Manny Acta has been doing some tinkering with the starting lineup, and this week he unveiled a change that he says will be permanent: moving Michael Brantley to the cleanup spot. It’s certainly a bold move—it’s not often you see a guy who’s averaged less than a homer every 21 games moved to a place traditionally reserved for a hulking slugger. But is it the right move?
He certainly deserves a promotion. The 25-year-old center fielder entered Tuesday’s action hitting a clean .301 and on pace to score 73 runs while driving in 80. His improving plate discipline has lifted him to a .354 on-base percentage and he’s added enough power to slug .436, by far a career high. Put it all together and he has a wRC+ of 114—i.e., he’s been about 14 percent better than the average MLB hitter this year.
Brantley isn’t a traditional cleanup hitter, but that’s not a fatal flaw. With the Indians’ offense struggling, ensuring that our best hitters are getting the most at-bats is of utmost importance, and right now Brantley falls into that category. That Acta is willing to buck tradition in the name of squeezing more out of his offense is not a strike against him but a point in his favor.
But if the goal is to use his hitters more efficiently, we must also consider the opportunity cost. Playing time is a zero-sum game, and the extra plate appearances Brantley is now getting didn’t appear out of thin air. Who moves down as Brantley moves up? Right now it looks like the main guy on the short end of the stick Travis Hafner, who was banished to the No. 6 hole Monday night for the first time since 2010. It’s this consideration that makes Acta’s lineup switch seem somewhat reactionary.
Entering Tuesday, Hafner is hitting .228/.365/.430 with a 119 wRC+. Look past the batting average and you’ll see that Pronk has been at least as good as Brantley (if not slightly better). And given that Hafner is working with a .230 BABIP (career average: .314), it stands to reason that his numbers will actually improve as the season progresses while Brantley is a good candidate to see some regression to the mean.
Looking at their rest-of-season ZiPS projections, Hafner is on track hit .248/.348/.426 from here on out and the system foresees .280/.339/.387 line for Brantley. Throw in the fact that they’re both left-handed and that Hafner actually does fit the mold of a cleanup man and the rationale behind the lineup shuffling seems unclear.
Brantley is a tremendous asset to the Indians’ lineup who deserves to be recognized for his achievements (this from someone who has been relatively skeptical about Brantley over the last couple years), and we should applaud Acta for his willingness to not go by the book in constructing his batting order. But I’m not sure I see the logic in moving Brantley up in the order if it comes at Hafner’s expense.