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What to expect from Michael Brantley in 2015

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Michael Brantley had the best year of his career in 2014, but despite some improvements in the power department, he may have already topped out.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond the Box Score recently introduced the ‘Best Players for 2015' series, where writers ranked players they considered top twenty in baseball for the upcoming season. Conspicuously absent from the top of the list is Michael Brantley, who finished third in American League MVP voting. Brantley had a magnificent 2014, so why does there seem to be some serious skepticism regarding his 2015 projections, and what can we expect to change going into the upcoming season?

Few of us would have anticipated Cleveland Indians' left fielder Michael Brantley finishing as a six-win player in 2014. A league-average hitter throughout his career, Brantley entered last season with a career 100 OPS+, a slash line of .277/.330/.382. He was not viewed as a power-hitting corner outfielder, having amassed only 26 home runs in 514 games, nor was he an elite defender by either metrics or the eye-test. Brantley had found his niche as a slightly above average 1.5-2.5 win player, who could be counted on to take the field for a majority of games. Then, of course, came 2014:

Year BABIP Average On Base Percentage Slugging Percentage Home Runs wRC+
2011 .303 .266 .318 .384 7 95
2012 .310 .288 .348 .402 6 105
2013 .304 .284 .332 .396 10 103
2014 .333 .327 .385 .506 20 155
2015 Projected .305 .29 .35 .427 13 TBD

*Minimum 100 Games Played

Diving into the numbers, the first thing that stands out is an inflated batting average on balls in play. Generally hovering around league average (between .290-.310) in his previous seasons of 100 games or more, Brantley saw a spike in 2014 of about 30 points. Regressing this number back down to his previous BABIP average eats away at approximately 30 points of batting average. FanGraphs' Steamer projections for 2015 align with this regression, projecting a 30-point decline in both average and on-base percentage.

Compared to his previous numbers, Brantley's biggest change in 2014 was his power. After hitting 33 home runs in the previous three seasons combined, he saw a power surge last season, as he popped 20 home runs (15 v. lefties and 5 v. righties).

Looking at Brantley's 2013 and 2014 spray charts, it is clear that he is pulling more balls to left field, which is leading to more home runs. Pulling the ball more would indicate he's harnessing his power, and though he's not exactly going foul line-to-foul line, the positives of giving up the opposite field single to harness more pull power was evident in the home run total.

2013 Spray Chart

2014 Spray Chart

Additionally, another good sign from 2014 is Brantley's hard-hit rate. Mark Simon tracks hard hit rates for ESPN; Brantley finished the year tied with Albret Pujols for 14th in the majors with 21.3% hard hit balls.

Considering nearly 100% of home runs are hard hit, and 80% and 70% are hard hit for triples and doubles, respectively, Brantley may have adjusted his swing such that he's making better contact, and popping the ball over the wall more frequently. Another piece of evidence indicating Brantley is making better contact is his line drive rate, which has steadily increased as his power numbers have increased.

Year Line Drive Rate Home Runs
2011 20.2% 7
2012 22.5% 6
2013 23.3% 10
2014 25.7% 20

Once Brantley got on base last season, he was an extremely efficient base stealer, taking off 23 times and making it in safely 22 of those times. His base running has improved significantly since 2012, making him a baserunning asset. However, he is on the downward trend of the stolen base aging curve (explained in more detail in a 2013 Mike Podhorzer article).

Courtesy of FanGraphs, 2013

Year Stolen Bases Caught Stealing Net Stolen Bases
2011 13 5 8
2012 12 9 3
2013 17 4 13
2014 23 1 22

Going into 2015, it will be interesting to see if Brantley can keep up the power he has recently shown. His fielding is unlikely to improve, and at the age of 27, the stolen bases will likely not come as easily as they did in 2014. Taken at face value, it would seem his average and on-base percentage will decrease due to a regressed BABIP, but looking more closely, it would appear Brantley has adjusted his swing, and is reaping the rewards of a renewed batter profile. Another year, and I will be a true believer in the Brantley power, which has significantly increased his value. Unfortunately, based on aging curves, he very well may have topped out in 2014.

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs. All images courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

Steven Martano is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano or reach him at 38martano@gmail.com.