Orbiting Cleveland: Putting Michael Brantley’s 2014 season into context

Orbiting

brantley-michael1When it came to the Cleveland Indians and the 2014 season, disappointment was a familiar theme.

The defense couldn’t seem to make the routine plays.

The offense couldn’t seem to muster that one key hit.

Yet through it all, there was at least one player on the team who never disappointed. There was one player who went about his business like a professional and was consistent at every ebb and flow of the season.

Michael Brantley.

In all honesty, it appears at times as if Brantley has been somewhat overlooked. When Indians fans think back on the 2014 season, they will almost always reflect on Corey Kluber’s emergence as one of the best pitchers in the American League — and they should.

But they should also reflect on the remarkable season put together by Brantley. What he did in 2014 has to go down as one of the best offensive seasons in recent memory by an Indian.

On Saturday evening, Brantley collected his 200th hit of the season to become the first Indian ever to record 200 hits, 40 (45) doubles, 20 homers and 20 (23) steals in one season.

Overall, he hit .327/.385/.506 with 20 home runs, 97 RBI, 52 walks and just 56 strikeouts on the season.

According to FanGraphs, Brantley posted a 6.8 WAR while Baseball Reference has him at 6.9. Both numbers are more than double what Brantley’s career WAR prior to the start of this season.

How good does that four-year, $25 million extension with an $11 million option for 2018 that the Indians inked Brantley to prior to the start of the season look now? That contract alone somewhat eases the blow on some of the poor contracts/extensions that the Indians have doled out in recent years (ex. Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Jason Kipnis?).

Just how good was Brantley’s 2014 season though? Whenever a player posts a WAR above five, we’re talking about a terrific season, but Brantley’s WAR approaches seven. For some perspective, consider Jason Kipnis’ All-Star season in 2013. The second baseman compiled a .284/.366/.452 line with 17 home runs and 86 RBI, yet FanGraphs has his WAR at just 4.4. That’s still a very good season, but it seems a tad pedestrian compared to what Brantley did in 2014.

In fact, no Indians’ position player has posted a comparable season in terms of WAR since 2008 when Grady Sizemore hit 33 home runs, drove in 90 runs and stole 38 bases. Overall, FanGraphs has his WAR at 7.2.

Unfortunately, Brantley’s stellar season seems to have been overlooked by national pundits, those in the Cleveland media community and by the sabermetrics community.

Nationally, it’s easy to see why Brantley would be cast aside considering that he plays in the Cleveland market, and that group seems to have decided long ago that the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout is destined to win this year’s American League Most Valuable Player Award.

In Cleveland, as noted above, Brantley has taken a backseat to Kluber. That’s understandable considering Kluber’s historic performance, but that’s still not entirely fair to Brantley.

The sabermetrics community also seems to nitpick Brantley for his lack of defensive prowess. On the season, Brantley posted a UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) of -3.3, which ranked 38th among qualified outfielders. His UZR/150 of -4.0 ranked 39th.

His defensive WAR of -8.3 also ranked 38th among qualified outfielders. In fairness, there do appear to be some major defensive warts in Brantley’s game, and sabermetrics back that up.

Michael+Brantley+Kansas+City+Royals+v+Cleveland+CPBhzPZ5iHNlAsk yourself this though. Was there ever a time this season or any season before where you felt as if Brantley’s average defensive abilities actually lost the Indians a game? I would never claim to have 20/20 vision, but I trust my eyes, and they tell me that the answer to that question is a definitive NO.

This is not to suggest that Brantley deserves to take home Most Valuable Player hardware, but a case can be made that he deserves to finish as high as second in that polling, and he should also be a favorite to be named one of the American League’s three Silver Sluggers for the outfield.

Some other highlights from Brantley’s season include:

  • On the year, he posted a strikeout percentage of 8.3 percent. That’s the second lowest rate among all qualified outfielders in baseball. That’s the type of thing you just love to see from a hitter.
  • While his defense gets knocked, Brantley still recorded 12 outfield assists, which was tied for the fifth-best mark among outfielders this season.
  • With men in scoring position, Brantley hit a blistering .376 and drove in 76 runs. He always seemed to perform best when it mattered most.
  • While he played 106 games this season in left field, he also moved over to center field for 44 games, which was especially valuable when Michael Bourn was injured. Brantley’s versatility in the outfield makes him an asset, and one could argue that he might be able to retake over center field should the Indians decide to try to move Bourn this offseason.

However, if you really want to know how valuable Brantley was this past season, look no further than the table below. This table includes the top 30 performances, in terms of WAR, by Indians outfielders for the past 60 years. Take a moment to make note of where Brantley falls on this listing.

