April 20, 2014

Michael Brantley’s Contract Extension: A Good Man is Hard to Find

Michael Brantley

I am known throughout my office as the guy who doesn’t like Michael Brantley. This despite the fact that I TOTALLY LIKE MICHAEL BRANTLEY.  I was ecstatic when he was included in the CC Sabathia trade, and I followed his rise through the minors as closely as any Indian I can recall.  His ceiling—a plus defender with elite on-base skills and game-changing ability on the bases—is exactly the sort of under-appreciated player I’ve been championing for most of my writing career.  There’s value to be had in a player like Michael Brantley.  And at the risk of sounding too much like my Mom, he seems like awfully nice young man.

So why have I been labelled a doubter?  It’s probably because I occasionally have the temerity to point out that Michael Brantley isn’t particularly good at anything just yet.  Last season—Brantley’s best MLB season to date—saw him boast these offensive ranks among the eight qualified AL left fielders:

AVG 6th
OBP 3rd
SLG 8th
ISO 8th
wOBA 6th
BB% 7th
HR 8th

In exactly one offensive category Brantley was above average—his ability to get on base.  We should further note that his above-mediocre OBP is not necessarily correlated with an ability to draw walks (his 6.5% walk rate is kinda awful—second worst in the league); rather, he just makes a lot of contact.  In other words, as a hitter, Michael Brantley has demonstrated neither plate discipline nor power.  He simply has the ability to put the bat on the ball.

But wait! Baseball is more than just hitting.  There’s base running and fielding to consider!

Of course.  First, the base running. Turns out that for the most part, Brantley is a decent enough base runner.  Both Fangraphs and baseball-reference rate Brantley a tick above average—worth something between two and six runs better than average over his 500+ game career.  The problem is that he was supposed to be a game-changing speedster (nearly 90% stolen base success in the minors), and his career stolen base percentage of only 70% (56 of 80) is actually costing his team more runs than it’s creating.

As for his defense, it’s pretty beige.  He’s slightly above average as a left fielder and well below average as a center fielder—at least according most advanced metrics.  UZR ranks him about 20 runs below average for his career, while DRS gives him a minus-10.  It turns out that he’s just not that good at anything we’re actually able to measure.

All that said, it’s not as if Michael Brantley has no value.  Because of how well-roundedly average he is at just about everything, it turns out that he’s something like an average left fielder on the aggregate.  Not great, not terrible.  Just sort of there, blending into the left field wall—the Buster Bluth of outfielders.

QUOTEAnd we should be clear: “average” outfielders are not the same thing as “replacement level” outfielders.  The first are real assets—by definition, half the teams out there have a left fielder who is worse than average1, whereas the latter is entirely fungible by definition, and therefore without much value at all.  Perhaps no city better understands what is meant by the phrase replacement level left fielder than Cleveland. After all, we are the land of Damon and Duncan, the resting place of the David Dellucci era.

So in some ways, I worry that our last decade of left field incompetence informed last night’s decision to extend Michael Brantley’s contract—he is now guaranteed $25 million over the next four seasons, with an $11 million club option for 2018.  If you’ve lived through Vinnie Rottino and Ezequiel Carrerra and Thomas Neal and Russ Canzler and Aaron Cunningham and Johnny Damon and Shelley Duncan and Travis Buck and Jerad Head and Austin Kearns and Trevor Crowe (and that’s only since 2011), well, then I can see how you talk yourself into the panacea that is the perfectly average Michael Brantley, on a perfectly reasonable average annual value.

On the other hand, I wonder whether now is the right time to make this particular bet on Brantley.  Last March I argued that the Indians had the luxury of waiting to see if Brantley would develop into the game-changer he appeared to be in the minors before committing to him in the form of a contract extension.  Due to the wonders of the arbitration system, Brantley was not eligible to become a free agent for another three seasons.  A big part of me thinks that these resources may have been better deployed elsewhere—on the rotation, or in international free agency—while we wait to see whether Brantley can ever become anything other than an average corner outfielder, the sort of player we’re supposed to be able to grow on the cheap anyway.

But sometimes the history is just too powerful to overcome.  Just because we should be better at growing average players in our minor league system doesn’t mean that we are getting any better at actually doing it.  The litany of excrement that’s been roaming left field since Jason Michaels can attest to that. So even though this isn’t a move I would’ve made, I can see the logic behind it.  Average isn’t sexy or game-changing.  It’s not likely to win you a pennant or power a ten-game winning streak.  But it’s not an embarrassment either.  There’s value in average, and there’s certainly value in Michael Brantley.

None of this is to mention, of course, that he seems like a really nice young man.

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Footnotes:

  1. The relevant quote here comes from Lyndon Johnson, who, I believe, expressed outrage that half the nation’s children read at a below-average level. []

  • Pat Leonard

    I feel bad for you, Jon… this is a good article and today is Pitchers & Catchers Report Day for the Tribe. The Browns have stolen your thunder yet again.

  • Pat Leonard

    With regard to Michael Brantley, I can’t help but feel like his power numbers are due to jump. He’s not a small, scrawny guy… his body is filling out and at times his gap-to-gap power has been impressive and it seems like so many of his doubles are just a few feet from becoming home runs. I thought we’d see a jump in his power last season though, and that never happened. So as I’m sure everybody who follows him would say, “Maybe this is the year!”

    Love me some Dr. Smooth… there’s nothing average about that nickname.

  • Dave

    his BA with runners in scoring position and two outs is much better than average and something only he was good at last year.

  • WFNYJon

    The question, of course, is whether batting average with runners in scoring position is a repeatable skill or just a fluke of the numbers that is difficult to repeat over a large sample.

