Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What's Behind Brantley's Breakout?

An All-Star for the first time this year, Brantley's having an MVP caliber season
Is Michael Brantley baseball’s best kept secret? If he played on a better team in a bigger market, wouldn't we be talking about him the way we talk about Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones, and Yasiel Puig?

I think so. Don't believe me? Go ahead. Check the numbers. They're closer than you think. Seriously, see for yourself. I'll wait. 

Over the first five years of his career, Brantley was pretty much the definition of an average everyday outfielder. With an OPS+ of 100, his bat was perfectly pedestrian. He hit for a little bit of power and flashed a little bit of speed, got on base at a solid rate and played decent defense, too. He didn’t really have any holes in his game, but at the same time failed to stand out. He was productive, capable, solid, but boring. Nothing special.

Not this year. Brantley, a beast all season long and first-time All-Star, is playing like an MVP. That's been even more true lately, as he's recorded five straight multi-hit games and seven in his past nine. With his batting line now up to .324/.383/.515 on the season, Brantley can say there's nobody in the American league who beats him in all three triple slash categories. In fact, there's only one player in baseball who can beg to differ, and it's Troy Tulowitzki. Only three players have provided more offensive value than Brantley, and their names are Trout, McCutchen, and Puig, all serious MVP candidates. Brantley deserves to be, too.

Because in his age-27 season, Brantley's taken a quantum leap from average hitter to one of the best in baseball, enjoying an unexpected breakout in the same vein as Melky Cabrera and Daniel Nava. His 154 wRC+ ties him with Jose Bautista for tenth-highest in baseball, better than Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, and Ryan Braun. With roughly one-third of the season still to go, B-R has already valued Brantley's performance at almost five wins above replacement. Per FanGraphs, Brantley has been baseball's ninth-most valuable position player this year, including the third-best outfielder in the American League to only Trout and Alex Gordon (and most of Gordon’s value comes from his defense, at which Brantley is merely okay).

So what’s fueling Brantley’s big, out-of-nowhere season? Surprisingly not BABiP, which at .325 is almost dead even with his actual average of .324. Considering Brantley’s career BABiP is .308, one can't merely chalk his success up to good luck. What's driving his robust batting average is the highest line drive rate of his career at nearly 27 percent. When more than one in four of your batted balls are frozen ropes, chances are you're doing something right.

As for the power surge, well, that's easy to explain. Brantley's boasting the highest HR/FB rate of his career by far. At 14.7 percent, it’s more than double last year’s 6.8 percent and his 6.7 percent career rate. That explains why he already has 16 home runs--on pace for 24--after never hitting more than 10 in a season before. In turn his ISO, which hovered in the .110-.120 range the past three years, has jumped up close to .200. 

He’s also being pitched to a little differently. Whether that's because of his newfound success or vice-versa is up for debate, but this isn't: after struggling mightily against fastballs last year, Brantley's been well above average against the heater this year (two and four-seamers). On a similar note he’s also enjoyed much more success against the cutter, a pitch that tends to give lefty hitters such as Brantley trouble by exploding in on their hands when thrown from a righthander. Pitchers appear to be taking notice, as they’ve given him fewer fastballs this year and more changeups, perhaps trying to catch Brantley off guard or get him out in front. But Brantley’s always been a good hitter against changeups, and that has remained true this year. 

On top of all that, Brantley's been much better on the basepaths as well. With 13 stolen bases in 14 attempts, he's been almost impossible to throw out. That represents a big step up over just two years ago, when he was nabbed nearly as many times (9) as he was successful (12). FanGraphs estimates he's provided more baserunning value than all but 14 major leaguers this year. Among players who have been less valuable than Brantley on the bases; Carlos Gomez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Trout.

Offensively, Brantley's playing at his absolute best right now. His walks are up from last year and his strikeouts are down, so much so that the rates are almost dead even. He's hitting for power and getting on base a ton, and when he does get on base he makes a positive difference with his legs.  The only area in which he hasn't improved is defense, where he's average at best and subpar at worst. At this point in his career Brantley's probably never going to be a great defensive outfielder, as he already plays a corner spot and can be expected to cover less ground with each passing year. 

But as long as he keeps hitting the way he is,  then that's something the Indians can live with. 

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