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Michael Brantley Doesn't Have to be an MVP Candidate for LF to be a Strength

After only playing about 2/3rds of the time in LF last year, Michael Brantley should be freed of the need to backup Michael Bourn in CF, hopefully allowing him to play almost everyday in left. And having him locked in as the LF is a very, very good thing.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Previous entries in my position-by-position comparison of the 2014 and 2015 Indians:

With the infield out of the way, it is time to move on to the outfield. And the outfield is actually more interesting. There is a new face in RF and lots of questions about CF, but today we start with the most boring (in the best way possible) OF position - left field.

A reminder: I pulled a list of every player who took the field in that role for the Indians in 2014, listed their wOBA and UZR/150, and the percentage of the team's PA they took in that position.

For the 2015 stats, you are seeing ZiPS projections for wOBA and my projection for UZR/150 based on what the player has done in the past. The 2015 playing time projections are also mine.

For wOBA, the 2014 numbers are position specific (meaning, for example, that in this post you're seeing what Santana did only when he was playing first base), while the 2015 numbers assume the player has the same wOBA regardless of where they play on the diamond. UZR/150 is always position-specific.

The Indians Total line is the pro-rated average of the guys who played (or will play) the position based on playing time; the AL average line is exactly what it sounds like - the average production for the league at the position.

Left Field

Player 14 wOBA 14 UZR 14 PT 15 wOBA 15 UZR 15 PT
0.395 -10.1 66.7% 0.346 -10 90%
0.273 -47 11.4% 0.278 -20 5%
0.369 -16.8 7.7%
0.210 -2.9 7.6%
0.294 -8.4 2.0% 0.314 -10 5%
JB Shuck 0.200 -31.3 1.9%
0.223 -115 1.2%
0 -17.2 1.0%
0.980 -43.2 0.6%
Indians Total 0.357 -16.1 0.341 -10.5
AL Average 0.320 1.3

In news that should surprise no one, the Indians were most excellent offensively in LF last year and should still be above average next year.

Michael Brantley was forced to play more CF last year than anyone should be comfortable with, and the fact that he only played 2/3rds of the time in LF pulled the offense for this position down to merely great from truly, insanely elite. Only Chris Dickerson (and Nyjer Morgan in four PA) put up above average offensive numbers in Brantley's stead.

But Brantley was a legitimate MVP candidate. So why the drop in 2015? The biggest thing is just that Brantley had never done anything like his 2014 before and while there are not any clear signs that it was a complete fluke, there is also little chance he completely repeats. The most likely outcome is exactly what ZiPS projects - sizable drop from his 2014, but still a nice boost compared to his career numbers. His career wOBA is .330 (and that includes his stellar 2014), so .346 is impressive improvement.

In the field, however, the story is different. Advanced metrics paint an unimpressive picture of Brantley's defense, much to Terry Francona's confusion. I wont go into detail (though I highly recommend this August Fagerstrom piece, if you want detail), but Brantley just doesn't have the range of elite LF. If and when he gets to the ball, he almost always makes the play. And if you are on base when he gets to the ball, challenging his arm is likely not in your best interest. The problem is he doesn't get to the ball nearly enough.

There are some things the team can do to improve that. Better positioning (assuming positioning is not currently optimal) can reduce the distance he has to travel and increase the percentage of balls he gets to. They could work on his recognition of the ball off the bat and see if he can't get a quicker jump, increasing the time he has to get to the ball. But the reality is, Brantley is a reliable but not a great defender and that is unlikely to change.

My expectation is that Brantley will not be the primary backup to Michael Bourn this year, meaning we should see him in LF almost everyday. That should lead to another above average offensive season at the position, and another defensive season that you can live with, even if you can't love it.

What did I get wrong here? Is Francona more right than the numbers on Brantley's D? Is Brantley going to play a lot more CF? Will we see James Ramsey, Tyler Naquin or another young player here on occasion?