Fantasy Baseball: Should You Take a Chance on Michael Brantley?

Shoulder troubles limited Brantley to only 11 games last year. Is he worth the risk in season-long leagues in 2017?

The Cleveland Indians had an amazing 2016 run, culminating in their first World Series appearance since 1997. Unfortunately for Michael Brantley, it had little to do with him.

The left fielder appeared in only 11 games, suffering several setbacks from offseason shoulder surgery before finally succumbing to season-ending surgery on the same shoulder in August.

Brantley is reportedly making progress, and while the hope is he’ll be ready by Spring Training, it’s difficult to say what we can expect from him in 2017.

That being said, it likely won’t cost fantasy baseball owners much to find out. According to current NFBC average draft position data, Brantley is being drafted outside the top 200 overall and barely in the top 50 outfielders. His absence makes it easy to forget that this is still a player who finished third in 2014 AL MVP voting.

A return to vintage Brantley would absolutely smash his draft-day price, but is that just wishful thinking? Is the glass half empty or half full?

Glass Half Full

First, let's take a look at what a healthy Brantley did prior to his lost season of 2016.

2014 156 676 20 94 97 23 .327 7.7% 8.3% .178 151
2015 137 596 15 68 84 15 .310 10.1% 8.6% .170 133

In 2014, Brantley was the rare fantasy asset to reach 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases, a feat only achieved by nine players last year. While he didn't quite match those MVP-caliber numbers the following season, he remained fairly consistent across the board -- he may have come close with more plate appearances.

Most notably, Brantley maintained his modest power across both campaigns. Preceding his 2014 breakout, the outfielder wasn't known for his home-run power, having never reached double-digit bombs in either the majors or minors until 2013 (10).

It's not surprising that he did experience some regression in 2015, as his home-run-to-fly-ball rate (HR/FB) dipped from 12.7% to 9.9%, but it still remained well above his career average (7.3%).

However, where Brantley has really excelled is his elite plate discipline, something he has exhibited his entire career.

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2013 24.0% 62.9% 79.9% 96.3% 91.1% 3.7%
2014 24.7% 63.9% 82.5% 95.8% 91.3% 3.6%
2015 24.8% 64.3% 84.6% 96.3% 92.6% 3.1%
2016 Average 30.3% 66.7% 63.9% 86.3% 78.2% 10.1%

Brantley's last three full seasons compare quite favorably with the 2016 league average, showing particularly good patience in laying off pitches outside the zone, a high contact rate and a minuscule swinging strike rate. Furthermore, his contact rate on pitches outside the zone went up each season, and not at the expense of contact quality.

In fact, his hard-hit rate improved from a lackluster 24.2% in 2013 to above 30% in both 2014 and 2015 (33.8% and 30.8% respectively).

With these contact skills combined with his speed, it's perhaps no surprise that Brantley is a .292 career hitter supported by an above average career BABIP (.312).

All in all, before his shoulder issues, Brantley was the rare fantasy asset capable of contributing in every category. No doubt, gambling on a late pick to get a player of this caliber looks like a no-brainer. Or is it?

Glass Half Empty

Brantley's Steamer projections paint a pretty dreary picture of 11 home runs, 55 runs, 57 RBI and 7 stolen bases. This is due -- in no small part -- to a pessimistic expectation in games played (107) and plate appearances (450).

But Steamer also projects a solid .291/.360/.445 line, indicating that if Brantley can stay on the field, those counting stats should jump up. But how much more can we really expect?

Not only has Brantley's shoulder kept him off the field, but it could seriously hamper his swing once he returns. Just ask Hanley Ramirez, who sprained his shoulder in May of 2015 and wasn't the same hitter until the following season. Given Brantley's pedestrian 15-20 expected homer output at full strength, any lingering effects could easily leave him back in the single-digit range he had earlier in his career.

While hardly a cause for panic, Brantley will also turn 30 this May, which is an age in which we can expect a possible decline in stolen bases. Despite showing some prowess as a base stealer in his minor league days, 2014 is the only major league season in which he has swiped 20-plus bags. However, the good news is he has only been caught stealing twice since 2014.

With that level of efficiency, it's difficult to see his stolen base total falling off a cliff, but any natural decline in speed could still limit his upside.

Lastly, according to Roster Resource, he's projected to bat fifth behind new teammate Edwin Encarnacion. This would mean fewer expected plate appearances compared to when Brantley hit third for the majority of 2014 and 2015. While this wouldn't necessarily be a bad situation for his RBI total, there would almost certainly be a slight drop off in runs scored.

Bottoms Up

The truth is, hoping for Brantley's magical 2014 season to return simply isn't realistic. When factoring in everything working against him, a more reasonable ceiling is a 15/15 season with 80-plus RBI and a .300 average -- essentially what he did in 2015.

That's still an excellent season, and in the ballpark of fellow outfielders Odubel Herrera, Lorenzo Cain, and Adam Eaton, all of whom are on average going well over 50 picks earlier in NFBC drafts, and sometimes as high as the top 100 overall.

However, given the uncertainty with Brantley's shoulder, it remains scary that the floor is still pretty much zero. If you have an early draft before spring training, he's a pass unless he completely plummets down your draft board.

But if we get closer to the season and he doesn't suffer any setbacks, there's nothing wrong with taking Brantley in the late rounds as one of your final starting outfielders. Even with tempered expectations, there may still be a top 50 player waiting there at a bargain price.

So, bottoms up! If you're willing to take a shot, you may find yourself celebrating a draft-day steal and buying drinks for the bar. Just don't start drinking too early, as the downside is steep and you may instead find yourself with a season-long hangover.