Last February, Michael Brantley and the Indians agreed to a four-year contract extension worth $25 million. The Indians figured it was a safe bet for an average player with upside. Some of the Indians’ players, meanwhile, had a different take. For example, let’s consider the words of Nick Swisher:
“We all said when that deal came out that that was a bargain for us,” said first baseman Nick Swisher.
Point: Swisher. Not that the Indians mind. Used to be, in terms of performance, Brantley was consistently, exactly average. Now, take a trip through the Wins Above Replacement leaderboard. You see Mike Trout at the top, naturally. Then there’s Alex Gordon, and Josh Donaldson, a previous breakthrough. Hanging out with the likes of Giancarlo Stanton is Brantley, who this year has become a fringe MVP candidate. Not that Brantley really stands any chance of winning, but at least statistically, there’s an argument, which tells you most of what you need to know.
Brantley’s offensive game is driving all this, and while he’s been developing for a while, his results have changed overnight. We have a measure of offensive performance called wRC+, which compares a player’s productivity to the league average. A figure of 100 is exactly average; a figure north of that is better than average. Between last year and this year, Devin Mesoraco leads baseball with an 87-point wRC+ improvement. That currently stands as one of the very biggest season-to-season improvements ever. Brantley’s in second place, with an improvement of 52 points. If it weren’t for Mesoraco being an anomalous freak, Brantley’s improvement would look more absurd.
Part of this is that Brantley’s reduced his strikeouts. Not that he was ever particularly strikeout-prone, but now he’s whiffing just once per 12 trips to the plate. A year ago, he whiffed once per nine. A bigger deal, though, is that Brantley’s hitting for power. It’s power people always suspected would come from his frame, and right now Brantley has more home runs in 2014 than he had the two previous years combined. Isolated power is simply slugging percentage minus batting average, and Brantley used to hang out around .110. This season he’s pushing .200. He’s kept most of everything the same while adding power and cutting down strikeouts, and that’s a pretty effective recipe for achieving a breakout.
Brantley swears he hasn’t made any dramatic changes. Terry Francona thinks he’s just developed a stronger base, and that he’s finding a little extra power as he enters his prime. Michael Bourn, for what it’s worth, thinks he sees something:
“I had to convince him a little bit,” Bourn said. “It’s all about believing that you can do it. When you come up here first, you might just want to stick with what you’ve been doing the whole time. You might not want to take a chance of swinging the bat with a little authority. He’s done that now.”
Let’s stick with that “authority” idea. The evidence suggests Brantley is looking for more opportunities to drive the ball. Below, a chart from Brooks Baseball. This is showing the average angle of Brantley’s balls in play, where more negative means more to right field, which is Brantley’s pull area. I’ll explain more after the image.
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