Though George Springer is sure to draw most of the attention at the top of the free agent market, another Astros outfielder is likely to be an effective next-best option.
Michael Brantley, who manned left field for Houston over the last two years, is certainly no slouch in his own right. Since joining the Astros on a two-year, $32 million contract in December 2018, Brantley has been one of the better hitters in a particularly deep lineup. In 194 games with the Astros, he slashed .309/.370/.497 with 27 home runs and a 134 wRC+. His 5.5 WAR ranks as the third-most among the team’s position players since the beginning of 2019, behind only Alex Bregman and Springer.
It might not feel like it at this point, but the last few years have been quite a comeback for Brantley. He had become one of baseball’s best hitters before being hampered by injuries that significantly ate into his time on the field. In 2016, Brantley only played 11 games while batting shoulder and bicep injuries; the former eventually required season-ending surgery. The next year, 2017, Brantley again needed surgery, though this time it was on his right ankle. He only played 90 games.
Since 2018, though, Brantley again has been both one of baseball’s most consistent hitters as well as one of baseball’s most productive hitters. Indeed, on a plot comparing each player’s wRC+ to his standard deviation of his wRC+, Brantley stands out among the 59 players who have qualified for the batting title in each of the last three years:
Indeed, a lower standard deviation isn’t necessarily better — a player could have three seasons with wRC+ values of 150, 150 and 200 and be both productive and “inconsistent” — but Brantley stands out as having remarkably good and unchanging annual outputs. In 2018, Brantley posted a 124 wRC+; in 2019, he posted a 133 wRC+; and in 2020, he posted a 134 wRC+.
Basically, in the last three years, Brantley was the perfect exemplar of “what you see is what you get.” He’s a player with a strong tendency to put the ball in play, adding a dash of power. Brantley has never been anything more than a 20 home-run-per-year guy over his career, so his real skill comes from his excellent ability to put the ball in play and get on base. Even though Brantley doesn’t walk a whole lot, he still has the 26th-highest OBP since 2018, in the range of Cody Bellinger, Nolan Arenado and Jose Ramirez. Brantley is inherently good because he gets on base, though not necessarily in the way that saberists love, with our fixation on walk rate.
But certain players do have a propensity to sustain high BABIPs, and Brantley is undoubtedly one of those. He wouldn’t be successful without a better-than-average BABIP. Indeed, over his career, Brantley has sustained a .315 mark, and in the last three years, he’s moved that up slightly, to .321. This doesn’t put him along the leaders in the stat, but after plotting BABIP versus ball-in-play rate (excluding home runs), we can see why Brantley continually succeeds:
Brantley has put the ball in play 77.6 percent of the time and has run a BABIP of at least .320. There’s only one other player in all of baseball to do that: David Fletcher. After adding in the dash of power that Brantley does have (his ISO is 81 points higher than Fletcher’s, for example), you get a pretty clear picture of why he’s so good.
Focusing in on 2020, Brantley’s numbers continued to be excellent, as usual. He hit .300/.364/.476 this year with five home runs and a 134 wRC+ in 187 plate appearances. The injury bug did come back to bite him a bit, however: Brantley only played in 46 games because he dealt with a quad injury that forced him to spend some time on the Injured List. Even when healthy, his time in the field was limited for the first time in his career. Brantley made 26 starts this season at designated hitter. Even in the shortened season, this represented the most number of appearances Brantley made at DH in any season of his career.
Additionally, the offensive profile was buoyed by some even-better BABIP luck. Brantley ran a .336 BABIP in 2020, the highest mark he’s posted in any season of his career with as many plate appearances. That might be something of a slight warning flag going into 2021, especially when considering that Statcast’s expected batting average metric suggests that he should’ve hit just .262 this year, representing a 38-point difference between his expected and actual batting averages.
Since we know that most of Brantley’s offensive value comes out of being able to sustain a high average, it’s not a surprise that he also saw a huge disparity in his wOBA versus expected wOBA. Brantley’s .314 expected wOBA was the worst mark of his career in the Statcast Era (excluding his 11 game 2016 season). The 42-point disparity in Brantley’s wOBA versus expected wOBA put him in the 90th percentile in “luck,” so to speak.
Interestingly enough, though, Brantley’s main underlying numbers — average exit velocity, average launch angle and hard-hit rate — look awfully similar year-over-year. I took a look at his launch angle and exit velocity distributions and didn’t notice anything too different, either. In the launch angle distribution, I did see more batted balls at a launch angle below -40 degrees being recorded, which may just be a result of the switch to Hawkeye, but I don’t know if that would be enough to warrant such a huge swing in the expected offensive metrics. It will be something to watch going forward.
Though there may be some questions over the sustainability of Brantley’s offensive performance, his health and, relatedly, how much of an outfielder’s workload he can handle, he still should be in line for a decent-sized contract this offseason. MLB Trade Rumors connects Brantley to the Braves, Astros, Nationals, Cardinals, Blue Jays, White Sox, Cubs, and Dodgers. I predict that, no matter where he ends up, he’ll earn somewhere in the range of $12-$17 million per year over two to three years. I have a hunch that shorter-term deals will be a big trend this offseason, and as a relatively older free agent, Brantley might be among the free agents most likely to receive only these types of offers. With that said, I’ll peg Brantley for the exact contract he just completed: two years and $32 million with his next club.
Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.