What to Expect From Michael Brantley in 2015
If you like left fielders, the AL Central is a pretty safe haven for you.
Two of the league's top-five players in baseball, according to fWAR, were left fielders from the Central, being Cleveland's Michael Brantley at three and Kansas City's Alex Gordon at five. For Gordon, 2014 was the third time in four years that he found himself among the 15 best players according to fWAR. For Brantley, it was the first time in his career he was worth worth three wins or more. The highest he had ever been on the fWAR leaderboard prior to 2014 was 79 in 2012.
Unlike Gordon, who has been one of the league's best left fielders better part of four seasons, 2014 was Brantley's official coming out party. Just two seasons removed from hitting just six homers in over 600 plate appearances, Brantley hit a career-high 20 homers, as well as adding a career-high 45 doubles. Heading into 2014, Brantley was a guy who could hit for average, steal a few bases, and avoid striking out. So what changed between 2013 and 2014 that made him the league's best left fielder? And is it sustainable?
What Changed in 2014
If you look at Brantley's metrics from 2012 to 2014, you'll find nothing but consistency, which makes pinpointing what exactly made Brantley into a sudden power threat even more difficult. Specifically, looking at his batted ball numbers, you'll find that his fly ball percentage was actually down from his career percentage of 29.5% to just a few ticks about 28%. His line drive percentage eclipsed his career mark of 23% by a decent margin at 25.7%. The number that stands out is his home run to fly ball ratio, which nearly doubled his career average of 6.8% with a 12.7% mark.
However, even that number is tough to explain because his average fly ball distance, according to baseballheatmaps.com, was just 280 feet, which is only a four-foot improvement from 2013. Add in the fact that he didn't hit as many fly balls in 2014 as he did in 2013, and that home run to fly ball ratio is pretty baffling. So what gives?
Power is arguably the most unpredictable tools and definitely the most erratic. The one factor that stays consistent in a hitter's ability to hit for power lies in his ability to pull the ball consistently, and that's exactly what Brantley did in 2014. In 2014, Brantley pulled the ball in a career high 236 at-bats, including an 18.5% fly ball percentage when pulling the ball. All of these factors contributed to Brantley's wrecking the league when he pulled the ball, hitting 19 of his 20 homers to the pull side of the field and registering a .350 ISO.
Brantley's ability to pull the ball was a huge factor in his breakout season. However, as we have seen before with hitters like Brantley, the ability to pull the ball consistently is not an easy task. The question now is whether or not Brantley will be able to carry his pull success of 2014 into 2015.
What to Expect in 2015
Brantley is about as likely of a regression candidate as there ever has been. However, it's not for reasons by which regression is normally judged. Like we established earlier, Brantley's 2014 season wasn't that different from his recent seasons. Aside for the random increase of power, which we have determined was a result in his finally figuring out how to pull the ball consistently, Brantley was the same hitter he has always been, just revved up. That makes the gut think that Brantley is just evolving as a hitter, and that may be true. Although it hasn't been substantial until this past season, Brantley had hit more home runs each season, with 6, 10, and then 20.
However, it is more likely that he just had a really good season. He is already 27, and the age curve of 28-29 being the prime years continues to fall. It is hard for me to buy into the idea that he is evolving when so many of his batted ball percentages were so similar. This may seem anti-climactic, but for 2015 I wouldn't really expect anything drastically different out of Brantley. Even if 2014 was a fluke, he has always been a decent hitter, and even though the increases may not be huge, he is hitting a lot of line drives and hitting fly balls farther each season. So we probably won't see a drastic regression from Brantley, but I also wouldn't expect him to replicate 2014.
Brantley is sure to be one of this season's most talked about fantasy prospects -- and rightfully so. His value last season was undeniable. However, it's hard to give him that same value going into 2015. We tend to overthink things, though. When push comes to shove, Brantley is a .280 or .285 guy who will probably hit 10 to 15 homers, and steal 15 to 20 bases.
There aren't a lot of teams that wouldn't mind having a bat like that in their lineups.