career. Elite company if they kept track of things like that. Early on he probably had less solid contact though, when he was learning the ropes and dealing with facing Verlander or Shields or Sale like it’s an everyday thing and not a totally crazy experience. Growing up around baseball with his dad a major leaguer probably helped that, but that’s another story.
To this point, Brantley has over 2300 plate appearances in the majors. He’s reached the point where we just about know what he’s headed as a player, particularly at the plate. At the same time, it’s very early into his career – he didn’t really break in with a regular starting spot until 2011, it’d make sense that he’d take a while to get used to what he’d be facing. He’s given us a glance at what he can do, but it’s still early in his baseball life though, things can change.
Career arcs of hitters have them peaking offensive production somewhere between 27-30, give or take a year or two. This is mostly because around that age is when your mental acuity of the game and your peak physical capabilities mesh perfectly. The human body matures to its full capability, but before age and a rock and roll lifestyle have wizened it, bled it of its vitality. Michael is stepping into that upper spike of production, tapping into the legendary Grown Man Strength. Don’t tell me that’s not a real thing, even if it’s just anecdotal there’s evidence of it everywhere. As you grow, particularly for an athlete, you’re going to be stronger than the self you were two and three years prior. It’s probably science and definitely considered casual fact. Muscles have matured plus going to the gym is an everyday thing and all that work in the cage and watching tape is paying off. That’s why this year is going to be so special for Brantley. In a preseason prediction post I said he’d hit 20 home runs this year, and the way things are going that looks like it’s very possible, if not surpassable. Any player who gets to a certain level offensively hits bombs in bunches, so even if this is just a hot streak and he’ll cool off to the punch and Judy type of guy we know him to be, another bunch or two could be on the way.
I could be wrong, it could just be a hot run and he lucked into facing some mediocre pitchers. He might end up with 15 or 16 dingers and an OPS still south of .800. Shoot, his HR/FB rate is over 20% sandwiched between Albert Pujols and Anthony Rizzo and about 12% higher than previous. That’s an insane jump. It’s more than likely it’ll happen if the past is held in proper regard. But life isn’t like video games, people don’t always improve in a linear way. A leap or a bound can happen. Brantley does a lot of things real well, the best is making contact, and if he has figured out a way to get the right part of the bat on the ball more consistently, that will lead to harder, further hits. His eye has always been pretty good, he’s patient and he understands his strike zone. He knows the league now, he’s stronger than ever and he’s growing into his body. Maybe Eric Karros was on to something when he called him “young power hitter” Michael Brantley in MLB 11 The Show. We’ll see.