    In 2012, Brantley hit .265 with RISP. In 2013 that jumped to .375. Maybe he made some fundamental development or change, but I tend to think that’s more noise than signal (these numbers jump around all the time, especially considering the small-ish sample sizes involved).

    But to my larger point: we didn’t have to decide whether any of these numbers are signal or noise just yet. Brantley was already under club control for three more seasons.

  • nj0

    Considering the bags of TV money coming into the game, I think this deal will be a net savings for the club as cost-per-win continues to steadily increase.

  • nj0

    Also, if it was caused by some fundamental change in his approach then why isn’t he doing that for ABs without RISP?

  • Chris

    Tribe was going to have to pay him through the next 3 years of Arbitration. With this deal they avoid having to deal with that process, and buy-out a year of free agency. All-around good deal for both sides. That being said, please sign a starting pitcher!

  • WFNYJon

    To me, this is the biggest reason to make this deal now: god only knows what AAV is going to be in three years for average-ish corner outfielders. Thanks for mentioning it here.

  • Steve

    Sums it up very well. The spot is filled without spending too crazy. A prime candidate to move as he gets expensive.

  • Alex Painter

    I love this deal. When you watch Brantley bat, you can tell he is someone who knows his means, and works within them, very well. Strikes out the least among the every day players (and always has) and just seems to do the most he can with some pitches. He knows he isn’t the deep ball threat, although the 10 dingers were nice, but seems to pick out nice pitches to lace in the gaps or holes in the infield.

  • mgbode

    not to mention, to go old school, sometimes a player just looks like a baseball player. the way he hits, the way he fields, the way he carries himself. he just looks like a freaking ballplayer.

    anyways, even with the $11mil 5th year option, the deal is $36mil over 5 years or $7.2mil/year. He has been a 3.0WAR/year player over the past 2 years. So, this means we are paying ~$2mil/WAR. that seems like a deal, no?

    even using jWAR, it comes out to a 2.6WAR/season. or ~$2.75mil/WAR.

  • mgbode

    I agree with the first part. But, as we have seen, signing players when they know how good they will become and are closer to FA is harder to do. The team may take some risk now (though see $/WAR above), but it is far easier to buy-out FA years by jumping early.

  • EyesAbove

    Id rather have Brantley at 6 million per than Choo at 20. This move is very Cleveland, but all in all Im ok with it.

  • pnikhilrao

    Love P&C Day! I know Sabremetricians hate this sort of thing, but is there any value to having a true professional in the clubhouse – i.e., a really nice (albeit average) guy who works hard, doesn’t complain, and sets an example for the younger guys?

    Separate question: was LBJ from Lake Wobegon?

  • Kildawg

    Plus the added benefit of buying out his arbitration years plus a year or 2 of free agency. Most teams would love to have Brantley starting in either LF or CF. There’s also the fact that he’s locked in throughout his “peak years” as well (27-30).

  • nj0

    I don’t think sabremetricians hate that type of question at all; it’s just difficult (impossible?) to quantify. All things being equal, who doesn’t want the “good clubhouse guy” over Milton Bradley?

  • Ed Carroll

    I suppose it’s possible but he’s going to play most of next year at 27. If the power hasn’t developed by meow it’s not really likely to do so. Hopefully he can improve his OBP rates, though. I’ve given up hope on the defense.

  • Ed Carroll

    A) the money breakdown isn’t exactly $7.2 mil a year, but I see what you’re saying there, BUT B) the price of a win in free agency is NOT the same price of a win in arbitration. Arbitration players have no leverage, and thus the cost of their wins is usually much cheaper. (A win on the free agent market is worth approx. $7 mil, BTW).

  • Ed Carroll

    Bingo. We don’t hate the question. We just don’t know how to quantify that type of value, if there is one, in terms of production on the field. By all accounts, Brantley is a model professional. But what exactly is that worth, compared to his production on the field? I don’t know how to answer that, and neither do people far smarter than I am. Not sure it will always be a mystery, but for meow, it is.

  • left out

    at the prices these days, i’ll take that as good a contact hitter as he is. best on this team

  • WFNYJacob

    I know Ed wrote about this below. But yeah, not at all in the same ballpark to really compare this to the usual $6-8M/WAR conversation.

    Michael Brantley was in arbitration team-control regardless from 2014-16. MLB Trade Rumors expected his 2014 salary to be $3.7 million.

    The Indians took a gamble to guarantee $25 million, including buying out that 2017 free agency season. It’s possible Brantley could regress. It’s possible he could gigantically improve. The Indians bet $25 million, when they could have ended up paying a different amount.

    Only that 2017 FA year and the 2018 option year can really be compared to the usual $/WAR conversion.

  • mgbode

    and I get that, but I’m going to disagree with you and Ed on taking it out of the equation here because if we do not spend this money on Brantley, then we are going to spend it potentially in the inefficient FA market.

    that is why I like the deal. he could regress, but his numbers the past 3 seasons seem pretty consistent at who he is and will be. so, most likely, we are getting a bargain on $/WAR and are leveraging that gain into his usual FA years. that is a win for the Tribe (even if we end up spending a little more than necessary the next 3 years, we make it up the last 2).

    now, if he improves, then it’s a great deal instead of a good one. these are the types of deals that we need to do in order to maintain a competitive team IMO. extend the 6yr team-controllled time to an 8yr window at just slightly higher costs to extend our chances at remaining competitive.

  • Pat Leonard

    Actually, that isn’t true. It’s quite common for power to start developing around that age. It’s tough to say who was influenced by steroids, but all of these guys didn’t hit 20 home runs until they were in that age range or later:

    Matt Holliday (26)
    Robinson Cano (26)
    Chase Utley (26)
    Craig Biggio (27)
    Brian Giles (28)
    Robbie Alomar (28)
    Jose Bautista (29)
    Luis Gonzalez (30)
    Raul Ibanez (30)