With the Kansas City Royals in Cleveland and Ned Yost as their manager, it is the perfect time to thank both him and 3rd base coach Dale Sveum for allowing Michael Brantley to become an Indian.
On July 7th, 2008 the Indians traded former CY Young award winner, C.C. Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for a former first-round draft pick and a fabulous power hitter at Double-A Huntsville, Matt LaPorta, left-hander Zach Jackson, right-hander Rob Bryson and a player to be named later. That player to be named later would be chosen between two players in the Brewers farm system: Taylor Green, a power hitting 3B who was then the reigning Brewers minor league player of the year and Michael Brantley, a relatively unknown player with little power but good athleticism.
As part of the language of the deal, the player to be named later would be chosen by the Brewers if Milwaukee did not make the playoffs and chosen by the Indians if they did make the postseason.
With only 12 games remaining, the Brewers had earned a 83-67 record and was tied with Philadelphia for the NL wild-card lead; the organization was seeking its first playoff birth since 1982. In an unprecedented move, they fired manager Ned Yost and replaced him with third-base coach Dale Sveum who served as the interim manager. It marked the first time in major league history — except the strike-split 1981 season — that a manager was fired in August or later with his team in playoff position.
As fate would have it, the Brew-Crew did indeed win the wild-card with Sabathia as it’s ace so the Indians were awarded the decision of who they wanted. Exactly three months after the trade, the Indians selected Michael Brantley as the final piece of the deal.
Through 20 games this season, it could be argued that Brantley is the Indians MVP. Fresh off a new contract extension that will keep the left-fielder in Cleveland through at least 2017, Brantley is certainly proving his worth. It may not be obvious after a quick glance at his stat line, but Brantley does a little bit of everything at least decently, without standing out in any one category. And this season, we may see an uptick in every one of his statistical categories.
Though he has hit a couple more homers driven by a bump in his HR/FB rate, his ISO has been nearly identical over the past three seasons. However, his average batted ball distance has been on the rise and sat just a bit below the league average this year. He has never shown any real power potential though and he hits too few fly balls to expect much better in the future.
Aside from the slight uptick in home run power, the real difference between Brantley from the minor leagues and Brantley from the major leagues came from his stolen base total. After totals in the low teens the previous two years, he was successful a little more often and swiped 17 bases last year. But, he attempted the exact same number of steals as he had in 2012. So it wasn’t a matter of him running more frequently, just succeeding more often.
The odd thing is that he was a serious burner in the minor leagues, and stole bases at a pretty good clip as well. He stole as many as 50 bases back in 2009 between Triple-A and the majors and succeeded on 85% of his attempts. But so far in the majors, he has only been successful on 70% of his attempts. His triples totals suggest that he was never such a speedster to begin with. Maybe he was just a smart base runner with the weaker defense in the minors, but that clearly has not translated to the majors and he doesn’t have the speed to make up for the better defense. So expecting any further stolen base upside would probably be foolish.
One of Brantley’s best skills is his ability to make contact. He sported the 5th lowest SwStk% and 5th highest Contact% last season, though his strikeout rate was a bit less impressive, coming in at the 14th lowest. Even with just a league average BABIP and below average HR/FB rates, he makes such excellent contact that he has been able to post a batting average above .280 two seasons in a row. His batted ball mix looks good, as he hits an above average rate of line drives, significantly more ground balls than fly balls and avoids the pop-up. As such, his xBABIP marks have hovered around .320 the last two years. While he seemingly has limited upside in the home run and stolen base department, he’s a nice dark horse candidate to bat at least .300 this season.
If it was not for both Yost and his good friend Sveum leading the Brewers to the playoffs in 2008, Brantley might not have become a member of the Cleveland Indians.