Michael Brantley Is Good and on the Astros Now

Last year, in all of baseball, the lowest team strikeout rate was 18.7%, and it belonged to the Indians. This is considering only non-pitchers, so as to put the National League on the same level as the American League. Projections, as you know, are by their very nature conservative. And now the 2019 Astros project for a team strikeout rate of 18.4%.

Last year, in all of baseball, the highest team wRC+ was 118, and it belonged to the Dodgers. The second-highest team wRC+ was 111, and it belonged to three different ballclubs. This is considering only non-pitchers, so as to put the NL on the same level as the AL. Projections, as you know, are by their very nature conservative. And now the 2019 Astros project for a team wRC+ of 115.

This is where the Astros stand after having come to a two-year agreement with free-agent Michael Brantley, worth $32 million. It’s not yet official-official, and I guess there’s some chance it all blows up, but I wouldn’t count on that happening. Brantley is good, and he’ll be the Astros’ newest regular.

From the Indians’ side, this might be doubly painful. Brantley was a big reason why the 2018 Indians hit, and why they seldom struck out, and now he’s gone, joining another AL rival. The Indians didn’t extend Brantley a qualifying offer, citing payroll concerns, so there’s no compensation going back, and the Indians are also presently looking for outfield help as they try to round out their roster on a budget. It’s true that $32 million for the Astros isn’t the same as $32 million for the Indians, but the Indians could use a player like Michael Brantley. That specific player is no longer on the market.

For Brantley, 2018 was a critical season. Some players get labeled as health risks for reasons that aren’t very fair. The reasons were fair, in Brantley’s case. He needed ankle surgery following an injury in 2017. Before that, he needed a pair of shoulder surgeries, which limited him to 11 games in 2016. This past year, however, Brantley batted 631 times, and he posted a 124 wRC+ with a line that looked like what he did in his prime. He even stole a dozen bases while playing most of the time in left field. Back when Brantley’s shoulder wasn’t right, I’d been told it was “shredded,” and it wasn’t clear whether he’d ever be the same guy. Brantley now resembles the same guy, only with a few extra scars.

Brantley’s game isn’t showcasing upper-deck power. Rather, he’s one of the game’s premier contact hitters, and he’ll clear the fence when he gets it just so. Here’s a plot covering five seasons, showing isolated power on the y-axis, and strikeout rate on the x. Brantley is the point in yellow.

This next plot looks a lot like that one, except that this one is forward-looking. Here are all projected regulars and semi-regulars for 2019, expressed through the same statistics:

Brantley, again, isn’t a power hitter, so much as he’s a good hitter who has some power. He has about the same projected isolated power as Adam Jones and Yangervis Solarte, but out of this sample of 338 players, Brantley’s projected strikeout rate ranks fourth-lowest. Yuli Gurriel ranks ninth-lowest. Jose Altuve ranks 15th-lowest, and Alex Bregman ranks 18th-lowest. The Astros have four of the 20 lowest projected strikeout rates, and that’s one way in which Brantley is a fit.

There’s also the fact that Brantley’s left-handed. It remains unclear to me how much it actually matters if a team leans too heavily in one direction, but managers always love balance, and the only other lefty hitters on the Astros are Josh Reddick and Tony Kemp, not counting guys like A.J. Reed, Kyle Tucker, Derek Fisher, and Garrett Stubbs. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all left-handed, too, but none of them are proven, and none of them project to make the opening roster. Those players can’t be taken for granted as the Astros think about 2019.

One thing Brantley isn’t is a premium defensive corner outfielder. According to Statcast’s sprint speed, Brantley was actually the second-slowest sprinter last year, among left fielders. He ranked behind names like Matt Kemp, Rhys Hoskins, and Trey Mancini. On the other hand, the guy in dead-last place was none other than Alex Gordon, who’s been one of the best left fielders in recent history. Brantley isn’t Gordon, but he’s not Kemp or Hoskins, either. Relative to league average, he probably profiles to be a few runs worse. The short left field in Houston could somewhat mitigate things, and so would slotting in every so often at first base and DH. I don’t think the Astros yet know exactly how they’re going to look.

With that in mind, they continue to be linked to Nelson Cruz, even after signing Brantley. And although J.T. Realmuto rumors have generally tried to put him somewhere else, the Astros remain a fit, despite having signed Robinson Chirinos. One thing Brantley does is somewhat close the door on Tucker, who’s one of baseball’s very best outfield prospects. Now, the Astros know that, and the Astros didn’t get to where they are by cashing in all of their long-term potential core players, but if the Astros put Tucker on the table, the Marlins would listen. That would be a little easier to do, compared to a day or two ago.

Or maybe Tucker just eventually bumps Reddick. This can go in a lot of directions. What the Astros have done, by signing Brantley, is add to their impressive pile of talent. The pile provides them with a greater number of options, as they consider the remaining available players.

Michael Brantley is good, and the Astros are better. They got Brantley for less than the Phillies gave to Andrew McCutchen, which might be a deal, or which might be appropriate, given their respective health records. But Brantley is good, and he was healthy throughout 2018. Sometimes making moves doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes you just want a good player.

We hoped you liked reading Michael Brantley Is Good and on the Astros Now by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

I’m imagining the Astros signing Cruz to be their full-time DH, trading a package centered on Tucker for Realmuto and it feels like baseball porn.

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And the rich get richer