Michael Brantley’s Steady Improvement

When should we begin to buy a breakout? Indians outfielder Michael Brantley has played the part perfectly this year. After two seasons of solid performance, Brantley has emerged as an elite hitter at age-27. While that’s typically the time hitters come into their prime, Brantley’s surge comes as a surprise. The question, of course, is whether it’s legitimate. Has Brantley seen an inordinate amount of luck early, or have his skills progressed? Can’t it be both?

A look at his peripherals seem to point to luck. Both Brantley’s strikeout and walk rates have trended in the right direction, but not at an extreme level. It’s clear he’s made progress in these areas, but that doesn’t fully explain his success. A .329 BABIP hints at some luck, but even if Brantley regressed to his career .307 BABIP, he would still be an effective hitter this season.

That’s likely due to his new-found power. Brantley has already hit 11 home runs in 297 plate appearances this season. Last year, he hit 10 home runs in 611 plate appearances. Again, luck has played a role. Brantley’s 17.4% home run rate is far above his 6.4% career-average. He’s gone from a guy who rarely put the ball out to an elite power overnight.

What we know about regression pretty much tells us this is unsustainable. But is that really the case? While it’s easy to look at the difference between Brantley’s career rates and current rate, there’s a lot more going on here. For one, Brantley has increased his average fly ball distance this year. His fly balls have averaged 288 feet this year, which puts him at 77th overall according to BaseballHeatMaps.com. That’s not elite company, but it’s a big step forward for Brantley. In 2013 and 2012, he ranked 187 and 227 in fly ball distance respectively.

Yet, luck has still been a factor. Overall, Brantley has been credited with four “just enough” home runs, according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker. Again, that’s not totally egregious, but it is significant. On top of that, nothing in his batted ball profile has changed. He’s hitting more line drives this year, but his fly ball rate is down as a result. Sometimes, hitters who see similar power surges do so because they are putting more balls in the air, that hasn’t been the case here.

So, we can’t fully explain the power surge, or whether it will continue. But we can still find aspects of Brantley’s play that point to a breakout. One of those areas has been his success against fastballs. Brantley has rarely been a good hitter against the pitch, posting a positive pitch value against fastballs just once in his career until now. He’s already reached a career-high this season, with an 8.6 pitch value on fastballs. He’s been similarly effective with cutter, though it’s been a much smaller sample.

His success with both pitches have contributed to the increase in power. Brantley has already hit four home runs on fastballs this year. Brantley only hit three home run against fastballs last season. The cutter has been responsible for three of his bombs this year. Over his career, Brantley has been displayed his power when pulling the ball. That hasn’t stopped this season, as 10 of his home runs have gone out to right. The question here is whether he’s just been fortunate with his fly balls, or whether he’s made a conscious change to alter his approach and clobber fastballs.

The conclusion is still pretty unclear. Progress has been made, but there’s just enough in the luck department to make Brantley’s power surge questionable. An approach change could make these results more believable, but there’s no evidence to suggest he’s focused on clobbering fastballs. That puts Brantley in that weird gray area where he’s been somewhat lucky, but also better than he’s ever been before. For Brantley, even a slight improvement would make him a much more valuable player.



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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


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ImDownWithOBP
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ImDownWithOBP

Your findings are inconclusive. I want hard answers… I think.

TKW
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TKW

We can probably discount his BABIP being slightly ahead of his career average, assuming he keeps hitting line drives at the improved rate he’ll probably maintain it.

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