Monday, December 26, 2011

The Curious Case of Mike Brantley

A Note From Paul: A couple of weeks ago I wrote how I was going to bring a couple of new writers into the fold here at The DiaTribe to change the pace from time to time and I’m pleased to present a piece from my friend Tyler (who has written here before) on Michael Brantley. With all of the talk of the Indians making multi-year offers to Josh Willingham and Carlos Beltran in the last couple of weeks – moves that would ostensibly move Brantley into a quasi-utility role or into a role of the 4th OF, Tyler brings up some salient points on Brantley, regarding both his present and his future.

“When you trade back-to-back Cy Young Award winners (CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee) in back-to-back seasons (2008 and 2009), you need to say more than Michael Brantley is the best player that you have received in return -- and he’s a career .265 hitter (.675 OPS). Brantley is 24 and it’s far too early to write him off, despite a mediocre 2011 (.266, .702 OPS with seven homers and 46 RBI in 496 plate appearances). Of the eight players obtained in those deals, only Brantley is likely to be a starter next season.”

So says Terry Pluto in the Christmas Sunday PD. I think Pluto commits an oversight here -- intentionally or not, he tries to connect dots between Brantley’s slot on the depth chart and the outfielder’s relative success compared to the other players lassoed in the Sabathia and Lee trades. Yes, Brantley was a better hitter than LaPorta, and no, his elbow doesn’t need sewn back together like Carrasco’s. What does that have to do with his playing time?

To be sure, it’s difficult to fault the Indians for trying to will Brantley’s bat to life. About a year ago (forgive me; I can’t pin down the link), Andrew Humphries had a nice Let’s Go Tribe post pointing out that Brantley’s apparent physical talents and sheer outward likability can obscure his failings. As the figment of a lineup card forms in our eggnog-addled brains, though, bear four questions in mind:

1. Is Brantley a center fielder, or even an especially valuable left fielder? I don’t profess any acuity in scouting or reading defensive stats. I’ve watched him for parts of three seasons now, and I still couldn’t tell you whether he’s an asset with the glove. (For what it’s worth, WAR and Zone liked Brantley pretty well in 2011.) If, for example, Brantley had the chops for day-after-day center field, we could live with a .700-ish OPS. Conversely, if Brantley’s relegated to left, we’d have to put his offense under a higher-powered lens. The Indians are talking about giving Brantley reps at first 2012, and they keep acquiring bargain-bin outfielders; based on that evidence, I’ll argue we should reach for the 10x magnifying glass and leave it at that.

2.Is Brantley still fast? Worse yet: Is he a good baserunner? He stole 13 bases last season. He was caught 5 times. As a baserunner, he was, not to put too fine a point on it, both unproductive and inefficient. There are batmen whose lack of power you can abide by virtue of their baserunning. Brantley LOOKS like such a batsman, and we were led to expect same. Are those expectations still justified? He slugged .384 in 2011. Even his much-maligned former Brewer compatriot Matt LaPorta slugged .412. I know, I know -- LaPorta’s an older, slow first baseman who’s supposed to slug .500, context is everything, all that jazz. But the margin for error we accord Brantley is a product of his defense and baserunning, which in turn rely on his speed. Again: Does he still have any?

3. Will Brantley ever be a threat versus left-handed pitching? He collected 68% of his 2011 plate appearances versus right-handers, but those PAs accounted for 100% of his home runs, 100% of his triples, 83% of his doubles, and -- salt in the wound -- 12 of his 13 stolen bases. Brantley’s 2011 line versus southpaws: .214/.282/.243. That level of production ranks somewhere between Columbus and God-awful. I’ll admit that lots of everyday left-handed hitters are glorified platoon players at the plate; for instance, Grady Sizemore’s triumphant 2006 campaign was undistinguished versus lefties. But, then, Sizemore was still a threat to go yard, still a disruptive force on the basepaths, and still a competent up-the-middle defender. In what way will Brantley balance the ledger?

4. Is Brantley robust enough to be a starter? I suppose I ought to have made this No. 1 instead of No. 4. Put simply, “core players” have to stay on the field. Last season, with hardly a soul to compete with him for reps in left and center, at only 23 years old, Brantley still couldn’t crest 500 plate appearances. And this may be only my memory, but his tenure as an Indian, both on and off the 25-man roster, seems shotgunned with injuries and ailments. We might, of course, cut him some slack for this reason; perhaps we’ve just yet to see Brantley running on all eight cylinders. But by the same token, health itself is a skill that professional athletes simply have to master, and to date it is fair to say that Brantley hasn’t.


The great counter-point to all of this is Pluto’s -- Brantley turns 25 this May, and has done a good bit of maturing under MLB lights. An organization as starved for position player depth as are the Indians cannot afford to cast aside (ostensibly) toolsy young outfielders.

And yet, consider the Indians’ outfield depth signings this winter. Aaron Cunningham turns 26 next year. Felix Pie will only be 27. Both have pedigrees not dissimilar from Brantley’s, and both have diminished as Major Leaguers, now mere fourth outfielders. Brantley is, as Pluto says, “likely” to be a starter in 2012. I hope he can earn it.


Adam Van Arsdale said...

My optimistic side still looks at Brantley and sees similarities with Bernie Williams. Williams career is obviously worth of the Hall of Very Good, so I don't want to make too strong a comparison, but Williams was a slow emerger with a similar skill set to Brantley.

Adam Van Arsdale said...

I should add, the Williams comparison puts this year and next as Brantley's breakout window

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