Michael Brantley has been no better than a league-average hitter in his three-plus seasons with the Cleveland Indians. It isn’t for lack of a studious approach, though. The 24-year-old puts a lot of thought into his craft — and that should bode well for his future. As for the recent past, he’s been swinging a hot bat. Brantley went 9-for-18 over the weekend against the Red Sox, including a 4-for-5 effort on Thursday night. He later talked about the approach that he brought to each at bat.
On his first two at bats and doing his homework: “Josh Beckett is a great pitcher, but at the same time, I could see that he was leaving a lot of balls up and out over the plate. He was missing arm-side a little bit.
“My first at bat, I was kind of looking out over the plate. I got a fastball up and away that I was able to drive to left [for a double]. After that, I noticed that he was trying to use his breaking ball a little more. In my second at bat, he got me 0-2 and threw me a back-foot breaking ball [for a ball]. Then he tried to double up on it, because it’s one of his best out pitches. He left it over the plate and I was able to drive it to left-center for another double.
“On that second at bat, when the count got to 1-2, I was kind of sitting breaking ball. There were runners on second and third, so I knew he was going to try to strike me out. That was going to be his strikeout pitch to me that day, and I was able to sit on it and hit it to left.
“If you do your homework and are really into the game — if you’re really watching — you’re able to sit on pitches at times. Even breaking balls. For the most part, you don’t want to, but some of the best hitters in the game do.
“What I’m looking for depends a lot on the scouting report. They tell me what the pitcher’s tendencies are. If it’s a guy who likes to stay away, you kind of look in that general region and make adjustments from there. Same thing if he’s missing a lot arm-side. A lot of times the count will dictate what he’s trying to do. Most of the time, when I get to two strikes, I like to look down the middle and adjust from there. Conversely, If I’m in a hitter’s count, I’ll look at certain sections of the plate.”
On his third at bat and hitting a cutter: “My next at bat was against Scott Atchison, who has a good two-seamer and cutter. He threw me a two-seamer for a ball and then a cutter for a ball. That put me ahead in the count 2-0, so I was looking for a pitch middle to middle-in that I could drive. Instead, he threw me a fastball away [for a strike]. That made the count 2-1, which was no problem. Then he tried to throw a cutter in, but he left it a little out over the plate and I was able to hit a single up the middle.
“The cutters Atchison threw me moved very well and his four-seamer actually has a little extra life. It’s a little sneakier than it appears on a radar gun.
“A key to hitting a cutter is to not swing at one too far in. You also have to make sure you hit the inside of the ball. If you get around a cutter, you’re not going to be successful very often.
“As a rule, I like to let the ball travel. My strength has always been hitting the ball the other way. When I swing at a pitch in, it’s more of a reaction. The best hitters in the game stay on balls and hit the ball the other way very well.”
On his fourth at bat and his approach against left-handers: “My next at bat was against Franklin Morales. He started me off with a fastball up and in. That put me ahead in the count, so I was looking for a fastball out over the middle of the plate. He threw a fastball middle to middle-in and I was able to hit it up the middle [for a single]. I wanted to make sure I didn’t try to do too much on that pitch. He’s a lefty who throws hard, so I wanted to stay within myself and work back up the middle. I was able to do that.
“Predominantly, lefties stay out over the plate when it‘s left against left. They usually throw a lot more fastballs away, unless they have good tail on their fastball. Then they try to run it in. But scouting reports show that they mostly throw it middle away, so most of the time you need to stay the other way and focus on driving the ball through the shortstop.”
On his fifth at bat and timing: “My last at bat was against [Alredo] Aceves and I grounded out to first on a changeup. He threw some very live fastballs against me. I also saw him throw a slide-step changeup to a hitter ahead of me. Once he got me to two strikes, I figured he’d go to his changeup, and he did. He was still able to get me out front a little bit. It was a good pitch. I’ll have to put that in my memory bank.
“In my opinion, the biggest key for a hitter is timing. If your timing is off, you can gets hits every now and again — maybe some jams and something off the end — but you need timing for a good swing. That said, no one has the exact same keys. Everybody’s swing is different. Some people have leg kicks and some people don’t. Some people stride and some people don’t stride. I’m a simple strider. I start early, but at the same time, I don’t do too much.
“Pitch recognition is big — seeing the ball out of the hand and picking up spin. Spin is key. You can see a dot on a slider, or if it comes out of his hand and kind of humps up, it’s a breaking ball. You have to keep your eyesight on where he’s going to throw. My focus is on his release point, because I want to pick the ball up as quickly as possible. You only have an instant to determine in, out, up, down, breaking ball, changeup. The more often I can be on time, the better chance I have to get hits. I saw the ball pretty well [on Thursday].”