How Good Can Michael Brantley Become?

Michael Brantley has easily surpassed any and all expectations that were placed on him when he was acquired by the Indians as part of the C.C. Sabathia trade all the way back in 2008. Of course we all know Matt LaPorta was the supposed prize of that trade, but it has been Brantley, the ever notorious “player to be named later,” who has turned into the real prize. Called up by the big league club at the tender age of 22, we have watched Brantley grow from a player with flashes of potential into a solid every day player.

After the past two seasons, both of which saw him emerge as one of the leaders of the team, fans are beginning to appreciate Michael Brantley for all that he is able to do. His defensive ability in the outfield combined with his timely hitting at the plate have made him one of the most consistent Indians in recent memory. However, one question continues to linger amongst fans and prognosticators alike: How good can Michael Brantley become?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Last night’s performance, a 2 for 4 showing that included four runs batted in and a two-run home run, is indicative of what many think and hope Brantley can become. That is, a middle of the order banger that can drive in 100-plus runs and belt upwards of 20 home runs. Does he have that in him? Is that a reasonable expectation for the “promising young power hitter” that is Michael Brantley?

I’m not so sure.

While I agree with the sentiment that Michael Brantley has yet to hit his ceiling as a major leaguer, I’m not entirely sure that he isn’t close to being as good as he is going to be. Sure there is room for improvement. After all, Brantley is still only 26-years old and should just now be entering into his athletic prime. But the fact remains, unless he has a Chris Davis like coming out party it is hard to imagine Michael Brantley being anything more than a slightly improved version of what he is now and the numbers back that up. Think Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez minus the power, RBI, stolen bases, and a slightly lower slash line.

Over the course of the previous two seasons and the one we are currently in, it is easy to say that Brantley has shown improvement, because he has. His approach at the plate has matured and his ability to hit the ball to all fields is unparalleled. At the same time though, it’s easy to say that his overall improvement has been nothing particularly ground breaking. Again, does Brantley provide the Indians with anything more than that of a typical league average player?

In his career Brantley has yet to break the 60 RBI mark in a season (Yes, I realize the ever increasing devaluation of RBI as an important stat, but to many it still holds some value) and he has never hit more than 7 home runs. His career slash line of .274/.326/.367 doesn’t exactly jump off the page. His career ISO of .101 is nothing to write home about and indicative of the fact that Brantley just does not hit the ball with very much power. Although that appears to be changing. With 72 games played this season, he has already hit 5 home runs and looks to be on pace to finally crack double digits despite his .093 ISO so far in 2013.

Another interesting point of contention in regards to Brantley is that he also doesn’t steal bases with any type of regularity. This comes as bit of a surprise for a player possessing Brantley’s speed. His career best for a single season is only 13 steals while his 162 game average is around 17 swiped bags. So while he may possess the same power numbers of a Michael Bourn, he lacks the numbers in other areas, runs scored and stolen bases, to really make up for it.

Even with his ability to hit the ball where it is pitched, use the entire field, and to put the ball in play, 11.9% strikeout rate since 2011, Brantley has still been nothing more than roughly a .270 hitter. Most hitters who have this type of approach are able to hit well over .300 on a consistent basis. Brantley has stretches where he is able to push his average over .300, but has never been able to maintain it. And it’s not as if Brantley has been unlucky either. His career BAbip is .303 meaning that he is neither overly lucky nor overly unlucky when he puts the ball in play.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

All in all, Brantley’s performance continues to reflect what the numbers bear out. His career OPS+ of 98 and 103 since 2011 indicates that he is nothing more than an average major league performer at the plate. This comes despite the fact that Brantley has made noticeable improvements in his approach. You can see that he’s gotten better and improved as a player even though the numbers may not be indicative of this. Then again, maybe that is because the changes have been ever so gradual that they do not properly reflect what he is doing at the plate.

Or maybe we’re all just seeing something because that’s what we want to see and not using the proper amount of objectivity when assessing Brantley’s abilities.

Regardless, ask any Indians fan who they would want at the plate in a late inning situation with the game on the line. How many times out of ten would the fans choose Bantley? At least more than half, right? Who is one Indian that nobody would want to trade right now and again the answer is probably Brantley. I know personally I wouldn’t part with Brantley unless the package in return was just too much to pass up on.

Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of how good can Michael Brantley become? The answer is probably slightly better than he is right now with the caveat that there is always the possibility that he makes the leap in the coming years as he enters his physical prime. Should any of us be surprised is Brantley suddenly become a 20 home run and 100 RBI guy? No. After all, he did accumulate a 3.3 bWAR last season. But, we also shouldn’t be surprised is he simply continues to chug along at his current pace.

Michael Brantley… he’s consistently consistent. Nothing more, nothing less.

Topics: C. C. Sabathia, Carlos Gonzalez, Cleveland Indians, Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley

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