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:
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.
And 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.
- 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. [↩]