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Michael Brantley: from sleeper prospect to All-Star

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Michael Brantley
Michael Brantley
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite players is Cleveland Indians outfielder Michael Brantley, who can now add an All-Star nomination to his resume. I like him for numerous reasons: he's fast, has developed power this year, gets on base, fields his position. He's having what looks like a classic Age 27 peak season: .322/.382/.519, 15 homers (already a career high), 10 steals in 10 attempts, 154 OPS+, 154 wRC+, 3.7 WAR.

Most of all, Brantley was a sleeper prospect who made good and I love guys like that.

He first appeared in my 2006 book after being drafted in 2005. I'd noticed him in high school due to his bloodlines and the fact that I liked his father as a player, too.

Milwaukee drafted Michael Brantley in the seventh round last June, out of high school in Port St.Lucie, Florida. The son of former major league outfielder Mickey Brantley, Michael looks like a real sleeper to me. He already has good speed and knows how to use it. His strike zone judgment is EXCELLENT, and he had no problems with pro pitching in his debut. He is a good defensive outfielder, well-schooled in the game. His main weakness right now is lack of power. He is still growing into his body, and at this point is content to just make contact rather than deliberately drive the ball for distance. Michael’s dad had some pop in his bat, and it will be interesting to see how much Michael himself develops. He’ll need some time to mature physically, but I’m impressed with what he has done so far. Grade C+.

Brantley hit .300/.402/.339 with 24 steals and zero homers in Low-A in '06, prompting this review entering '07:

Normally I am not a huge advocate of these pure speed guys, but for some reason I really like Michael Brantley. Drafted in the seventh round in 2005 out of high school in Florida, he is a contact hitter with good speed and excellent strike zone judgment. He comes from a baseball family (his dad played in the majors), is a good athlete, and has a fair measure of polish. The one thing he lacks is power, with just 17 extra-base hits in 567 career at-bats, and it is unclear if he’ll be able to develop much of it. Even additional gap power would give him potential as a regular leadoff man, but if that doesn’t happen, he’s destined for bench work. Grade C+, since he is young enough to develop more punch eventually, and I like his other skills a lot.

He split '07 between West Virginia (.335/.414/.440) and Double-A Huntsville (.251/.353/.294), which was a huge jump. But he was still a favorite:

Brantley is one of my favorite speed players. He lacks power, but his combination of speed and patience makes him a valuable table setter. I haven’t given up on the idea that he could add some power, at least additional doubles/triples, to his game. He was having a strong season at West Virginia, but the Brewers needed an outfielder in Double-A and bumped him up at mid-season, skipping the advanced-A level. He was overmatched at times, but was one of the youngest players at the level, and the fact that he maintained his strike zone judgment is a good marker. I think he profiles as a reserve outfielder, though a good one. Grade C+, an aggressive grade for this type of player, but my intuition likes him.

He returned to Huntsville for '08 and was much more effective, hitting .319/.395/.398 with 28 steals, 50 walks, and just 27 strikeouts in 420 at-bats. He was traded to the Indians before the '09 book went to press:

Brantley was the last piece of the C.C. Sabathia trade, going to Cleveland as the player-to-be-named later at the end of the minor league season. He’s got very good speed, and his command of the strike zone is exceptional: he’ll take a walk, and hardly ever strikes out. The speed/walks combination makes him valuable as a leadoff guy. On the other hand, he lacks power, and while he is physically strong, his swing may never generate a lot of pop. Despite his speed, he is rated as just an average defensive outfielder by scouts, since he has some problems reading fly balls. The Brewers used him at first base much of last year, but obviously he doesn’t hit enough for the position. I think Brantley would be a very good fourth outfielder, especially if he can improve his outfield glovework. Grade C+.

He split '09 between Triple-A Columbus (.267/.350/.361 with 46 steals and the Indians, where he hit .312/.358/.348 in 28 games. And thus his final book comment entering 2010:

I have been pushing Michael Brantley as a sleeper for four years, so I’m glad to see him performing well in the majors. He’s very fast, uses his speed well on the bases, draws walks, doesn’t strike out, and has proven he can make contact against all sorts of pitching. Although he’s never going to be a huge home run guy, I think he’ll develop enough pop that the pitchers will have to respect him; he won’t get the bat knocked out of his hands. He’s a very dangerous baserunner, and that attribute combined with his contact hitting and on-base abilities make him an ideal leadoff type. Brantley was previously criticized by scouts for his defensive work, but those complaints mysteriously vanished last year, and he’s now regarded as a fine outfielder. His defensive stats have always been pretty solid, so I don’t know if his abilities really changed or if scouting opinion just caught up with reality. In any event, he’s fine in center or left field, but lacks the arm for right. Brantley would be an excellent fourth outfielder, but if he develops a bit more pop he could be a regular left or center fielder for a lot of teams. Grade B.

And here he is on an All-Star team, moving past fourth outfielder work and into a regular job.

Brantley is an example of a couple of my pet themes:

***Defensive reputation sometimes takes time to catch up with actual performance. The numbers said that Brantley was a good fielder before the scouts did, and eventually the scouting reports changed to match the numbers.

***Informal studies I've conducted over the years indicate that players who can make contact but don't drive the ball  early in their careers can still develop decent power in their late 20s. As I've said, those studies have been informal and aren't something I'm ready to publish, but it is a theme I keep in mind when studying a player and trying to project what he could do later. In Brantley's case, that worked out. It doesn't always happen of course.