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Should Michael Brantley Go On The Block?

Where does utility lie?
Where does utility lie?

After this exchange, Adam has, foolishly, decided to challenge me to a full-on debate regarding the merits of exploring the Michael Brantley trade market. This was foolish for multiple reasons:

  • I was a state debate champion in high school. This is not a joke: I was in the newspaper and everything. (Lincoln-Douglas, for those who are in the know)
  • I lie easily and often, and I'm not at all afraid to do any of the following: construct strawmen, move goalposts, resort to ad hominem attacks, refuse to answer the question, type in all caps, or simply stop responding.
  • The statement we're considering is simply: "The Indians should consider shopping Michael Brantley before this year's deadline." Folks, that is not a very definitive statement: it's squishy. Trying to say someone shouldn't consider something is un-American: shouldn't we at least consider it? You have options — explore them! I'm not asking you to do anything...just consider it! Think it over. Call me back on it. We'll follow-up.

Michael Brantley has over 1300 major league at-bats and his OPS is 707. His OPS+ is 98. His career AAA OPS is 752 over 844 plate apperances. Look, Adam's going to bamboozle you; he's going to come at you with all kinds of advanced statistics, metrics that demonstrate that Brantley % body fat has decreased while his brain's share of cranial space has increased, indicating that his ability to command the strike zone is basically Apple stock in the summer of 2009. I love reading what Adam writes, and I think he's smart as hell, but there's a real chance we're pushing into DiamondView territory: outsmarting ourselves, forest for the trees, ocean for the salt, all of that. Talented analysts can convince you (and themselves) of nearly anything, and sometimes you just have to grab yourself by the shoulders and shake.

We know Michael Brantley, we have followed him for years, and Michael Brantley is not turning into Adam Jones lite. He's Michael Bourn on a hot streak. He looks like more right now because of a slightly inflated BABIP, because of an artificially low K% (it's not in-line with career norms and it's suddenly extremely elite), and because of a short-term confirmation bias. Brantley is great right now, but he wasn't great six weeks ago. You've got to remember the six weeks ago Brantley!

Now, let's level: Michael Bourn is a real asset. If Brantley can actually hang around a 750 OPS and play CF, that's something the Indians actively need. However, Brantley doesn't look like Bourn right now; he looks like Andrew McCutchen, or David Ortiz playing a decent center. If anyone actually thinks Brantley is McCutchen Jr., or something close to it, Antonetti needs to explore the depths of that person's belief.

Andrew has decided to debate me on the merits of shopping Michael Brantley before this year's trade deadline. While I recognize that Andrew's abilities to produce creative 3"x5" notecards might be an admirable debate skill, does he really expect to win this argument. Whereas I plan on bringing rigorous quantitative metrics to the debate, what will Andrew respond with? I expect confusingly captioned cartoons.

Should the Indians consider shopping Michael Brantley?

No. Sure, it is always nice to check in on the value of something you have, like the one day a year you look up the value of your old Mark McGwire team USA baseball card. But the Indians should not and can not actually considering trading Brantley. The reasons are many, but primarily fall into three categories:

1) Michael Brantley is one of the best hitters on the current team, which like nearly every team in baseball is "in contention."
2) The organization lacks any reasonable internal replacement for Brantley now and for the foreseeable future, making Brantley a core player for both the current "window of contention" and the transition to the next. And,
3) Michael Brantley's improvements this year reflect a genuine development of his skills and tools, suggesting he is likely to continue at this level, and possibly improve substantially, in the coming years.

Briefly...the Indians need to add offense, not subtract it. Manny Acta's decision to put Brantley in the cleanup spot Monday night was not out of the box thinking, but merely a recognition that Brantley is one of the best hitters on the team and should be in the top half of the order. The only player currently on the roster that is hitting substantially better than Brantley is Shin-Soo Choo. Furthermore, no one else on the roster can be expected to regularly play CF without a substantial defensive hit, and run prevention is arguably an even more important goal for the current Indians team.

The absence of a viable replacement for Brantley is not only a current reality, but one likely to extend into the next several years. The latest on Grady Sizemore does not improve a bad outlook for organizational depth at CF. While there are OFers in Columbus and Akron putting up respectable offensive numbers, the only who has played the majority of their games at CF is Ezequiel Carrera. Carrera's .680 OPS in Columbus is unlikely to erase from our minds memories of his .613 OPS a year ago in Cleveland (and how about that defense!). Brantley is and should be the Indians centerfielder of the present and future. Brantley is not arbitration eligible until 2014 and is under team control through 2017.

Most importantly, Brantley is turning into a genuinely good hitter, who is more likely to improve in the next few years than decline. As I have outlined previously, Brantley's struggles at the major league level can at least partly be explained by an excess of pickiness at the plate. Brantley lets too many hittable pitches go by, putting him into situations where his exceptional contact abilities are used to put bad pitches into play, resulting in poor outcomes. This year, and particularly over the last two months, Brantley is more aggressively going after good pitches, leading to an increase in extra-base hits, a decline in strikeouts, and an increase in walks. I will argue that Brantley's improvements this year represent an improvement in the utilization of his unique hitting skills rather than the luck-inflated result of a handful of fortunate balls in play.

The real improvement in Brantley's hitting, coupled with his positional value, make him, alongside Jason Kipnis, the least available position player on the current Indians roster.

P.S. Brantley looks like a total badass. Did you see the picture with Monday's game recap?

Yeah, he is an absolute badass. Totally a kid who grew up in baseball clubhouses of the 80s, emulating cool jocks.

A cool 80s jock like Brett Butler? I’ll take it. Like Butler, who went on to have a 17-year career with more than 2300 hits (and 47 WAR, according to B-Ref), Brantley is a speedy contact hitter. But Butler did not break out as a hitter until he was already 28, playing for Cleveland in 1985. Michael Brantley is having his breakout season as a recently turned 25-year old.

