Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
Michael Brantley was the “player to be named later” in the 2008 deal with Milwaukee that ended CC Sabathia’s time in Cleveland. By 2011, for better or for worse, he appeared to be the most productive player the Indians acquired in that trade. Brantley entered 2012 looking to take another step forward and become a quality Major League player.
Bat: Left Throws: Left
2012 Age: 25
2012 bWAR: 2.9
2012 fWAR: 2.7
2012 Salary: $495,000
2013 Contract Status: ~$500,000 (will be arbitration eligible in 2014)
Brantley spent 2012 playing center field for the Indians, after splitting time between left and center in 2011. Baseball-Reference has his center field defense as having been about the same this season as it was the year before, while Fangraphs rates it as having improved, both in terms of his range and his arm. A centerfielder is responsible for covering a lot more ground, and Brantley's range isn't what you want to see from someone in center. There are longer throws to make there as well, and while Brantley's arm was better in 2012, it's not ideal for someone playing center.
Brantley's improved defense still rates as a bit below average as a centerfielder, whereas he'd be a plus defender if he were in left field.
Unfortunately, Brantley's bat profiles much better as a center fielder, he simply hasn't shown the kind of power a team generally needs to get from a corner outfielder. Brantley's slugging percentage in 2012 was .402 (a career high). If you look at the thirty centerfielders who played the most in 2012, the median SLG% was .425. Brantley was below that, but not drastically. If you look at the same figure for leftfielders, the median jumps to .454 and Brantley is now much farther below average.
Either way, the jump in Brantley's slugging percentage is good to see, though it's not actually indicative of new power. We can look at Brantley's ISO, which measures how many extra bases a player is getting per at bat (SLG% - BA = ISO). Brantley's figure actually dropped slightly, from .118 to .114. How did his SLG% go up then? He raised his batting average 22 points.
Here, let's take a look at Brantley's career numbers so far:
The jump in Brantley's batting average was not caused by any huge leap in his BABIP (for which large swings are shown to be generally caused by luck). His .310 BABIP is right in line with his previous figures. Instead, Brantley simply put a lot more balls in play, by dramatically cutting down his strikeout rate (for which large swings are generally caused by changes in a player's approach or an injury/recovery. Brantley struck out in 15.3% of his PA in 2011, but in 2012 that dropped to 9.2%. A Difference of 6.1% amounts to 37 fewer strikeouts over 600 PA. That's a really significant improvement.
Baseball Info. Solutions (BIS) is an organization that charts pitches and (among other things) determines whether or not they were in the strike zone. A player's O-Swing% is the percentage of pitches OUTSIDE the strike zone that a player swings at. The league average is close to 30%. Z-Swing% is the percentage of pitches INSIDE the strike zone that a player swings at. The league average is close to 65%.
In 2011, Brantley's O-Swing% was 25% and his Z-Swing% was 53%. Brantley was swinging at fewer pitches than the average hitter. This means he was seeing a lot of called strikes, which of course leads to more strikeouts. In 2012, his O-Swing% dropped to 23%, so he was doing an even better job of avoiding swings on bad pitches. More notably, his Z-Swing% climbed to 61%, he was much better at recognizing strikes. Players have far greater success swinging at pitches inside the zone than on outside the zone pitches, helping Brantley to cut down those strikeouts.
This improved batting-eye also allowed Brantley to increase his walk rate from 6.9% to 8.7%. That isn't a huge jump, but it's still an additional 11 walks over the course of a full season. Those improvements led Brantley's OBP to leap from .318 to .348, which is a respectable figure, even if he were playing leftfield.
Brantley's OPS+ rose all the way to 113, the first time in his career he's ever rated as above league average. That's still not good for a leftfielder, but it's not a total wreck either, and it's very solid in centerfield.
Brantley's hitting is much better against righties than against lefties, but not much more than the typical platoon splits for a left-handed hitter. More notably, when looking at Brantley's various splits for 2012, he was just about the only regular player whose production climbed in the second half. That's right, the rarest of creatures in Cleveland this summer, a strong performance after the All-Star break!
Brantley is probably always going to be something of a tweener, stuck between two positions. Not quite good enough on defense to serve as a great centerfielder, not quite enough power in the bat to be a great leftfielder. He made great strides in 2012 though, and is now a solid Major League player, not the "fourth outfielder" many envisioned him to be as recently as this spring.
Place in the Indians' 2013 Plans: He will start in the outfield, which position he mans will be determined by what other players the Tribe has come Spring Training. He mostly batted 5th in 2012, hopefully the Indians 2013 lineup has enough talent that Brantley can be moved down a couple spots (we'll see)