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.
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.
Ask 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.
|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|
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.