Player, season G PA HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG WAR
1. Grady Sizemore, 2006 162 751 28 134 76 22 0.290 0.375 0.533 7.8
2. Manny Ramirez, 1999 147 640 44 131 165 2 0.333 0.442 0.663 7.5
3. Grady Sizemore, 2008 157 745 33 101 90 38 0.268 0.374 0.502 7.2
4. Albert Belle, 1995 143 631 50 121 126 5 0.317 0.401 0.690 7.2
5. Kenny Lofton, 1993 148 657 1 116 42 70 0.325 0.408 0.408 7.0
6. Michael Brantley, 2014 156 676 20 94 97 23 0.327 0.385 0.506 6.8
7. Kenny Lofton, 1994 112 523 12 105 57 60 0.349 0.412 0.536 6.6
8. Rocky Colavito, 1958 143 578 41 80 113 0 0.303 0.405 0.620 6.6
9. Grady Sizemore, 2007 162 748 24 118 78 33 0.277 0.390 0.462 6.2
10. Shin-Soo Choo, 2010 144 646 22 81 90 22 0.300 0.401 0.484 5.9
11. Larry Doby, 1954 153 675 32 94 126 3 0.272 0.364 0.484 5.9
12. Kenny Lofton, 1992 148 651 5 96 42 66 0.285 0.362 0.365 5.8
13. Grady Sizemore, 2005 158 706 22 111 81 22 0.289 0.348 0.484 5.7
14. Kenny Lofton, 1998 154 698 12 101 64 54 0.282 0.371 0.413 5.6
15. Manny Ramirez, 1998 150 663 45 108 145 5 0.294 0.377 0.599 5.4
16. Albert Belle, 1994 106 480 36 90 101 9 0.357 0.438 0.714 5.3
17. Rocky Colavito, 1959 154 664 42 90 111 3 0.257 0.337 0.512 5.3
18. Minnie Minoso, 1959 148 650 21 92 92 8 0.302 0.377 0.468 5.3
19. Albert Belle, 1996 158 715 48 124 148 11 0.311 0.410 0.623 5.2
20. Coco Crisp, 2005 145 656 16 86 69 15 0.300 0.345 0.465 5.1
21. Jim Piersall, 1961 121 536 6 81 40 8 0.322 0.378 0.442 5.0
22. Minnie Minoso, 1958 149 638 24 94 80 14 0.302 0.383 0.484 5.0
23. Al Smith, 1955 154 725 22 123 77 11 0.306 0.407 0.473 5.0
24. Albert Belle, 1993 159 693 38 93 129 23 0.290 0.370 0.552 4.9
25. Shin-Soo Choo, 2009 156 685 20 87 86 21 0.300 0.394 0.489 4.8
26. Manny Ramirez, 2000 118 532 38 92 122 1 0.351 0.457 0.697 4.8
27. Kenny Lofton, 1999 120 561 7 110 39 25 0.301 0.405 0.432 4.8
28. Joe Carter, 1986 162 709 29 108 121 29 0.302 0.335 0.514 4.8
29. Manny Ramirez, 1997 150 651 26 99 88 2 0.328 0.415 0.538 4.6
30. Kenny Lofton, 1996 154 736 14 132 67 75 0.317 0.372 0.446 4.6

SIXTH.

In terms of WAR, Michael Brantley’s 2014 season is the sixth-best season by an Indians outfielder in the past sixty years. That is nothing short of amazing.

In fact, only four Indians outfielders have ever had a better season than Brantley: Grady Sizemore (twice), Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton.

That’s especially impressive when you consider that two of those four players had borderline Hall of Fame careers, and Sizemore and Belle were on their way to doing the same before injuries derailed their careers.

When it’s all said and done, there’s no telling how Brantley’s 2014 season will be viewed. Time can really help put things into context and that should be the case with Brantley and this past season. In the years to come, his 2014 season might be seen as the modern Indians’ benchmark for which future outfielders are compared to.

Let’s hope Baseball Writers of America do not overlook Brantley’s accomplishment when voting time for the American League’s MVP comes this offseason. At best, one would hope Brantley would finish second in that department. At worst, he should finish no higher than third.

Either way, it’s important to not forget the beauty of Michael Brantley’s 2014 campaign. For a team with a rich history of outfielders, Brantley’s 2014 season is quite lavish in its own right.

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2 thoughts on “Orbiting Cleveland: Putting Michael Brantley’s 2014 season into context

  1. What’s really intriguing to me about this piece is that Brantley’s jump wasn’t prognosticated in several SABR-models that I’ve seen in the past few months leading up to this season. It just goes to show you that sometimes upside’s measures go beyond the body of work. Brantley’s high-IQ is hard to measure, especially over the past 14 months. It’s been statistically impressive. Funny that the Indians wrapped him up quickly though…definitely a win-win, even for Brantley.

  2. I think when people think of the 2014 Tribe offense, they think of how bad it could be as a whole and so overlook Brantley. But if anything, it makes his season more impressive.

    Good article!

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