Michael Brantley or Matt LaPorta?

No one on the Indians’ roster gets a worse rap than Matt LaPorta. The centerpiece of the package that cost CC Sabathia was supposed to be an intimidating slugger who could anchor the Tribe’s lineup for years to come. But after three disappointing seasons in the majors, he’ll have to fight to keep his starting job at first base and might not even have a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Meanwhile, a much less heralded piece of Cleveland’s return package for Sabathia has turned into a key member of the Indians’ lineup: Michael Brantley. He was the “player to be named” in the deal—i.e., he wasn’t even part of the Tribe’s original haul. Yet he’s now firmly entrenched in the outfield for 2012 and beyond.

Ask the average Indians fan who he or she would rather see step to the plate in a big situation and the answer would almost definitely be Brantley. But is LaPorta really the inferior hitter?

No doubt Brantley is a flashier player. He’s a top-of-the-order hitter with good speed and great contact ability—a poor man’s Kenny Lofton, if you will. LaPorta, meanwhile, is a slow-footed bottom-of-the-order dweller whose best attribute (power) has fallen far short of what we had expected of him.

But a look at the numbers tells a different story. In 2011, LaPorta actually had the edge in OPS, .711 to .702—his big advantage in power (he might not be the slugger he was supposed to turn into, but he’s still got more pop than Brantley) more than bridges the gap caused by his inferior on-base skills. It’s a slight disparity, but nonetheless it exists. That they are even in the same ballpark might be a surprise to some Tribe fans.

It’s not just OPS: wOBA (.309) and wRC+ (93) had LaPorta and Brantley as equally good (or bad, since both marks were below average) hitters in 2011. They’re two very different batters with very different strengths, approaches, and playing histories, but (by this measure, at least) they were equals as hitters.

Go back further and the comparison becomes even more flattering to LaPorta. Brantley has 27 points on LaPorta in their career batting averages and a 12-point lead in OBP, but LaPorta has a 38-point edge in slugging percentage. Thus, LaPorta has been clearly better in terms of OPS (.701 to .675), wOBA (.308 to .301), and wRC+ (90 to 85).

For what it’s worth, sabermetric guru Bill James expects the trend to continue in 2012. James projects LaPorta to hit .254/.371/.441 with a .768 OPS and a .333 wOBA, while he sees Brantley hitting .268/.332/.358. Yet Brantley is pencilled in as the leadoff hitter for the foreseeable future, while LaPorta’s bat might not be good enough to earn a spot on the team. (This isn’t to say that James is Nostradamus, it just further illustrates the point.)

Of course, there’s more to baseball than hitting. LaPorta plays exclusively first base now, and general consensus is that he doesn’t do it very well; Brantley is at least an average defender in left field (if not better) and he does a passable job in center. What’s more, Brantley has shown tangible signs of growth since he first broke into the major leagues—LaPorta has as well, but to a far lesser extent—and he’s just 25 while LaPorta will celebrate his 27th birthday this weekend.

Is LaPorta a better player than Brantley? No, of course not—to say that would be to ignore every facet of the game besides hitting. But if you limit the scope of your inquiry to offense alone, LaPorta would come out ahead.

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