Cleveland Indians: 5 Ways Michael Brantley Can Prove His Worth
Outside of Cleveland, Michael Brantley may be best known as the “Player to Be Named Later” in the July 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee for purported “can’t miss prospect” Matt LaPorta.
With the Indians, he’s shown flashes of solid play, but leaves a lot to be desired. Is he a true lead-off hitter? Will he ever demonstrate the speed that made him a solid minor league player? The tools all appear to be there, but will Brantley ever put them all together to turn himself into a solid major leaguer?
While watching the STO broadcast of the Indians-A’s weekend series, the Tribe commentators remarked on how Brantley has fallen victim to bad luck at the plate (in fact, they probably mentioned it at least five times). Indeed, Michael has hit the ball hard as of late, but has been unable to find the holes in the defense. Furthermore, he’s continued to show patience at the plate, working the count and fouling off tough pitches. Despite his plate approach, Brantley’s at-bats aren’t translating to getting on base.
Here are five areas where Michael is going to need to improve if he deserves to hold onto his spot as the Tribe’s leadoff hitter.
All players go through slumps. In Brantley’s case, he's started off the season hitting a putrid .059 on the opening home stand. He’s picked up the pace slightly, hitting .256 (10-39) on the Tribe’s nine-game road trip.
In 2011, Brantley got off to a hot start, hitting .297 in April. His numbers steadily declined over the course of the season. Although he hit .294 in July, he hit just .211 in August before landing on the DL to end the season.
Granted, batting average is an over-valued stat, especially for a leadoff hitter. What is glaring about the numbers, however, is the inconsistency. Brantley doesn’t have to be anything more than a .270-.280 hitter, but consistency is a must for a leadoff man. If Brantley is going to continue to be streaky, his production needs to improve as the season progresses.
2.) on-Base Percentage
The much more telling stat for any leadoff man is his on-base percentage. Brantley´s career .313 OBP is about twenty points lower than what you’d expect from a top of the order hitter. Any respectable leadoff hitter should be able to get on base at least one out of every three times he digs in.
Michael banged out a respectable 120 hits in 114 games last season. He has a nice, compact swing that will produce plenty of line drives. He looks comfortable in the box, and isn’t often fooled at the plate.
Where he’s got to improve, however, is drawing walks. He drew just 34 walks in 451 at-bats last season. Despite a good eye at the plate, Michael has the tendency to be an aggressive hitter. Like most players, he’s a much better hitter when ahead in the count and tends to struggle when behind. He’s just got to keep fouling off pitches and prolonging at-bats to stay alive and draw some more free passes.
To put it into perspective, Kenny Lofton had an OBP lower than .360 just once in his nine full seasons in Cleveland, and had a career OBP of .372. Then again, it’s not fair to compare Brantley to one of the game’s greatest leadoff men of the last generation.
Much has been made of Brantley’s passivity on the base-paths. He’s attempted just two steals this season, swiping one. Last season, he has just thirteen steals on a decent 72% stolen base percentage.
Some Tribe fans might be wondering where his aggressiveness went, after he stole 146 bases in 511 career minor league games (an average of 46 steals over a 162-game season). The Indians don’t run a lot as a team, and haven’t traditionally been an aggressive running team since the days of Lofton manning center field.
With Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis all capable of around 20 steals this season, it would seem only natural that Brantley should be able to swipe 25-30 as well. For the Tribe, who isn’t good at moving runners but has shown a penchant for driving them in from scoring position, the time is now for Brantley to be aggressive when on base and utilize his speed.
4.) Hitting with the Bases Empty
The jury is still out as to whether Michael Brantley is a truly a leadoff hitter. He’s been thrust into the role ever since breaking in with the Tribe in 2009 due the onslaught of injuries that have derailed Grady Sizemore’s once promising career. Coincidentally, Brantley’s arrival in the bigs coincided with the decline of the Tribe’s former star center fielder.
Traditionally, Brantley has been a much better hitter with men on base than he has leading off an inning or with the bases empty. His slash line splits clearly demonstrate this point:
Lead Off Inning
Again, OBP is the more revealing stat. Getting on base at a .274 clip to lead off an inning is bad, especially when these are his career numbers! Even when simply looking at his numbers batting leadoff, his career .273/.317/.370 slash line is damaged by a low OBP. These numbers simply don’t justify him hitting first.
A look at the splits with men on base tells another story:
5.) Hitting LHP
If Brantley wants to justify getting everyday playing time, he needs to improve his hitting against left-handed pitching. He simply doesn’t produce against lefties, as evidenced by his career .230/.294/.278 slash line.
With Shelley Duncan and Aaron Cunningham as his principle challengers for playing time (neither of whom hit lefties all that well), Brantley perhaps isn’t being pushed to meet his potential. If he’s going to evolve into a more complete player, he’s got to handle lefties better.
For now, Brantley’s spot front and center is secure while Grady Sizemore continues his rehab. The eminent addition of Johnny Damon will change all of that, and could cause Brantley to lose significant playing time if he doesn’t turn the corner.
I’ve offered my two cents on why I think Damon will spark the Tribe offense, and I believe he’ll be with the Tribe through season’s end. Although his contract includes an immediate opt-out clause upon the return of Sizemore, I just don’t see the Tribe cutting ties with Damon, a very consistent, accomplished major league veteran, in favor of a young and inconsistent Brantley.
One thing’s for sure, whenever Grady Sizemore does come back, he’ll be playing as much as possible. Cleveland didn’t give him a $5 million, incentive-laden deal to sit on the bench. If he’s healthy enough to see the field, he’ll play, regardless of his production. With Damon in the fold, that could leave Brantley as the odd man out of the starting lineup, relegating him to the role of fourth outfielder.
Assuming Damon joins the club in the next two weeks and Grady Sizemore returns around the beginning of June, Michael Brantley’s got six weeks to step up his game and make the Tribe management’s eventual decisions all the more difficult.