Michael Brantley Is Returning to Houston

© Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a fan of Michael Brantley. A big, big fan, in fact. He’s the type of hitter that both old school and new school folks adore. He doesn’t strike out and he hardly ever whiffs, but he still swings fast and with a variable bat path. He doesn’t necessarily light it up with his exit velocity, instead thriving by hitting it where they ain’t. On Sunday, he re-signed with the Astros on a one-year, $12 million contract; he can earn an additional $4 million in performance incentives. Basically, if he stays healthy and hits like he has since arriving in Houston in 2019, the deal will end up having about the same average annual value as his previous two-year, $32 million contracts with the Astros. Retaining Brantley is a low risk move. He is the perfect option to complete an already extremely balanced and talented group of hitters. And while he might not be the athlete he once was — his sprint speed dropped all the way down to the 11th percentile in 2022 — all the team needs him to do is stay healthy and hit in the DH spot.

Brantley has been extremely consistent during his four years with Houston; he’s posted a wRC+ ranging from 121 to 132 and been good for a three to four win pace no matter how many games he played. In his first two seasons, he didn’t miss much time at all, playing in 148 games in 2019 and 46 in the shortened ’20. However, his number of games played began to trail off in 2021, dipping to 121, and he only managed 64 in ’22 before requiring season-ending surgery on his right shoulder. After the injury, the Astros missed Brantley, including in the postseason. I know they won the World Series, but there were times throughout the playoffs when their lineup stagnated and could have used some of the variation Brantley provides. Their offense was still deeper than any other team, but if they could have asked for anything, it would have been another lefty to put the ball in play after the heart of the lineup delivered a mass of baserunners.

Of course, Brantley’s ability to play that role in 2023 assumes health, which as we’ve noted, hasn’t been a given. And injuries remain a significant concern after his shoulder surgery in August, the second of his career. No surgery is ever good, but for a hitter, lead shoulder surgery is particularly impactful. When you think about swing mechanics, having relaxed shoulders is key to avoiding too much tension in your upper body. One thing my hitting coaches always used to tell me was to relax from the chest up. Sometimes when hitters try to muscle up and take swings, they tense their shoulders. This can negatively affect a smooth energy transfer, as well as barrel accuracy and deceleration. Your shoulders should be along for the ride, not impeding your swing with roadblocks. Brantley has already overcome shoulder surgery before, but as you age, rehab gets more difficult. It’s obviously a concern.

That said, if he does fully recover, his 2022 offensive profile was still very promising when he was available. In 277 plate appearances, Brantley sported a career-high walk rate (11.2%) while keeping his strikeout rate below 11%. Of all the hitters with at least 250 plate appearances this season, only eight maintained a BB/K of at least 1.0, and Brantley was one of them. As you age and lose bat speed, improved plate discipline is one way to make up for the drop in power. If Brantley can sustain his approach in 2023, the Astros will have an even better lineup than they already did after signing long-time White Sox star José Abreu.

Last month, I examined the swing path diversity in the Astros lineup, trying to explain why they consistently perform better than the other offenses that have appeared in the last handful of postseasons. The findings from that were preliminary, but the quick version of it is that I took vertical bat angle (VBA) data (the angle of the barrel at impact) for every player in baseball over the last two seasons and calculated the variance within teams by season. The Astros 2021 and ’22 lineups both placed in the top three of VBA variance. In theory, this means the team offers the most diverse lineup of hitters when it comes to swing path. Brantley was included in that calculation and sat between Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez in terms of VBA, providing yet another layer of swing path diversity.

Now here I have to admit that Brantley’s average vertical bat angle might not actually tell us that much. What makes hitters like him so special is their ability to morph their bat path and VBA according to the different pitch types and locations they face. That principle holds for any player. If you want to get your barrel under the ball, you have no choice but to change your VBA depending on the pitch’s height. In that case, average VBA only doesn’t tell the entire story of a hitter’s bat path because the variance of their swing over the course of a season can have a narrow or wide range of angles. Players who don’t morph their bat paths and bodies to account for different pitches might have an identical average vertical bat angle to one who does.

That’s why we look at VBA variance, where we might expect a smaller variance for players with bad adaptability and a wider variance for players with better adaptability. Now, that’s just a theory. But if we return to Brantley, I think of him as being able to make contact in the sweet spot of his barrel at multiple vertical bat angles, i.e., having greater VBA variance. That skill is invaluable. Right now, it isn’t quantifiable with public data, but it is nonetheless hard to deny, especially when we look at video. Take a look at these three hits from 2022, all at different heights. Specifically, pay attention to the angle Brantley creates with his shoulders to get his barrel under each pitch.

Upper Third

Middle Third

Lower Third

Against Robbie Ray, Brantley was in a perfect position to rotate, with no adjustment needed to his shoulders. He easily caught up to a 92-mph four-seamer up and in, and shot it down the right field line. Maybe the pitch would have been tougher to get on top of if it had come in at a higher velocity, but at 92 mph, Brantley had no issues. The middle-middle hanging curveball from Josiah Gray was an easier pitch to handle. Brantley recognized early that this was going to be a pitch he could elevate; he adjusted his shoulder plane to get some loft and drove it 394 feet back to the warning track. Lastly, against Tyler Danish, Brantley waited long enough on a changeup low and away to get the end of his barrel on the ball and slap it up the middle. This swing wasn’t perfect, but by getting on plane with the low pitch, he was still able to get enough of the sweet spot to hit it into no man’s land. These three swings are great examples of how Brantley uses his body to adjust his VBA to different pitches and heights.

This adaptability is the main reason I have such an affinity for Brantley and hitters like him. They fit into any lineup, but with one like Houston, the fit is even better because this style seems to be the team’s M.O. And by retaining Brantley, the Astros have put a stamp on an offseason that has probably made their lineup the deepest in the sport. This move and the addition of Abreu puts their offense in a great position to handle the AL West again, even with the improving rotations of the Angels and Rangers. And despite the Mariners adding Kolten Wong and Teoscar Hernández, Seattle is still far behind the thump and versatility the Astros offer. Losing Justin Verlander hurts the rotation, but if this lineup stays healthy, we could be in for a back-to-back World Series run.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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1 year ago

Esteban’s analysis is always heat. Keep the articles coming!