And what is this luck-inflated business? Brantley’s BABIP this season is .326, above league average, but also almost identical to his minor league career BABIP of .328, based on nearly 2500 plate appearances. No luck there. Brantley’s improvements are real.

And if we are really going off looks, we should look to trade Teddy Graham look-alike Carlos Santana while Kraft Foods (KFT) is trading at a five-year high.

There’s really two questions in play here:

1: What’s the likelihood that Brantley craters and/or he’s highly overvalued by the market?

2: What’s the likelihood that Brantley is a contributor on the Indians next pennant team?

I think I made it clear that, with regards to question 1, I think it makes sense to only move Brantley if he’s being overvalued. He’s got enough secondary skills that he shouldn’t turn into an absolute pumpkin, plus age is in his favor.

Question 2, however, I think is a little more interesting. Maybe I’ve already shown my hand on this, but I don’t think this vintage of the Indians has really earned the ‘contender’ mantle. Yes, I can read the standings, but I can also read the Pythagoras and the injury report. These Indians have struggled to keep their heads above water all year and the reinforcements that were available, namely Chisenhall and Sizemore, are not coming.

The Indians’ best player, at least from where I sit, is Shin-Soo Choo. Choo will be gone after the 2014 season unless something happens to make him less attractive to other suitors, meaning that the Indians window of contention is realistically probably right now to 2014. Do they have enough to get over the hump in either 2013 or 2014? I’m skeptical, which is one of the reasons that I started down this rabbit hole: what if you just sold high, right now, on Chris Perez, Choo, and Brantley? Brantley’s only on this list because of his (perhaps) current inflated value, and maybe this debate should really about Choo and Perez.

It’s, admittedly, a perverse idea, and one that’s probably untenable in the context of the city of Cleveland. Still, I’m not convinced it’s not what the Tribe should be doing if they want to actually win a championship. The farm is more barren than we want to admit, I think, and the guys topside are not exactly blowing me away. I do think you make a strong argument regarding Brantley’s arbitration status: Kipnis, Chisenhall, and he are the only candidates we have right now for a ‘long-term core’, and it seems silly to trade a guy under control through 2017 for a couple of guys who will, if we’re lucky, pan out into a Brantley-like asset under control through 2020.

So, what do you say? Trade Choo?

Now we are getting somewhere. In response to your first part, I think Brantley it is more likely Brantley gets better in the next year or two than worse. Given this, I think it is unlikely a team will overvalue Brantley, because a lot of his value has yet to be realized.

Consider these numbers...Across his three major league seasons (I am ignoring his September showing in 2009), Brantley’s isolated power has gone from 81, to 118, to 134, and that latter number has been trending upwards throughout the season. His K-rate has dropped this year to below 10%, which is fantastic, but actually not out of line with his minor league track record. When you compare what he is doing at the plate this year to the past two seasons, there are only a few small, but important differences. First, he is swinging at a greater percentage of pitches in the strike zone. Major league average is around 62%, but Brantley in the past had been at or below 50%. This year he is swinging at 55% of those pitches according to fangraphs data. This has had the effect of reducing the number of pitches he sees in his plate appearances from about 4, to only 3.5. For Brantley this is a good thing, as it means he is striking out less and getting a better result on his balls in play because he is better identifying good pitches to hit. One piece of evidence supporting this is that he is doing a vastly better job at driving balls in the air. Prior to this season, fly-balls for Brantley, except for the rare HR, were usually outs (OPS on fly-balls .295 in 2010, .639 in 2011). This year he is getting good results on his fly-balls with an OPS of .848, including a much higher-rate of HRs and 2Bs.

Brantley’s improvements at the plate are consistent with an extremely skilled contact hitter beginning to develop a mastery of the strike zone with respect to his own hitting abilities. In other words, Brantley is showing an improved hit tool. This development was in no way guaranteed by his previous performance, but is consistent with the skills he possesses as a hitter and his incremental progress at the major league level. Given Brantley’s physique, should Brantley retain these improvements we should expect more power from him over the next several years. All in all, Brantley is looking like a good hitter and could very possibly become a better hitter over the next one to two years. If he can stay at CF, Brantley might even be an All-Star caliber hitter at his peak.

The second question, as you say, is more interesting. The biggest thing working in Brantley’s favor (and Cleveland’s) is that he is cheap. as a pre-arb player, Brantley is unlikely to command a substantially high salary until 2016 at the earliest, and that is assuming he becomes an excellent hitter. As such, he is exactly the kind of player Cleveland needs more of, not fewer.

Additionally, Brantley is under Cleveland’s control long enough to be a possible contributor to the over the horizon next wave, possibly including guys like Francisco Lindor, Ronny Rodriguez and Luigi Rodriguez. The issue of retaining Brantley is therefore only tangentially related to the questions around Choo, Perez (and Ubaldo and Masterson). The Indians do need more pieces in their minor league system and should, over the next two seasons, look to turn major league parts into some of that. If the next few weeks go bad, the Indians will have to walk a delicate line between holding out hope for next season and acquiring assets for the future. If the first-half of next year goes badly, the conversation is different and a partial sale should almost certainly take place. But even in this case, Michael Brantley should be viewed as part of the future.

Am I wrong? Or maybe it is time to start writing a "future missive" to yourself, reminding you not to debate me.

And if the question is really about Choo, ask yourself this. Who is more likely to be an All-Star in Cleveland over the next three seasons...Choo or Brantley (and who is more likely to be valued by another club as an All-Star now)?

So you’re saying trade Choo? You’re going to get killed for that suggestion.

Trade Choo? Only if Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton are part of the return package.