Bats: Left Throws: Left
Traded anwith 1B Matt LaPorta, RHP Rob Bryson, and LHP Zach Jackson to the Cleveland Indians for LHP CC Sabathia
Michael Brantley was not supposed to be the best player from the Sabathia trade (that would be Matt LaPorta), but five years, that's what he's become. He's the only one of the three to become an everyday player, or even a major league player period. Still, his path to the majors wasn't simple by any means. Brantley made his debut in 2009 at age 22, but in over 400 PA he had a sub-.700 OPS.
2013 in Review Hub: Your destination for Let's Go Tribe's look at key prospects and players from the Indians in 2013
Brantley started to hit in 2011, and because of Grady Sizemore's continuous injuries, he found himself the Indians' starting center fielder, and when the Indians signed Michael Bourn last winter, he shifted over to left field. And once again, he provided the Indians with a valuable bat in the lineup, hitting .284/.332/.396, which in today's lower-offense age was good for a 107 OPS+. 15 years ago Brantley wouldn't have been in the lineup as a left fielder, but now that kind of offensive line is perfectly fine.
Brantley stole a lot of bases in the minors (in 2009 he stole 46), but that hasn't really carried over to the Indians. When he does run, he's successful (17 out of 21 in 2013), but he's not taking an enormous amount of attempts. Part of that has to do with where he's hitting in the order, which in 2013 was mostly in the middle of the order. And part of it has to do with his low OBP, as he didn't have many opportunities to steal second base to begin with.
Michael Brantley's game is built mostly on solid line drive contact. He's a somewhat aggressive hitter, but don't take that to mean that he's looking to pull everything. He's not trying to drive the ball out of the yard, but to make contact. And he's one of the best hitters in the game at making contact, as he missed a ball in the strike zone only 3.7% of the time he swung at it (league average is 13%). When he swings at a ball out of the strike zone, he only misses 20.1% of the time (league average is 33.4%). Part of that is because he has exceptionally good eye-hand coordination, and part of that is because he's not swinging for the downs.
In 2013 that high contact % translated into in fairly high batting average (.284), and an extremely high batting average with runners on. With runners on he hit .311/.361/.420, and with runners in scoring position he hit .375/.411/.458. That kind of success is probably unsustainable (although his overall BABIP of .304 was well within his career averages), but it's also why Terry Francona hit Brantley in an spot in the batting order usually manned by a power threat. Down the stretch Brantley was hitting fifth in the lineup, usually behind Carlos Santana, an on-base and slugging machine, a very unconventional order in which to place the two hitters. But it made sense because of Brantley's style of hitting.
2013 was Brantley's first full season as a left fielder, and the advanced defensive metrics such as UZR had him as a below-average to poor fielder. I'm not entirely on board with the new defensive statistics, as defense is not the binary type of event tracking that a plate appearance is, and Brantley's defensive stats is one major reason why. For the life of me I don't understand why Brantley is rated so poorly. He's 26 years old (in the prime of his defensive prowess), was decent in center a year ago, was very adept at playing the wall in left, and had an accurate arm. Is Progressive Field's small left field penalizing Brantley? We don't have a home-road split that would answer that question.
Brantley's bWAR (Baseball-Reference) was 2.7, a bit down from last year's totals, with it giving him above-average marks in hitting, base running, and defense. Fangraph's WAR had Brantley at 1.7 WAR thanks to the poor showing in UZR. That difference mirrors people's overall evaluations of Brantley. He's not a player that there's a consensus about, and it's easy to see why. He doesn't have a prolific average, or hit for power, or steal a lot of bases. He does a lot of things well, but not overwhelmingly well. That argument between Brantley believers and Brantley skeptics will only get more vociferous as he enters his arbitration years. Brantley will be eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, and the Indians may take the opportunity to sign him to a multi-year deal.
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