Bruised Brantley Emerges as a Clubhouse Leader

It was not all “smooth” sailing for Michael Brantley this season, as he dealt with injuries that may have hindered his overall production. Despite that, he provided solid numbers still better than career norms, but just off from many of the career bests he established during the Most Valuable Player-caliber season he had in 2014 for the Cleveland Indians.

Brantley hurt his back in the spring and it seemed to be an ailment that afflicted him throughout the season. It hit him at the start of camp and he saw specialists for the condition. They indicated that he would get better and it would not linger.

Still, it forced him out of games the opening week of the season against Houston and Detroit.

When Brantley was in the lineup, he was the same strong player that he had emerged as last season. He hit .339 in 15 games in April. He knocked in 23 runs in May with his first four homers, ten doubles, and a .282 batting average. In June, the average remained at a steady .297 for the month and at the .300 mark for the year as his power numbers were depleted. Of 27 hits in 24 games, just six were extra base hits – all doubles – and he knocked in only eight runs.

The All-Star break seemed well timed, even though a nice little five-game hitting streak came to an end in the final game of the first half. Despite putting up some strong numbers, he was not making a return trip to the Midsummer’s Classic after being selected for his first team in 2014, but it seemed for the best for Brantley.

Upon his return, it looked like the rest did him well. He hit in 16 of his first 18 and 32 of 37 games after the layoff, including nine straight ending July and leading off August. To start one particular homestand during the second week of the month, he was 8-for-14 in a series against Minnesota and had three more hits (including a walk-off single) to start a series with the New York Yankees to give him four straight multi-hit games. But then, his left (throwing) shoulder started barking and he was shelved with soreness. He received an injection and had an MRI done. At the time, manager Terry Francona shared that “he’s been playing through a lot. Hopefully when something like this happens maybe a couple days down helps the rest of his body. He’s found a way to be still so productive and so good.”

With the team playing some of its best ball of the season, Brantley was, not surprisingly, behind a lot of the production to help the cause. He hit .406 in 24 August games with three homers and 17 RBI. The Indians had their second-best month of the season, going 16-12 and pulling themselves right back into the American League Wild Card race.

Down the stretch with the team still in contention for the playoffs, he jammed his right shoulder while diving attempting a catch in a game in Minnesota against the Twins with two weeks left to play. He missed four games before returning to the lineup briefly, playing in a pair of games before he received a cortisone shot in the shoulder and was shut down for the rest of the season.

The latter injury is expected to be healed in advance of spring training. The injuries may have all caught up to him with the season’s final games waning, as he hit just .237, despite adding five doubles, four homers, and 11 RBI in 20 games.

“I played through a couple things,” said Brantley a week ago. “At the same time, you have to block that out mentally. You’ve got to stay mentally tough, just keep grinding away. You’ve got to be out there with your team as much as possible. That’s what’s most important.

“There’s no way that you let nicks and injuries, bumps, keep you off the field.”

Brantley ended the season hitting .310 with a .379 on-base percentage and .480 slugging percentage in 137 games this season. He hit 15 home runs, drove in 84, and led all of baseball with 45 doubles. Most of his offensive numbers (runs, hits, total bases, homers, RBI, intentional walks, batting average, OBP, slugging, and OPS) slot in as the second best marks of his career, with the exception of the doubles production, which matched his career high set last season.

If his stats per game played were multiplied out by the same amount of games that he played last season, the numbers are very much comparable, giving some credence to the argument that, despite the injuries, Brantley contributed a solid offensive season for the Tribe on the field.

Brantley was also in unusual company in the patience department. Just four players drew more walks than strikeouts among players to walk 60 or more times in the season. Brantley had 60 free passes versus 51 strikeouts. Kansas City’s Ben Zobrist drew 62 walks against 56 strikeouts. Toronto’s Jose Bautista walked 110 times and struck out 106. Cincinnati’s Joey Votto led all of baseball with 143 walks while finishing with 135 Ks.

Brantley hit .368 in Indians wins; he batted .249 when Cleveland lost. He hit .329 on the year with men on base and .324 with runners in scoring position.

In the field, Brantley logged quite a bit of time in center field once again due to the ineffectiveness and eventual trade of Michael Bourn. He was again among the leaders at his position in assists (fourth in the AL with seven), putouts (fifth in the AL with 172), and defensive games in left (third with 101 played). After committing no errors in 2013 and one in 2014, he made just two this past season.

Defensive metrics place him as an average outfielder, with below league average range but in the upper portions of the leaderboard for outfield assists.

Off the field and unbeknownst to the public eye for the most part, Brantley may have made the biggest leaps of his season in the clubhouse.

When the majority of the most veteran players on the roster were shipped out in the span of ten days in July and August, it left a clear void in the locker room. While Jason Kipnis had stepped up earlier in the season and was more of the public face of the club, Brantley took over the corner locker spot vacated by Nick Swisher, making the 28-year-old and seven-year MLB veteran far more accessible to his teammates.

“I just want to be the best teammate I can to everyone,” said Brantley. “Any questions they have, if I have to pick up a teammate, whatever I have to do at that time, that’s what I’m there for. That’s what a leader does for a team.

“I can talk to any one of my teammates in there. I have a voice. I have an obligation to make sure that we’re going out there ready to go and we’re prepared as a team.”

As part of the “core four” of Kipnis, Corey Kluber, and Yan Gomes, Brantley is an integral part of the Indians’ future. He is the one certainty in the outfield moving forward, the only player signed to a long-term contract there while presumably locking up that role until some of the recent outfield draft picks have cracked the lineup in the remaining two outfield spots.

In the meantime, regardless of his outfield companions for next season, Brantley will continue to be a respected leader, both on and off the field.

“It’s very important that you learn from every game and every experience that you have. From a veteran guy to a young guy, every game has new challenges and new ways to get better. That’s why this baseball game is so tough and is such a great game.”

Photo: David Maxwell/Getty Images

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