Last November, the Cleveland Indians chose to pick up the $11 million option for Michael Brantley’s 2018 season. At the time, it seemed like a roadblock to re-signing a player like Carlos Santana, or pursuing a bullpen replacement for the departing Bryan Shaw. It turned out to be, in the end, because the Indians did neither of those things. But it’s looking like it doesn’t really matter.
Looking strictly at the money, $11 million for what Brantley can give (and had given) to the Indians seemed like a good deal. The outfield was a weakness — another they would have had to address had they not picked up Brantley’s option — and at his peak, Brantley was one of the game’s best-hitting left fielders. But due to various, unrelated injuries it seemed like the 31-year-old’s better days were already behind him. The dreaded “S-word” comparison came up multiple times, and many Indians fans were ready to leave him behind and move on with whatever young prospect would come up and replace him.
I was certainly in that group, and I’m here to say I’m looking dead wrong and I’ve never been happier to eat this big plate of char-broiled crow. I even wrote an article about it being a bad move once the dust settled on a historically cheap offseason, which I still mostly stand by (more on that later). Strictly looking at getting Michael Brantley back for $11 million, though, it’s hard to be too upset right now.
Due to the aforementioned ankle surgery, Brantley’s 2018 season didn’t start until April 6 when he debuted against the Kansas City Royals, going 1-for-4 and playing his typical brand of just-good-enough left field for the Tribe. All he’s done since is hit, not strikeout, and refuse to go cold. He’s amassed eight home runs in his 183 plate appearances, slashing .335/372/.559 with 12 doubles and starting nearly every game since his debut, either in the outfield or at designated hitter. Brantley, who played in a combined 101 games over the last two seasons, already has 41 games under his belt with no sign of lingering injury issues slowing him down. He’s currently riding a league-best 16-game hitting streak, and he’s never gone more than three games in a row without at least one hit.
Brantley is really, really good.
The home runs are nice, especially the pace that he’s currently on, but the most encouraging thing about Brantley’s re-emergence is his plate discipline. For a time, Brantley was one of the best at making contact and not striking out. In his breakout 2014 campaign, the baby-faced 27-year-old had the third-lowest strikeout rate in the American League at 8.3 percent, trailing only Victor Martinez and Jose Altuve, and he was third in the American League at making contact at 91.3 percent. In 2015, a year best forgotten by Indians fans, Brantley led the league in both those categories.
In Brantley’s injury-induced absence, Jose Ramirez took over the King of Contact throne with Brantley-esque contact numbers in 2016 and 2017. Now that they’re both playing together and thriving, teams are having a hell of a time trying to get them out at the same time. Take a look at the 2018 plate discipline leaderboards, and you’ll see their names pop up frequently. Brantley is third overall contact rate at 88.5 percent, 21st in outside swing percentage at 26 percent, and eighth in swinging strike rate at five percent. Hovering around him in every category is Jose Ramirez.
It’s hard to say if the front office had the foresight of “Hey let’s put Ramirez and Brantley back-to-back and watch opposing pitchers lose their minds trying to find where to put the ball,” but that’s been the exact effect of the lineup so far. I’d even contend that Lindor-Brantley-Ramirez forms the best top-third of any lineup in baseball. Yeah I see you Angels, Yankees, Astros, and whoever else wants to fight me. I see you and you’re wrong.
The three of them form a sort-of Murderers’ Row for the modern age. Not one where they are clobbering home runs and outpacing every other offensive team in baseball like the real Murderers’ Row of the mid-1920s Yankees teams. What made that group of players so special was that they were hitting so many more home runs than everyone else — 121 as a team in 1926, for example, when the next closest was the Rogers Hornsby-led Cardinals with 90. No one cares if you can hit home runs anymore, because everyone can do it and they do it a lot (the Yankees already have 83 through and it’s not even June), but making contact and not striking out is throwing opposing pitchers for a loop. How difficult must it be switching from being able to blow whatever you want by so many hitters knowing there’s a good chance they’ll miss it, to having to work against Michael Brantley (2nd-lowest strikeout rate in AL) and Jose Ramirez (4th-lowest strikeout rate in AL) back-to-back. It’s not fair.
We saw the fruits of this yesterday when Jose Ramirez worked an amazing 17-pitch at-bat against one of baseball’s premiere closers in the bottom of the ninth down by five. Ramirez swung the bat 12 times in that at-bat, and he made contact every single time with the final crack being a 104.5 mile-per-hour rocket for a double. That was enough to instantly ramp up Ken Giles’s pitch count to the point where he had to be pulled and the rest was dramatic, heart attack-inducing history.
All of this is to say that Michael Brantley is amazing, and his ability to make contact has seemingly returning has the Indians lineup working in magical ways. If he can stay healthy — which is still a mighty big if — the $11 million the Indians spent doesn’t look so bad in retrospect, despite what some loser blogger might have told you. Could the Indians have maybe saved a few million, grabbed a reliever and brought back Brantley for $5-6 million? Maybe. Would Brantley even have wanted to come back to the Indians if they declined his option, only to come crawling back for a $5 million discount? That’s a tough question we’ll never have to answer, because they spent the money and got him, and he’s been worth every penny ten times over.