Michael Brantley and the Shades of Greatness

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I want to do a thing that will come across as kind of insane. But I’m a boastful man, and I believe in the Cleveland Indians.

Watching Michael Brantley against the Cubs in Chicago, seeing him hit his 20th double on June 17th, I was intrigued to wonder how he stacked up against one of my favorite players in history. Brantley has that line drive/sharp grounder swing that sprays to all fields, though he has the ability to blast one now and again if the wind is right. He makes a ton of contact (92% contact rate this year) and doesn’t strike out nearly ever (7.3 K% this season), and a recent dose of added power has turned him into a premier hitter, if not quite slugger, in the American League. These attributes at the plate – able to make contact and lace liners around the park, high contact rate, low Ks and not a ton of walks, and middling power emerging around age 27 – reminds me of the most romantic player in baseball history, Roberto Clemente.

Clemente has a certain magic to his story, an unreal tinge to the typical story of a great person who also happened to be a dominant baseball player. His having exactly 3,000 hits adds to the disbelief of what a man he was, along with his tragic death on New Years Day while trying to bring aid to survivors of a massive earthquake in Nicaragua. On that day he transcended baseball and became one of the greatest human beings to ever step off the island of Puerto Rico. He was a fine teammate, father, husband and son, a man of regal bearing who held himself to a strict personal code. I don’t know enough about Michael Brantley to lay any of this on him, and it’s downright unkind to expect him to be the sort of person Clemente was off the field. But we’re not talking about Brantley’s humanitarian efforts, which I assume are grand. It’s about the field.

If there’s one thing Brantley isn’t, it’s a power hitter. He hit 21 homers last year and ended up third in the MVP voting behind the Best Player in Baseball™  and that devil in Detroit. Heady company, to be sure. But he’s not a slugger. His slugging percentage was “only” .506, his isolated slugging a solid .178. For comparison’s sake, Miguel Cabrera’s career ISO is .243. That’s a true power hiter. But Brantley was, and continues to be, a very good middle of the order guy. It just took him a while to get there – up until last year he was a contact guy without power, worth about 2 WAR and packed an OPS+ right around 100. A fantastically average player. He broke out in 2014 though, hitting for power to all fields and yanked 21 balls over the fence to boot. He became the centerpiece of the Tribe offense and a nice feather in the cap of the front office. This year is a little spotty mainly because of a likely nagging back issue, but he’s still got a .348 wOBA despite that. That puts him in the company of Justin Upton or Adam Jones, a pair of very good young outfielders in their own right. If he’s healthy after the break and gets on a nice hot streak he could end up a 4.5-5 WAR player this year. which is more than you could ask for when he broke in as a former Player to Be Named Later It’s not definite, but as a fan I am fueled by undying hope. And also beer.

Clemente existed in a time when Willy Mays and Hank Aaron were laying waste to NL pitching. Mickey Mantle was around for the beginning of his career (they met in 1960 when Clemente was 25, his first year with an OPS+ over 120) and Clemente was in Pittsburgh. It was tough going for him to get noticed when he had the future home run king and the best all around player in the game in larger cities, posting bigger power numbers. But Clemente played in Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a vast park with 25 foot walls that measured 360 and 376 feet down the lines and 462 to center. According to reports the designer hated cheap home runs. So nobody was hitting 600 homers playing there for 81 games a year, though Willie Stargell did his damndest. Clemente sculpted his game to that park, he became a line drive man, living off doubles and also averaging 11 triples a year.

It’s not a 100% fair comparison. Brantley doesn’t have the legendary cannon of an arm of Clemente, which was legendary, so he’s relegated to left field. He’s stupendous at outfield assists from left, only Alex Gordon on Kansas City surpasses him in that skill, but it’s not a position that demands defensive prowess. He doesn’t make mistakes though, as evidenced by his two errors the last three years. Range is the real issue, or his lack thereof. After all, you can’t make an error on a ball you can’t reach. We don’t have hard data for what Clemente did in the field, just anecdotes. His arm is well-known, basically what Yasiel Puig does but better if stories of old men are to be believed. Really, that’s a more comfortable comparison, but the fact is Puig isn’t an Indian, and the stoicism of Clemente dovetails with that of Brantley. He’s not quite Kluber-esque, but we can’t all be automatons.
Clemente also did it for over a decade, while Brantley has had one and a third very good years. But through their age 22-28 seasons, their OPS+ (114 for Clemente, 113 for Brantley) is as close as makes no difference. Their offensive profile is similar – many extra-base hits but not a ton of homers. Clemente played in one of the most non-Deadball offensively sedated periods in baseball for his first 13 years, Brantley is rising in the midst of another. They don’t strike out much, 73 per 162 games for Brantley compared to 80 for Clemente, and walking is similar with Brantley averaging 53 per 162 to Clemente’s 42. They were and are hitters, in the box to swing the bat, make solid contact and end up on second.

My father, a Clemente fan in his youth, talks of the grace the Pirate great had. I used the term regal before, and every piece written on Clemente describes him like that. A man of few words but great action, he had a way of standing in the box like he demanded the pitcher’s deference. He got it, again, through his actions.The way he strode to the plate was described as processional, a slow walk as he unkinked his neck. He had a strange way of stopping instantly as soon as he hit first, going from full sprint to statue in a blink. It has no bearing on his baseball skill and probably isn’t a good technique to teach the youngsters, but it’s neat. In the last year and a half, I like to think Brantley is the same way at the plate. He stands so high, barely bent over in the batter’s box and will practically spit at pitches beneath his regard. His lashing bat stroke is so easy, almost like he’s just playing with the ball as a cat might a bug, but the sharp crack and suddenly it is scooting through the middle, or flying to the base of the wall.

Brantley might be that guy who had the one incredible year, then settles in to be a guy with a 125 to 135 OPS+ for much of his prime. That would be incredible, and the Tribe front office would crow over that especially with the contract they signed him to. But it’d be a bummer too, because he’s such the antithesis of what most baseball players are anymore. To be a high contact, no strikeout and low walking doubles machine, it’s something out of the 1950’s. Or in Clemente’s case, the 60’s. It’s almost like Brantley doesn’t want the fanfare that come with being that 35-homer threat, he’d rather just keep the wheels moving and hang on second for a bit. A lot of misguided analysts think the homer kills rallies, so maybe Brantley bought into that outdated and silly logic and does it for his teammates. Clemente took years before he found his greatness though, and it wasn’t until he was 26 that he started REALLY hitting (.351 BA, .409 wOBA) then he proceeded to cream it for the next 11 years. If I’ve learned anything from Miguel Cabrera, it’s that the idea of a peak then decline is much overstated. He does operate off some level of spite though, but that’s Miggy. He hates Cleveland at an Ichiro level.

Brantley can hit, that’s what matters. Whether he’ll be a 3,000 hit guy or not, whether he’ll make it to Cooperstown or not, that’s up to the fates. He started late so he has some room to make up in the counting department, but he’s developed an uncanny contact skill like his forbear in Pittsburgh, and he can put his legs into it now. Was last year the spike? Will he continue his quiet, consistent destruction of AL pitching as Clemente did on the Senior Circuit? We’ll see, but with hope by my side and an expectation Brantley will put the work in, things are looking good for number 23.

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