The case for Dr. Smooth
The first round of American League All-Star balloting results were released on Tuesday and — no surprise — Angels outfielder Mike Trout was the league’s leading vote-getter.
What was surprising was the fact that, as I scrolled down the list of outfielders who made the cut for the Top 15, Cleveland’s Michael Brantley was nowhere to be found. Indians fans need to hop online and do all they can to change that in the weeks leading up to the Midsummer Classic.
It’s unrealistic to think that Brantley will fly up the leaderboard and earn a ticket to the All-Star Game as one of the three starting outfielders. Cleveland hasn’t had a player voted in by the fans since 2001 (Juan Gonzalez). There is still ample time to get him where he belongs, which is among the leading outfield candidates.
It’s fair to say that, barring some miraculous movement by Brantley backers, fan voting won’t get the outfielder to Target Field. No, it’s more likely that AL manager John Farrell looks at the list of statistically-deserving candidates and considers Brantley for the roster. That’s what happened a year ago, when AL manager Jim Leyland rewarded Jason Kipnis’ strong first half with a place among the game’s top talent.
No matter how he gets there, Brantley is currently the clear-cut choice as Cleveland’s All-Star representative. Starter Corey Kluber is also a deserving candidate — assuming he maintains his current production — but I’m going to stick with a player who is eligible via the voting process for this post.
Let’s take a look at the AL’s Top 15 outfielders courtesy of the latest voting results:
1. Mike Trout, Angels: 764,007
2. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays: 675,290
3. Jacoby Ellsbury, Yankees: 417,452
4. Carlos Beltran, Yankees: 401,101
5. Melky Cabrera, Blue Jays: 364,506
6. Torii Hunter, Tigers: 322,736
7. Adam Jones, Orioles: 285,913
8. Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers: 271,521
9. Yoenis Cespedes, A’s: 249,674
10. Nick Markakis, Orioles: 248,886
11. Brett Gardner, Yankees: 197,577
12. Josh Hamilton, Angels: 188,918
13. Rajai Davis, Tigers: 186,913
14. Austin Jackson, Tigers: 175,165
15. Alex Rios, Rangers: 167,261
An argument could be made that not only is Brantley deserving of being among the Top 15, but he’s worthy of being listed among the Top 5, or even the Top 3. Let’s do the old “Player A vs. Player B” comparison, just to give you an idea as to how Brantley has fared to this point this season. Sure, there are better methods, but this is a quick, effective example:
Player A: .279/.368/.537/.905, 154 OPS+, 152 wRC+
Player B: .307/.377/.516/.892, 153 OPS+, 153 wRC+
Player A: 10 HR, 11 2B, 4 3B, 34 RBI, 27 BB, 58 K, 5 SB, 32 R
Player B: 9 HR, 11 2B, 1 3B, 39 RBI, 19 BB, 19 K, 8 SB, 31 R
Player A is Trout, the AL’s leading vote-getter at the moment and back-to-back runner-up MVP. Player B is, as you’ve likely guessed, Brantley. Through 49 games and 223 plate appearances (Trout) and 50 games and 215 plate appearances (Brantley), they have essentially been the same offensive player. Trout’s defense in center gives him an edge in the WAR department (3.1 to 1.8 via fangraphs), but Brantley is no slouch, as his MLB-leading six outfield assists will show.
Heading into Tuesday’s action, Brantley ranked sixth in the AL in wRC+ and eighth in WAR. He was also in the AL’s Top 5 in offensive WAR (fourth), power-speed rating (second) and win probability added (first). He also ranked in the league’s Top 10 for average (ninth), OBP (t-10th), OPS (10th), total bases (10th), RBI (sixth), OPS+ (seventh), runs created (ninth), times on base (t-eighth) and at-bats per strikeout (sixth).
Those are the Top 5 and Top 10 among all hitters in the AL, not just outfielders.
Among all Major League hitters, Brantley entered Tuesday as one of just six with at least a .300 average to go along with at least 30 RBI and 30 run scored. That short list also included Troy Tulowitzki, Charlie Blankmon, Alexei Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton and Paul Goldschmidt. If you rank them by OPS+, Tulo leads the way at 208, followed by Stanton (177) and Brantley (153).
What’s been remarkable about Brantley’s emergence this season is his increased power production. His .208 ISO was 14th in the AL, entering Tuesday, but well above his career rate (.114). Brantley’s ground-ball percentage has actually increased some over last season and his line-drive rate is down slightly. What he has done differently this year is dramatically reduced the amount of fly balls over the infield (3.9% compared to 7.4% for his career). One byproduct of that has been a considerable spike in his homer-to-fly ball ratio (17.6% compared to 6.2% for his career).
Given Brantley’s career rates, it’s fair to assume there will be some regression in power production as the season progresses, but his current output undoubtedly puts him among the game’s top hitters. He’s also done this while seeing fewer fastballs (56.8% compared to 63.2% for his career) and dealing with more breaking and offspeed pitches. One result of that has been fewer swings overall on pitches both in and outside the strike zone. Basically, when Brantley gets his pitch, he’s attacking it. That’s also led to a slight increase in swing-and-miss rate (4.1% is highest of his career).
Indians manager Terry Francona recently had this to say about Brantley’s increase in power:
“It’s fun to watch. I think his base is stronger — his legs. As good hitters get to know themselves throughout the league, sometimes that evolves into more production. I think that’s what you’re seeing. I don’t think you see him selling out to hit home runs. [It's] just balls that maybe used to be doubles, he’s starting to drive over the fence, which is great to see. What I really like is the fact that he’s the same hitter, he’s just generating a few more home runs.”
Being the “same hitter” is something Brantley said he concentrated on over the offseason:
“It’s trusting that every time it’s going to be all right and not trying to tinker or make adjustments when there’s no need to. … [When I was younger] I was trying to do whatever worked that felt good at the time, instead of going back to the basics and doing exactly what I was doing before. That’s just not trying to do too much and putting good swings on good pitches.”
Through two months, it’s worked for Brantley, who has looked more and more like the Indians’ top All-Star candidate. The voters need to start noticing.