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Smooth Brantley’s Play Has Been Golden

Smooth Brantley’s Play Has Been Golden

| On 15, Sep 2013

After comments in July by a Fox Sports radio host on Twitter about the return on the CC Sabathia trade, attention was drawn to Cleveland Indians left fielder Michael Brantley.

That host, Ben Maller, accused Indians fans of not recognizing that they had been fleeced in the trade of Sabathia in 2008 to the Milwaukee Brewers and that not a single player acquired by the Tribe had succeeded. Furthermore, in addressing Brantley in particular, he noted that Cleveland had gotten an “average outfielder” for the reigning Cy Young Award winner and finished the tweet with an emphatic #FAIL.

But to accuse Brantley of being a mediocre, average outfielder seemed horribly misguided, both at that time and here now as the regular season approaches its close.

It would be safe to say that most fans of the Indians were less than impressed by the results of the Sabathia trade, especially as the experiment known as Matt LaPorta proved to be less and less fruitful on the field as the years moved by.

Brantley, however, was a September callup in the final month of the 2009 season and found himself the Opening Day left fielder of the 2010 Indians squad due to an injury to Russell Branyan, who was signed in the offseason. When Branyan returned, LaPorta was bumped off of first base and into left field and Brantley was optioned to Columbus for consistent playing time. Shortly after Branyan was traded at the end of June that same season, Brantley found himself back in the Major Leagues, where he has remained ever since.

The fun result of the Cleveland troll-job by Maller was a series of tweets directed back at him seemingly after every single positive on-the-field action contributed by Brantley. As Maller continued his failed effort, including a July 8th tweet indicating the number of players who had hit more home runs than Brantley on the season (clearly the strength of his game…note the sarcasm), Indians fans continued to pound the radio host’s Twitter account with poignant responses defending the Indians left fielder. (If bored and in need of a good laugh, search Twitter for Maller and Brantley and you will see what I mean; warning: not all tweets are safe for work or advisable for children…).

Brantley, meanwhile, lets his play on the diamond do the talking. While he has never been expected to be a power hitting outfielder, he has developed into a consistent hitting, run producing cog in the middle of the Indians lineup. In doing so, he has emerged as one of Cleveland’s most clutch players on the field on any given night.

At the plate this season, he is hitting .273 after Saturday’s game, just two-thousandths of a point off of his career mark. His eight home runs on the season represent one-third of the entire output of his five year Major League career. With three RBI in the Indians’ last series with Kansas City, he surpassed his previous career high of 60, established last season.

Brantley has quietly grown into a patient and disciplined hitter in the batter’s box.

He entered play on Saturday with the American League’s lowest strikeout rate amongst qualified outfielders at 10.4%, tied with Baltimore’s Nick Markakis. His rate is second-best in all of baseball, trailing the 6.3% of Milwaukee’s Norichika Aoki.

Among qualified AL players entering Saturday, he sported the tenth-lowest percentage of pitches out of the strike zone that he swings at (24.3%), but was also the eighth-best in actually making contact with these pitches when he does swing (80.1%). His 3.5% rate of swinging strikes was second-best in the AL and sixth-best in all of baseball.

When he is behind in a count, his approach changes and he finds a way to get the job done. Of AL players with 50 or more at bats when behind in a count, he is tied for the fifth-best batting average (.293) and the twelfth-highest RBI production (24).

He trails just Yan Gomes (.286) in batting average against right-handed pitching for the Indians this season (.284) and leads the team with 51 RBI against them. All eight of his home runs have come off of righties.

With runners in scoring position, he is batting a team-leading .352 on the year with 52 RBI, trailing just Jason Kipnis’s 59. When the pressure is increased with two outs in the same situation, his numbers do not take a significant hit. In these spots, he is hitting .339, second to Ryan Raburn’s .406 average, with a team-high 25 RBI.

He has bounced all throughout the lineup for Terry Francona, with success in several spots. His versatility allows the Indians skipper to insert his name into the batting order in just about any spot one through nine, and Brantley seems to adapt. He batted .305 in the leadoff spot in 22 starts, drove in 16 runs in 24 starts in the seven hole, and has hit five home runs and driven in 25 in 58 starts in the five spot.

A player’s value is not just limited to what he does with the bat, and that is where Brantley’s play this season has been consistently overlooked.

On the base paths, Brantley has provided career numbers this season. His 15 thefts are the highest total he has stolen in any one season in his career. Caught stealing just three times, he has tied his career best with an 83.3% success rate of picking off bases.

In the field, Brantley has a spotless record in 2013.

In over 1,179 innings played in the field and with 250 total chances (239 putouts, 11 assists), Brantley has yet to make an error this season. He is the only Indians position player with more than 35 innings played in the field to make such a claim.

Brantley and Baltimore’s Nate McLouth are the only two left fielders in the American League with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. Only one other outfielder in the AL can make a similar claim, Baltimore right fielder Markakis. Just two National League outfielders, center fielder Denard Span of the Washington Nationals and outfielder Gregor Blanco of the San Francisco Giants, have spotless records roaming the grass in the Senior Circuit.

Brantley’s last error occurred on June 3rd, 2012, at home against the Minnesota Twins. It was the only error of his 2012 campaign. He brought an active 94-game errorless streak into 2013 while moving his primary position from center field to left field. The move has paid off, as he has held down his “new” old position perfectly and has teamed well with Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs to make a dangerously fast outfield trio.

After his errorless completion of Saturday night’s contest, he extended his streak this season to 137 games without an error and 231 straight overall. He passed the previous club record of 212, held by Rocky Colavito over the course of two different spans as an Indians outfielder from 1959 to 1966, on August 19th.

“You can have a streak like that and it’s not as meaningful. He’s a guy that makes all the throws,” manager Francona said after Brantley established his new club mark. “That’s why it makes it more impressive. There’s guys that don’t make errors that don’t make plays. He goes in the corner, he goes in the alley, he makes throws. He’s just very consistent and he never takes a play off. He’s a talented outfielder, but he never takes a play off. He thinks ahead. He throws to the right base, and he’s very accurate. He’s just a real solid player.”

His eleven outfield assists from left field are second in all of baseball this season, behind the 15 of Alex Gordon of the Kansas City Royals, and third-best overall amongst all American League outfielders, trailing Gordon’s 15 and the 13 by Texas’s Leonys Martin.

The assist total is the highest for an Indians left fielder since Albert Belle amassed the same total in 1996. Shin-Soo Choo is the last Indians outfielder to total more than eleven assists in a season, with 14 in 2010.

His efforts in the outfield may not be enough to earn him an offseason Gold Glove award, but his play in left field has undoubtedly attracted some attention, as teams seem to use some caution when running against him now. With Gordon and Adam Jones returning as 2012 recipients having good years in the outfield, and Mike Trout, Yoenis Cespedes, Austin Jackson, Markakis, and McLouth all deserving some consideration, Brantley may find himself still on the outside looking in.

It has been the model of consistency that the Indians have found with Brantley that has made the Sabathia trade a little easier to digest. The team got something for the big lefty when it was clear he had priced himself out of their small market price range. While Cleveland did not get much from Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson, they did get a few years of effort from LaPorta, even though his star never shined as brightly as the team had hoped for.

In Brantley though, they have found a steady, well-rounded outfielder who has done well to make up for a lack of power from a corner outfield spot with clutch hitting, solid defense, and a reputation well deserving of his “Dr. Smooth” moniker.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer