Michael Brantley is a 2017 All-Star. That phrase is music to Cleveland Indians fans’ ears considering just a few short months ago people were wondering if Brantley would ever come close to resembling the player he was prior to missing nearly all of 2016 with a shoulder injury.
Shoulder injuries are tricky. An injury to a hitter’s front shoulder can have an everlasting effect on his ability to drive the ball with authority. For Brantley, a player who is almost entirely reliant on his bat to generate value, weak contact across the board would have resulted in a weak end to a promising career.
Fortunately, Brantley is back to his old self, slashing .304/.367/.440 and reclaiming the third spot in the Indians batting order. This development is fortunate for both the Indians, who need all the help they can get as they look to match and exceed their great 2016 playoff run, and Brantley, who is looking at becoming a free agent after the 2018 season (as the Indians will undoubtedly exercise his 2018 team option).
It’s not an exaggeration to say that if Brantley had not made a full return to form at the plate he would have become all but obsolete as a useful player. Despite his moniker as Dr. Smooth, Brantley has never rated as a plus defender, going from a roughly neutral defender in his younger days to a net-negative defender in more recent years, as measured by UZR per 150 games played. And while Brantley is a solid base runner who will slap a bag here and there, he’s more of a guy a broadcaster will say “runs pretty well” as opposed to a pure burner.
This current version of Brantley is a nice player, although since his batting line has remained relatively stable over his past few healthy seasons, his production is more good than great when compared to the rest of the league (a 133 OPS+ in 2015 versus a 114 OPS+ in 2017 with roughly the same slash line). Any slippage in Brantley’s hitting, be it shoulder-related or otherwise, would take a substantial bite out of his value.
Watching Brantley at the plate conjures up images of another AL Central stalwart with a sweet lefty swing: Minnesota Twins first baseman Joe Mauer. And the similarities don’t end with the eye test; Mauer is currently running a Brantley-esque (or is Brantley currently running a Mauer-esque?) .286/.360/.402 line this season. And if that wasn’t enough, both players are currently pegged at 1.1 fWAR this season.
Of course, Mauer has taken a different path to this point than Brantley. Back when Mauer was providing quality defense behind the plate, he was one of the game’s elite players. But now, after a series of concussions, Mauer is just a decent first base option whose value rises and drops precipitously on the vagaries of his BABIP.
Putting aside the huge salary and age disparity between the two (Mauer is 34 years old and makes $23 million a year, Brantley is 30 and will make $11 million next year), not much else separates the two players, at least as far as their 2017 performances are concerned. Both are solid hitters who make up for their defensive deficiencies with good contact and walk rates, with a dash of power sprinkled in.
But, this being 2017, that dash of power makes all the difference. Mauer hasn’t posted an ISO above .128 since 2013, and it’s one of the reasons, along with the position change, why he’s gone from otherworldly to ordinary. And thus far in 2017, Brantley has begun travelling the same path as Mauer, dropping to a .136 ISO after posting ISOs above .170 in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Considering Brantley is unlikely to turn into an elite defender in his 30’s, maintaining a decent amount of power at the plate will go a long way towards determining whether Brantley will continue to earn All-Star Game appearances. Take a look at Brantley and Mauer’s spray charts for 2017:
Pretty similar overall, right? Lots of pulled ground balls and opposite field flies. But the difference, and it is an important one, is the pull-side extra base hits. Right now, the book on defending Mauer is well established: he’s either going to pull the ball on the ground or hit it in the air to left field. Right now, Brantley has an extra weapon in his arsenal. If the pitcher misses his spot, Brantley can pull the ball, either for a double down the right field line line, a double to the gap in right-center, or a pull-side home run. Keeping that ability will be key to maintaining his value going forward.
The fact that we can raise these sorts of questions about Brantley is fantastic in and of itself. The 2017 version of Brantley is a useful player, infinitely moreso than the broken-down 2016 version. But if Michael Brantley, All-Star outfielder is to continue being a thing, Brantley’s pull power will have to continue as well.
All stats current as of July 13, 2017.
Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.