The nattering nabob of negativism who thinks Dolan sucks says that Michael Brantley is a slap-hitting wimp. He might be right.
The optimistic fan sees Brantley as a brainy player who might break out. She might be right.
The intellectual sees Brantley as a chess player, thinking through each pitch and situation. He might be right.
The impatient fan sees Brantley as wasting his gifts, turning 25 without developing any one part of his game into a high level. She might be right.
The artist sees Brantley as possessing a beautiful swing and gait. He might be right.
The realist sees Brantley caught stealing too often, chopping the ball too often, disappointing us too often. And he might be right.
We are all Michael Brantley, searching for our true selves and trying to actualize our potential. And we are all seeing something drifferent in this 25-year-old outfielder. He has become a player who allows us to see what we'd like to see. I've spent some time trying to make sense of his young career. It has driven me close to mad, but I feel I've come closer to understanding who he is, and who he might be.
There are some reasons to look to Asdrubal Cabrera as a potential comparison for Michael Brantley. The biggest obstacle to a smooth comparison in this case is the fact that Cabrera hit his minor league levels slightly younger than Brantley did. But there's a specific reason I want to make this comparison, and we'll get there in a moment. First, some of the details.
Brantley arrived in AA ball at age 20, and was overwhelmed: 7 XBH in 187 at bats and a SLG% a tick below .300. At age 21 he made the kind of jump that inspires optimism, raising his SLG% more than 100 points while picking up 23 XBH. He wasn't hitting the ball out of the park, but his build and peripherals suggested that a future spike was plausible.
Cabrera, meanwhile, had leapt past AA to AAA during his age 20 season. He struggled too, but that's not unexpected for a 20-year-old at that level: .349 SLG, 29 XBH. Back at AA at age 21, Droobs shredded it. Like Brantley, home run power had not developed, but the rise in XBH and SLG suggested it might.
In other words, Cabrera and Brantley had moved through the minor leagues with solid plate numbers, but nothing that indicated big power numbers for their position. Both did strong jobs controlling the strike zone. Cabrera was always slightly ahead on the power chart. Through age 24, take a look at their home run rates:
Cabrera minor league HR: 1/62 AB
Cabrera major league HR: 1/79 AB
Brantley minor league HR: 1/132 AB
Brantley major league HR: 1/104 AB
Brantley had shown a marginal improvement in hitting the ball out of the park after arriving at the major league level while Cabrera slid back a bit. Then came 2011 for Cabrera: 25 HR, or 1/24 AB. And Brantley at the same age? He has now gone 210 at bats since his last home run. So what's the difference? Why can't Brantley take a stride forward in the same way? The first explanation is that he was never quite the power threat Asdrubal was. But surely he can offer more than this, right?
The answer might lie in their approach to hitting. Much has been made of the impact Orlando Cabrera had on Asdrubal last year, when apparently OCab told Asdrubal to look for one drivable pitch each at bat and to swing longer and harder. It was a conscious decision to attack in the hitter's count and drive the ball more.
Brantley, meanwhile, seems to have a very different approach. I was a bit surprised that more wasn't made of the very interesting piece on Brantley's mentality. Some thought it was a banal piece, simply revealing that Brantley thinks like most hitters: Look the other way, think about what the pitcher might be thinking about, etc. But I saw more than that. I saw an impressive intellectual approach that ran deeper than the mindset of many athletes. It was thoughtful, studied, admirable. The one red flag was Brantley's comment about pulling the ball:
"As a rule, I like to let the ball travel. My strength has always been hitting the ball the other way. When I swing at a pitch in, it’s more of a reaction. The best hitters in the game stay on balls and hit the ball the other way very well."
All of Brantley's home run power is pulling the ball. While Cabrera is actively looking for balls to drive out of the yard, Brantley claims to pull the ball only by reacting, not planning. His hands are quick, but his stride is much shorter, likely resulting in less leg drive. And unlike Cabrera, he's not punishing pitchers who fall behind in the count. Brantley has only 10 major league home runs, and only three of those have come when he's been ahead in the count. The remaining home runs are essentially happy accidents when Brantley reacts to inside pitches and pulls them down the line. In fact, only one of his home runs was even to right-center.
It is probably much too reductive to imply that Brantley should simply follow Asdrubal's lead and try to hit for more power. Adding power is more complicated than simply trying to do it, and there could be consequences in his offensive production if he makes large alterations in approach. But I'd be curious to hear Brantley himself address this issue.
APV recently offered an excellent breakdown of just where Brantley is breaking down. To sum it up, Brantley doesn't swing and miss a lot. And he puts a lot of balls in play when he swings. But he's not doing a whole lot with those balls he's choosing to swing at. Couple that with Brantley's comments about how he approaches pitchers, and it seems that Brantley is very good at figuring out what is likely coming, but not very good at figuring out whether he should swing at it. He's going after what you might call "pitcher's pitches" instead of setting himself up for a ball to drive.
For a player with such light power, his walk rate has become devastating. This is a player who arrived with a pedigree for controlling the zone. His major league walk rate didn't approach his minor league walk rate, but still, he was consistently walking 6.8% of the time in the majors -- until 2012, which has seen his walk rate fall to 4.8%. He's walked twice in the month of May. Here's hoping that small sample sizes are red herrings.
But there are reasons for optimism, too. He's walking less, but he's overpowered less often. His strikeout rate is 9.5%, down from 15.3% a year ago. And while he's not hitting any home runs, he's on pace for a career high in XBH. Yes, SSS, but: his XBH% has moved from 4.6 in 2010 to 7.1 in 2011 to 9.0 in 2012. 51 doubles and 7 triples would set personal bests by large margins. His OPS+ is 94 this year, 97 last season. Hardly lachrymose, and this is the time to hope the oft-invoked "translation" of doubles power to home run power occurs.
Ultimately, this is not to say that I've figured Brantley out. But there is something going on, or rather, something not going on with Brantley. Something is missing. He's among the most intelligent and articulate players I've seen and heard. He has physical gifts. But until those things translate to an effective major leaguer, we will all be Michael Brantley, projecting our own hopes and fears and insecurities on a player struggling to define himself.
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