Michael Brantley: Stealth AL MVP Candidate

As we head down the season’s home stretch, the AL MVP race isn’t shaping up to be the neat, two-horse race it was in both 2012 and 2013. Miguel Cabrera hasn’t quite been Miguel Cabrera, and though he still could win the award, Mike Trout hasn’t exactly been Mike Trout. As occasionally happens when there is no slam dunk position player candidate, the leading contender might be a pitcher, in the person of Felix Hernandez. In such a circumstance, sleeper candidates lacking the typical statistical “oomph” often possessed by MVPs can often emerge from the position player ranks of contending clubs. The Mariners boast two worthy contenders in Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, the A’s have Josh Donaldson, and the Royals boast Alex Gordon, just to name a few. The Indians are not too far off of the wild card pace, and are one hot week away from injecting the name of Michael Brantley into the discussion.

Brantley has always been a relatively “quiet” player. The son of former major league outfielder Mickey Brantley, he was drafted by the Brewers on the 7th round of the 2005 draft out of Central HS in Fort Pierce, FL. While he was a promising high school hitting prospect, possessing a sweet stroke from the left side, he didn’t possess the “wow” factor that would normally cause a club to invest heavily in a high school player. He lacked present power, and didn’t exude projectable future power, either. In 99 of 100 such cases, the player will go to college to prove his mettle, and hope that his track record would warrant a high pick three years down the road. Brantley was the 100th player of the 100 – he wanted to play professional baseball, and didn’t need to break the bank to do so. His instincts – and bloodlines – have served him well.

Brantley’s minor league career is more notable for what he did not do, rather than any particular accomplishment. He did not strike out, whiffing only 218 times in 2477 minor league plate appearances. He peaked at 51 K’s as a 19-year-old at Low-A West Virginia in 2006, and amazingly struck out just 27 times in 479 plate appearances as a 21-year-old at Double-A Huntsville in 2008. He didn’t hit the ball out of the park, either, accumulating only 16 homers in his minor league career, and an amazing total of 2, count ’em 2, in his first three pro seasons combined. Of course, he batted .303-.388-.377 as a minor leaguer, serving notice that he had at least some sort of major league future. He qualified for my year-end minor league top position player prospect list, which is based on both performance and age relative to a player’s league and level, after each of his five minor league seasons, ranking in the Top 100 four times, and peaking at #71. That’s good stuff, but not star stuff – power development would clearly determine his ultimate upside.

As the 2008 season progressed, the Brewers found themselves as the frontrunners for the NL Central crown, and threw their hat into the ring for the services of soon-to-be free agent pitcher CC Sabathia. I worked for the Brewers back then, and we had built enough minor league depth at that time to make the acquisition of Sabathia more than a pipe dream. Matt LaPorta was the key concession we made in discussions with the Indians – once we had done so, it felt like it was just a matter of time before the deal would be consummated. There was one potential hangup ahead, however. The Indians had done their homework, and were quite insistent that Brantley be included in the deal. Long story short, a compromise was struck that would enable the Indians to select the last player in the package from a group that would include Brantley if certain criteria were met. They were met, and Brantley moved on to Cleveland as a player to be named later.

Prior to this season, Brantley had maintained his minor league persona at the major league level – solid, if unspectacular. Ready to play every day, make contact, run the bases well, do a credible job defensively at any of the three outfield positions. This was enough to earn him a four-year, $25M deal that runs through 2017, with an affordable club option for 2018. When he signed it, it looked like a relatively safe investment in a blue chip stock that pays dividends religiously, but lacks much potential for capital appreciation. Now, it appears like the Indians invested in Google at the IPO price.

What could the Indians have seen that might have foreshadowed his 2014 breakout? Is this breakout, especially on the power side, real? Could he get even better, or is this the best we are going to see from Michael Brantley? To better enable us to address these questions, let’s examine his 2013-14 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data. First, the frequency data:

FREQ – 2013
Brantley % REL PCT
K 11.0% 60 9
BB 6.5% 81 31
POP 4.9% 60 17
FLY 25.3% 88 25
LD 24.5% 114 88
GB 45.3% 108 74

FREQ – 2014
Brantley % REL PCT
K 8.3% 41 1
BB 7.8% 101 50
POP 2.1% 27 3
FLY 26.4% 95 35
LD 24.1% 116 88
GB 47.5% 109 82

The first thing one notices about Brantley’s frequency profile is its year-to-year consistency. This has been the case going back to prior major league seasons, and I would guess that comparably granular minor league batted-ball data wouldn’t look materially different, either. He was one of the toughest big league regulars to strike out in 2013, as his K rate had a percentile rank of 9. It’s even better in 2014, as his K rate percentile rank has plunged to 1 – Victor Martinez and Jose Altuve are the only other AL regulars who are even in his area code. His walk rate is not a strength, but it is trending up from a percentile rank of 31 in 2013 to 50 thus far in 2014. This would be his second major league season with an average or better walk rate.

