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Swing, Michael, Swing

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A little over a year ago, as part of an off-season series covering some of the key young players on the Tribe's roster, I wrote a review of Michael Brantley's 2010 season with a prescriptive outlook to his 2011 campaign. In that piece, I suggested one of Brantley's problems as a hitter is that his elite contact abilities (he was on top of the league in that category in 2010) translate too often in poor outcomes on balls in play. I came to this conclusion by looking fairly closely at Brantley's ball-in-play data from the 2010 season. In the end, I came up with the following list of positive indicators for Brantley for the 2011 season.

Measure 2010 2011
Increased BB-rate (>10%) 6.8% 6.9%
Lower IFFB% (<10%) 13.4% 8.5%
Increased ISO (>.125) .081 .118
Better contact/outcome see below
Production on fly-balls (OPS>.450 ) .239 .635
Excellent base-running (SB:CS > 5:1) 5.0 2.6
More doubles and triples (>20% of hits) 16.4% 23.3%
Above-average defense (UZR) -22.6 -1.6

Looking at my prescription, Brantley actually performed quite well. Brantley did appear to give up some contact percentage, and did see a better result on his balls-in-play, particularly on his balls in the air. Part of this is because he was pulling a greater percentage of balls in the air and therefore getting a better outcome. This is actually something TribeJay identified in the comments to my piece a year ago quite astutely. This seems to me to be a very positive indicator. Brantley can still improve some of the peripheral parts of his game, base-running and defense in particular, but there remains reason to be hopeful about his progress as a hitter.

What now appears to be holding Brantley back is not his contact/outcome issues, but rather his willingness to let strikes go right past him. Michael Brantley does not swing enough. He lets too many hittable pitches get called against him. 39% of the strikes on Brantley last year were called strikes, down slightly from the 41% he saw in 2010. The major league average is 28%. Brantley's tendency to give away free strikes seemingly goes hand-in-hand with his inability to replicate his great BB/K minor league numbers at the major league level. Brantley had more walks than strikeouts at every level in the minors, with a 1.34 BB/K ratio at AA and AAA. In the majors, that number has inverted to 0.48. I think Brantley has struggled to adjust to the major league strike zone and the proficiency with which major league pitchers hit the corners. It is great that Brantley is getting better results on his balls-in-play, now he needs to swing at more of the strikes he sees. I think Brantley still has a very intriguing ceiling and has shown steady, though subtle improvements in his batting approach and outcome each season. If Brantley's wrist troubles (hamate surgery) are behind him, I actually think he is a decent breakout candidate for 2012.