Brantley Giving Encore Performance to Last Season’s Breakout

If there were any lingering doubters after last year’s big, breakout campaign, Michael Brantley is quickly quieting them and showing that his rise to stardom in 2014 was no fluke.

A season ago, Brantley, the Cleveland Indians outfielder who will turn 28-years old tomorrow, took the leap from solid contributor to All-Star, MVP candidate. He had, by far, his best statistical season with 20 home runs, 97 RBI and a .327 batting average. All were career-best outputs.

Before this season began, there were some people around baseball who believed the Indians and their fans should brace themselves for the possibility he may slip from the lofty heights he set in 2014 to the above-average heights he had set before that. After all, last year he was an All-Star for the first time in his big league career, now in its seventh summer. He was also in the MVP discussion for the first time, finishing third to Mike Trout and Victor Martinez – not bad company to be in.

When Brantley opened this season with a stiff back and missed the better part of the first two weeks, eyebrows were raised higher that Brantley may not be able to get back to the superstar status the Tribe really needs him to be at.

On April 17, the left fielder returned to the every day lineup and has not missed a beat since. On top of that, as he has every season, Brantley is swinging an even better bat than he did a year ago.

From 2009 – 2014 Brantley’s numbers gradually got better. Most people would not have been shocked if he plateaued after last season. Not many would have been disappointed, as the second-banana-player to Matt LaPorta in the 2008 trade that saw Cleveland send C.C. Sabathia to Milwaukee, had already exceeded expectations.

However, it may actually be possible that Brantley could get better. At least he is off to that kind of start to the 2015 campaign, which is admittedly still young. In the 25 games the outfielder has played, Brantley has hit at an outstanding .347 clip, while hitting three homers and knocking in 17 runs. Those numbers have been put up while coming back from a sore back – think of where he could be if he had started off the season at full strength.

That Brantley is continuing to build on the MVP-caliber season he had a year ago is a surprise to some, but really should not be. His career trajectory has been one that almost every Major League player would be jealous of and any Major League organization would cherish.

When he was tabbed by the Indians as the player-to-be-named-later in the deal for the 2007 AL Cy Young winner, Sabathia, little was known of Brantley. He was thought of as a decent contact hitter with the potential to be be a good role player. He could help a deep team as a regular or be a fourth outfielder. Few believed he had future star written all over him or anywhere else, for that matter.

He made his debut with the Tribe in 2009. In 28 games, he showed he at least belong in the big leagues, hitting .313 in a small sample size. He played in 72 games in 2010, hitting .246 with three homers and 22 RBI in a part-time roll.

The good news for Brantley, at that time, was he coming into the Majors with a team that was young and not very good.. The talent-level paled in comparison to where it currently is. That played a part in allowing him to break camp with the Opeing Day roster in 2011 and gave him a chance to blossom some more that year. In 114 games, Brantley took the step toward proving he could actually be a decent every-day player with a .266 average, seven long balls and 46 runs driven in.

Decent turned into above average as brantley continued to progress in 2012 and 2013. His stats those two seasons where identical. He was at .286, six jacks and 60 RBI in 2012 and helped the Cleveland to a Wild Card berth in 2013 in batting .284 with 10 homers and 73 RBI. The latter two categories were career highs at the time. In those two years, Brantley became entrenched as the Tribe’s everyday outfielder. It was enough to earn a four-year contract extension last spring worth $25 million. 2018 will be a club option year for $11 million. That deal now looks like a steal for the Indians.

Brantley earned that extension money and then some last year in getting to the All-Star Game, winning a Silver Slugger award and helping lead the team to a near second-straight postseason despite numerous injuries and down years throughout the Tribe’s 2014 lineup.

The outfielder, who could well be on his way to a second All-Star nod this season, has improved every season he has been in the Majors. That is the dream of any athlete, or really any human being, to get better at what they do every year, every month, every day.

Nearing 28, Brantley is only at the beginning of his prime years. Considering his career arc to this point, it should be no shock that Brantley is off to a better start this season than last. At some point, of course, he will plateau. Everyone eventually hits a height they can no longer surpass. For Brantley, that height still may not have quite been hit.

Despite murmur’s of Brantley’s regression to come this past offseason, he has come out of the gates swinging a big stick. An offense that has struggled needs his kind of leadership. It needs a player to be red hot while other work their way out of slumps.

After last season, some were shy to put the superstar label on Brantley, saying it was only one campaign. If he is not yet a superstar, then that would seem to be the next step for Brantley in a career progression that has seem him gradually transform from trade fill-in to decent, to very good. A second straight season of great numbers might finally put any doubts to rest about the idea that Brantley is now a player capable of being the number one guy on a roster.

Photo: David Maxwell/Getty Images

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