While line drive rates fluctuate more than those of other batted ball types, there are outliers on the good and bad ends who consistently put up high or low liner rates. Count Brantley among the “good” group – his liner percentile rank is a lofty 88 for both 2013 and 2014, and has been at least 78 in four of his five seasons in the big leagues. His relatively low fly ball rates (25 and 35 in 2013 and 2014, respectively) and relatively high grounder rates (74 and 82) aren’t surprising, either – he has never had a fly ball percentile rank above 35, or a grounder percentile rank below 74. When it comes to his frequency profile, Brantley is exceptionally consistent, though he is perceptibly improving, as his K and popup rates have gone about as low as they can go. And that is how .300 hitters are born – minimize the number of free outs you give away, and be just decent at everything else, and you too can hit .300. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.

Now that we’ve created a picture of Brantley stylistically, let’s take a look at his production by BIP type for 2013-14, both before and after adjustment for context:

PROD – 2013
FLY 0.187 0.463 41 55
LD 0.605 0.832 88 97
GB 0.277 0.277 128 104
ALL BIP 0.318 0.443 87 91
ALL PA 0.280 0.328 0.390 102 107

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.296 0.817 120 105
LD 0.629 0.838 91 101
GB 0.232 0.266 96 108
ALL BIP 0.339 0.543 114 119
ALL PA 0.308 0.363 0.493 144 150

Brantley’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

The obvious takeaway here is the stark increase in Brantley’s fly ball production from 2013 to 2014. Last season, he batted just .187 AVG-.463 SLG on fly balls, for only 41 REL PRD. Adjusted for context, that creeps up to 55 ADJ PRD, but that doesn’t come close to comparing to his .296 AVG-.817 SLG on fly balls in 2014, for 120 REL PRD, which is then adjusted downward for context to 105. This improvement can be attributed both to long-awaited physical development and to a subtle evolution in his approach.

In 2013, just under 10% of Brantley’s fly balls were hit at 95 MPH or harder – thus far in 2014, over 17% have met that criteria. Just as importantly, however, he has begun to selectively pull the ball in the air more frequently to more effectively tap into his power. In 2013, Brantley had a fly ball “pull factor” (RF + RCF fly balls/LF + LCF fly balls, for a LH hitter) of 0.72; in 2014, he has a 1.49 fly ball pull factor. This is tricky maneuver for a hitter to undertake – hitters who increase their fly ball pulling rate often let their grounder pull rate mushroom, leading to lots of weak, roll-over grounders, and ultimately, the killer overshift. Only a hitter with disciplined swing mechanics can keep it together, harvesting all the goodness of fly ball pulling without the negative side effects of excessive grounder pulling – Brantley has such discipline in abundance, as his grounder pull rate has barely moved in comparison to 2013.

His production profile also notes subtle upticks in line drive and grounder authority from 2013 to 2014, with his liner ADJ PRD up from 97 to 101, and his grounder ADJ PRD up from 104 to 108. Add it all up, and his production on all BIP is up dramatically from last season, his ADJ PRD rising from 91 to 119. Add back the K’s and BB’s, and he goes from solid regular status (107 ADJ PRD) to a star-caliber offensive player (150 ADJ PRD). No longer is he a high-floor, low-ceiling player relying primarily on the minimization of negative outcomes like K’s and popups – he’s now a high-floor, reasonably high-ceiling guy who could get some black ink onto his historical record when it’s all said and done.

Truth be told, Brantley has been a bit unlucky this season. He’s underperforming on liners and grounders, for no other reason than random chance. His homer totals might be a tad higher than they should – he has pulled all of his homers, which at home is to a relatively soft spot in Jacobs Field’s configuration, and a few have been fairly cheap. On balance, however, I’d say his true talent batting average is about 15 points higher than its present level, and those extra hits more than compensate for that small handful of “extra” homers. If Brantley is a true talent .325 hitter – then he can bat .350 or even higher in his career year. There’s not too many major league hitters about which that can be said.

Brantley is not a perfect offensive player. He presently lacks the ability to drive the ball for distance to the opposite field, and likely will not develop it to a material extent. There’s a very real chance that the 22-25 homers he finishes with this season will go down as his career high, or very close to it. His core skills – his ability to minimize K’s and popups and maximize line drives – age very well, however. Derek Jeter’s Hall of Fame career is built upon those same precepts. Brantley, like Jeter, is also the type of player who has always been better than his raw numbers – he shows up for work every day, is more athletic than he is given credit for, and adds value in all facets of the game. The Indians aren’t quite dead yet, and if their vital signs get stronger in the season’s remaining days, the season enjoyed by Michael Brantley is going to sneak up on a lot of people.

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8 years ago

My money is on Trout.

8 years ago
Reply to  fred

Yeah, there’s really no argument to be made that Brantley’s been better than Trout. He’s way better offensively, has a big advantage in HR/RBI/R, plays a more premium position (CF vs mostly LF), and plays for a better team.

I think Jose Abreu would be a candidate because the writers love offensive counting stats, but his team will negate his candidacy.

It’s Trout vs Hernandez, and for some reason Fangraphs writers keep trying to add others into the conversation just to have something to write about. In this case, I think the author was just looking for an interesting introduction rather than trying to make a serious argument.

8 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

I kind of like the series investigating others chances. At very least, this highlights how good Trout really is. He’s still the front runner despite these awesome seasons from other players.

8 years ago
Reply to  fred

Nelson Cruz?