Michael Brantley: From Player to Be Named Later to All-Star Game Participant
The Indians acquired Michael Brantley when they traded CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers, but Brantley was not the centerpiece of the deal. Rather, Matt LaPorta, a highly touted first baseman, was. My how things have changed. LaPorta last played in the Mexican League, while Brantley is now an All-Star.
Brantley was the player to be named later in the deal. Never considered to be a top prospect, he's now the Indians best hitter, batting .322/.382/.519 with a .394 wOBA this year. And he is also one of the best outfielders in the bigs.
This year, Brantley ranks among the top 20 hitters in the MLB in terms of batting average, slugging percentage and weighted on base percentage. He also ranks in the top 10 in the MLB in both WAR, with 3.7 and runs above replacement (RAR) with 33.9. And his 3.53 nERD, a numberFire metric that measures the runs a player contributes over the league average per game, is good for sixth best in Major League Baseball, almost two runs better than Adam Jones, who beat out Brantley for the third AL starting outfield spot.
Really, their numbers aren't even close.
While Brantley was never a top prospect, he had all the tools to become a solid everyday player. Brantley never had a weighted on base percentage below .310 in the minors, and his walk percentage was always above 10 percent. While he never really hit for power in the minors, he consistently got on base, a stat that translates very well at the next level.
Since his first call up to the majors in 2009, Brantley's been steadily improving his line drive percentage - as line drives more often turn into hits than fly balls. His line drives have increased since his first extended big league action in 2010, while his fly-ball percentage has dropped. In 2010, 20.5 percent of Brantley's batted balls were line drives, while 31.7 percent were fly balls. This year, 26.2 percent are line drives while 26.5 percent are fly balls. And as Brantley has hit more line drives, his BABIP has risen as well, from .271 in 2010 to .321 this year, with a career average of .307, right around the league average.
Brantley's always been a contact hitter - since 2009 he's made contact with 91.3 percent of pitches he's swung at, good for eighth in that span, and best among active players. This year, Brantley's making contact with 90.9 percent of pitches he's swinging at, seventh best in the majors. His high contact percentage, coupled with an increasing line drive percentage, has led to Brantley's ascent to an All-Star. When Brantley makes contact, more balls have been going for hits, as evidenced by increases in his BABIP, in large part due to hitting more line drives.
Not only is Brantley a great contact hitter, but he's also very disciplined at the plate. Since 2009, Brantley has had a swinging strike percentage of just 3.4 percent, best among active players during in that span. He also rarely strikes out, with a career strikeout percentage of 11.4 percent, and 8.2 percent this season, fourth best in the majors. Brantley rarely swings and misses, and when he does swing, he makes contact.
Together, these three attributes, being a contact hitter, hitting lots of line drives, and rarely striking out, paved the way for Brantley to become of solid outfielder. And he was, for the first few years of his career, hitting around .280 with a plus .300 wOBA. But Brantley isn't just a solid outfielder, he's an all-around player and an All-Star. He's also a good fielder, great on the basepaths and has developed some power as well. Brantley is a five-tool player.
Brantley is second in Major League Baseball in outfield assists with 10, behind Yoenis Cespedes. Brantley has become known in Cleveland for throwing out runners trying to stretch singles into doubles and throwing runners out at home, most famously when started an improbable 7-2-4 triple play against the Dodgers a few weeks ago.
On the basepaths, Brantley, who has 10 steals this year, has a stolen bases and caught stealing runs above average (wSB) of 1.6, 14th in baseball. Brantley's base running runs above average of 4.3 this year, is also good for 10th best in the MLB.
And this year, Brantley has really developed some power, in addition to his contact hitting. While he never had a slugging percentage higher than .400, this year he's slugging .519. His Isolated Power (ISO) is also at a career high of .197. After never hitting more than 10 home runs in a season, this year he has 15 at the All-Star break. His home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB) is way up as well, at 17.6 percent, and while that may not be sustainable as his career HR/FB average is 6.8 percent, there's no doubting Brantley has developed some power.
And with this development of power, Brantley has truly become an All-Star. After years of steadily improving as a contact hitter, he found his power swing, and is now one of the best outfielders in baseball. With top 20 numbers across the board, the once player to be named later is now an All-Star caliber outfielder.