Justin Brantley has every right to have an ego.
The 23 year-old from Hudson, New York, is spending his first professional baseball season on a team that is about to make the playoffs. He boasts a 4-0 record, 1.36 ERA, and has two saves in 23 relief appearances for the Lake County Captains this season. He has given up only six runs — all earned — and is holding opposing batters to a .200 average. He has been lauded by Manager Mark Budzinski as being an invaluable member of the Captains’ bullpen. Not to mention his cousin is that smooth-playing Indians’ All-Star, Michael Brantley. Yes, the younger Brantley has just a few things setting him apart this season.
Yet, a more humble player would be hard to find.
After being acquired by the Indians organization as a non-drafted free agent this past January, Brantley also has an understanding of the difficulties that players face in professional baseball. He is the first to admit that, while once a high draft prospect early in his college career, his inconsistencies later in college led to a drop in attention.
“I was very good sophomore year, then very, very inconsistent junior and senior year,” Brantley said. “I got a lot of attention but inconsistency, the way I threw, especially being from the Northeast, shied teams away.
“I got all these phone calls, people saying, ‘Someone will give you a chance.’ I went down and worked in January with my uncle and one of my uncle’s friends.”
After figuring out a schedule that would have Brantley working out for 19 teams, Brantley struck a break. The first three teams he worked out for were the Indians, Orioles, and the Reds, all of whom gave Brantley offers to join their organizations after seeing him throw 15 pitches. Brantley said the decision was an easy one.
“I obviously picked the Indians. Obviously, having Michael there already puts them one up from every other team,” Brantley said. He admitted the process was stressful at first, but getting the difficult decisions out of the way the first day made the rest of his journey easy. He joined the Indians ballclub and quickly came back north to gather his belongings before returning to warm weather and the Indians’ Spring Training in Goodyear, Arizona.
Brantley said he didn’t quite know what to expect from the Spring Training experience, and he sought his cousin’s advice along the way.
“It’s comforting and I’ve gotten a lot of attention about it,” Brantley said. “I like it, especially having him in the organization. Michael’s so giving as it is, that if I ever have any questions whatsoever, if I need anything, anything at all, he’s only a phone call away — or, I guess, a ten minute drive.”
Growing up around baseball, Brantley said there was little doubt that he would play the game, as well. His uncle, Michael’s father, is Mickey Brantley, and Brantley said he used to spend time playing the game with his extended family as a child.
“In my head, there was never any question that I would [play baseball],” Brantley said of his youth. “I grew up chasing my brothers around; they were on every sports team. I grew up playing playing on the side. I never had a break from sports. I went from football to basketball straight to baseball. I always excelled in baseball; I had my uncle to look up to at the time, then Michael when I got to high school. In my head, it was always an option.”
Brantley continued with baseball into Siena College, a small school of about 3,100 students located two miles north of Albany, New York. Brantley pitched in a starting role for most of his college career. He went 4-5 with an 8.16 ERA as a freshman and improved to 6-6 and 3.29 as a sophomore. Brantley struggled his next two years, going 2-9 (6.60) and 5-6 (6.30) as a junior and senior, respectively.
However, Brantley did not let his college inconsistencies deter his progress. Since joining the Captains, Brantley has become a relied-upon relief pitcher. He works with pitching coach Rigo Beltran to refine his delivery, which has led to a successful season, though Brantley downplays his performance.
“I’m doing okay — it’s been a work in progress,” Brantley said. “When I got to Spring Training, they immediately changed a bunch of little things, I’ve had to change a lot. It was definitely a lot to swallow, as far as mechanics. I’ve been going from pitching coach to pitching coach, but they’re all trying to accomplish the same thing. I’m just trying to take it in stride. I’m still trying to iron out my mechanics. I’m having a decent season, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Budzinski downplays Brantley’s achievements a bit less, saying that he is a pitcher the team can have confidence in when on the mound.
“He’s been fantastic for us,” Budzinski said of Brantley. “Coming out of the pen, going anywhere from one to three innings. He throws strikes with three pitches. We are very confident when we bring him out.”
As the minor league season winds down, Brantley does find himself moving toward something his older cousin is still chasing — a spot in the playoffs. The big league club is clamoring to make a playoff push in the final month of the season, while Brantley and the rest of the Low-A Captains have all but secured their spot in the Midwest League Playoffs.
“I got here right before the All-Star Break,” Brantley said. “And our record was really pretty bad. Then, obviously we started winning some games after I got here and we’ve been on a roll ever since. Obviously, it’s something we’ve always had, but we’ve gained confidence on the road and things started clicking. We’ve shown what we can do in this second half.”
It’s evident that Brantley has quite a bit going for him. He has the attitude, talent, and demeanor of a player with a promising future. Just as the Indians rely on his cousin in a pinch, Brantley is a relief pitcher that the minor league team can rely on to work out of a jam. Although his first season is ending, it’s evident that, although he won’t admit it, Brantley’s upwards journey through the Indians system is only just beginning.
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer