We are only 20 games into 2014 and Michael Brantley is already nearly halfway to a career power year. His four home runs (all in the last eight games) have me wondering if Brantley has finally developed real MLB pop. Late in Brantley's impressive 2009 season, John Sickels at Minor League Ball wrote, "I still think he could develop more power than scouts currently expect. His dad had a touch of power, and perhaps Michael can develop some too." And while it certainly wasn't the consensus, Brantley's smooth swing did have a few scouts convinced the power would come as he developed.
So far, that power hasn't really arrived. Brantley's 10 HR in 2013 represent his only experience with double-digit bombs, and considering the aging curve for power, it would be unlikely for him to suddenly break out in his age-27 season. But unlikely isn't impossible; 4 HR in 20 games is a 32-HR pace, and that's enough to merit some investigation.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we should note that this outburst, while impressive, is not entirely unprecedented. Last season, between June 19 and July 7, Brantley hit 5 home runs over 17 games. That is not nearly as exciting as the 4 over his last 8 games, but it is a nice little outburst (that stretch was two games with 2 HR (6/19 and 7/7), with one other HR in between, so for sustained displays of power, this week has been a pretty special occurrence for Brantley). It should be mentioned though, that after smacking those five home runs in less than three weeks, Brantley didn't hit any for another month, and only hit one in his next 59 games.
Alright, let's dig a little deeper to try to figure out more about this power surge...
There are basically three ways a hitter can come up with more home runs. Consider that all home runs have to be (1) a batted ball, (2) a fly ball, and (3) a home run. That means that if you want to hit more home runs, you must either (1) hit more batted balls (fewer walks and strikeouts), (2) have more of your batted balls be fly balls, and/or (3) have more of your fly balls turn into home runs.
As it happens, the answer for Brantley is pretty clear. He is walking more and striking out less this year (which is a pretty terrific thing, in its own right) but those two cancel each other out in terms of batted balls in play, so the difference for Brantley isn't option 1. Meanwhile, his fly-ball rate is actually down from 29.8% last year to 26.2% this year, so the difference for Brantley isn't option 2.
That leaves option 3, and sure enough, Brantley's HR/FB rate is 18.8% right now, way, way up from 6.8% last year (which was already a career high). Brantley is putting the the ball in play as much as ever, and hitting slightly fewer fly balls, but when he does hit fly balls, they are getting out far more often.
There are multiple explanations for this: He could be getting lucky, just poking balls to the right corners or the right places and sneaking them out for home runs, or he could be hitting the ball harder, putting more distance on his fly balls, which would mean more home runs should be expected.
Using ESPN's Home Run Tracker, we can see that last year, Brantley hit 3 HR rated "Just Enough," meaning they just barely got out, which is fewer than I would have guessed. He hit two that rated "No Doubt," meaning they were crushed. Which means he was just about as likely to hit a sure-thing crush job as he was to just sneak one out. Courtesy of BaseballHeatMaps.com, we can see that his average distance on fly balls (including his home runs) was 276.4 feet. For context, that ranked 186th last year, among 300 hitters listed, right between Asdrubal Cabrera and Andre Ethier.
Batted-ball distance tends to correlate well to HR/FB rate, so if Brantley's early season boost is sustainable, we would expect to see a) not too many "Just Enough" HR and b) an increase in batted-ball distance. Well, of his four 2014 HR, Brantley has one rated "Just Enough" (but none rated "No Doubt"). His average distance on HR and FB has jumped to 294.8. Out of 217 players ranked, that puts him 34th. That is a substantial jump, and points towards his improved power being legitimate.
We are still dealing with a small sample size, but what Brantley has done thus far is not a fluke, he is hitting the ball harder and farther than he did a year ago (and a year ago was already an increase over what he was averaging prior to 2013). It's too early to declare that Michael Brantley is now a full-blown power hitter, but the signs are pointing in the right direction. Is he going to keep up the 30 HR pace? I highly, highly doubt it. But I am perfectly comfortable predicting a career high in home runs for him this season, and 20 of them seems possible. What kind of player would that make him, if he maintains his elite ability to avoid strikeouts and his solid defense?
At the end of the column I linked to above, John Sickels dropped this in: "Unsubstantiated prediction: Michael Brantley will have an All-Star season in 2014 at the age of 27, hitting .345/.425/.470." Maybe he was on to something.