We love the deep dive here, and often it’s mechanical — this player raised or lowered his hands, or altered the grip on his pitch, or changed his foot tap. Sometimes, though, the dive can start from a place as simple as a change in mindset and approach.
Like when you ask Michael Brantley what the key to his late-career power breakout was. He shakes off the suggestion that he changed his swing or bulked up. To him, it was simple. “Last year I was more aggressive,” Brantley said matter-of-factly when I asked him about it.
And of course, as simple as that sounds, it’s just a platform, a jump-off point.
Because of course it’s not as simple as swinging more and being aggressive all the time. Brantley’s swing percentage in 2012 and 2013 was 41.4%. Over the last two years, he’s swung 41.6% of the time. He reached 23.6% of the time before his power breakout, and has reached at pitches outside of the zone 24.8% of the time since.
So you have to prod the player to say a little bit more. “I was more aggressive on fastballs,” Brantley said, once again with an almost flat affect, like it was nothing to him. Just a simple choice.
And when you check out his swing rates by pitch type, you can easily see how he could be more aggressive on one pitch type and not look like he’s swinging a ton more. For every fastball he’s swung at, he’s decided to swing less at other pitches. The effect is concentrated mostly in the four-seam category, at least.
So hunting four-seamers. Is that it, Michael? “When I got a fastball early, I tried to put the best swing on it I could,” comes the response.
And that’s where we find the clearest break from past philosophy. Check out his first-pitch swing rates against all pitches and against fastballs in particular.
|Swing rate on:||First Pitches||First-Pitch Fastballs|
That may not look like the most extreme swing in philosophy, but Brantley was an extreme first-pitch taker before. By moving from 14% to 22%, he went from the top tenth percentile in first pitch patience to the top third. Just look at where he was in 2014 for a reference point: 109 out of 320 in the early going.
He’s not worried about shifts because “I have no problem bunting” and he still has a decently spread out spray chart, even with the uptick in pulled balls that have come from his increased aggression on fastballs. All Brantley has to do is be aware — “When I step to the plate I make sure to look around and see where everyone is playing” — and continue to take the ball where it’s pitched later in the count.
It looks like swinging on fastballs in early fastball counts has been enough for Brantley to display more power. And it all came mostly because of a change in team role. “Time to get aggressive, time for a different mindset,” the outfielder said, “since I was hitting in the three hole and driving in runs and not thinking as much getting on base like I was in the leadoff spot.”
This fits with the things we’ve heard from players like Torii Hunter before. We might think players are interchangeable in the lineup — and from a numbers standpoint there’s only a little difference — but the players themselves see roles that they have to fill, and expectations attached to those roles.
You can say it simply. Michael Brantley wanted to step up and be more of a traditional run producer for his team, who had recently acquired a more traditional leadoff man, so he looked to drive the ball and be more aggressive. But if you say it that simply, you miss the fun of a deep dive.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.