Michael Brantley is expected to be activated from the disabled list in time for the Indians' series opener against the Twins in Minnesota Monday night. He's was sidelined for most of spring training while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and has been on a rehab assignment for more than a week now.
The Indians have managed to do pretty well in his absence, going 9-7 so far. A winning record should not be very surprising, but did you know they third in the American League in runs per game? That's not something many fans expected, especially while the team was without the guy who's been their best hitter over the last couple years. In a reversal of last year, the team is scoring more runs than would be expected from its component production though, and odds are without better on-base and power numbers, the scoring would regress downward soon. Doc Smooth might be able to help prevent that.
Brantley has been the Tribe's best hitter in recent years, and one of the very best left fielders in baseball. Were does he rank among all left fielders in Indians history?
Using the preferred stand-alone metric of our era, WAR, here are the Indians' leaders in left field**:
- Albert Belle 27.3
- Jeff Heath 24.8
- Charlie Jamieson 24.0
- Dale Mitchell 19.3
- Joe Vosmik 16.6
- Michael Brantley 16.6
- Albert Belle 27.5
- Jeff Heath 26.6
- Charlie Jamieson 21.8
- Dale Mitchell 19.0
- Joe Vosmik 16.4
- Michael Brantley 14.4
**: Players are considered left fielders if they played at least half their games (Indians only) in left field. All statistics listed herein include all of each player's games with the team, not just the ones they spent in left field.
Baseball-Reference also tracks something called WAA, which stands for Wins Above Average, and rewards greatness more than longevity.
Indians left field WAA leaders:
- Albert Belle 13.9
- Jeff Heath 12.7
- Minnie Minoso 6.6
- Dale Mitchell 6.6
- Michael Brantley 4.7
- Joe Vosmik 4.0
Using any of these metrics, the man most Tribe fans would pick without looking at any numbers is in fact the team's top left fielder. Albert Belle was awesome. It's worth noting that Jeff Heath is very close to Belle in all three metrics, and comfortably deserves to be considered the team's #2 left fielder, and he's a player few Indians fans would think of when considering the team's top players from over the years. Hell, he's a player many Indians fans haven't even heard of.
Brantley is running pretty close to a dead heat for #5 on the list at the moment. Brantley has been worth an average of 5.1 bWAR, 5.0 fWAR, and 3.0 WAA over the last two years. He could probably climb to #4 this season if he returns at the level he was at the last couple years, and to #3 in 2017. He's under contract through 2018, and if he stays healthy and doesn't decline, he could have a strong argument for ranking ahead of everyone but Belle. To catch Albert, I believe Brantley will have to sign an extension and post a solid season or two beyond his current deal.
Jamieson is third in each measure of WAR, but nowhere to be found on WAA (he had only 0.9) because he played for the Indians for 14 years, but aside from a couple standout years was pretty close to average. He leads all left fielders in games played (1487), plate appearances (6358), hits (1753), doubles (296), and runs scored (942). Brantley is currently at 807 games, 3434 plate appearances, 909 hits, 190 doubles, and 402 runs scored. Brantley has no chance of catching Jamieson in most of those categories any sooner than 2020, so unless he signs an extension and stays healthy, he's not going to get there. Brantley has 116 doubles in the last three years though, and if he can match that over the remainder of his contract, he'd be at 306 two-baggers with the Tribe, which would lead all left fielders and rank 6th overall with the team (tied with Ken Keltner, still quite a ways behind Tris Speaker's franchise record of 486 doubles).
Belle leads all Indians left fielders with 242 home runs and 751 RBI. Brantley is at 61 and 393, which means could take over the lead in RBI in 2020 if he signs that extension I mentioned, and means he won't take over the lead in home runs even if he plays until he's 100.
Our primary interest in Brantley right now should be how he plays in April and May, and then how he looks over the rest of this season. Awaiting his return though, absent any current production to mull over, my mind wandered to his historical standing. If he can pick up where he left off, he could play his way deep into the collective memory of Tribe fandom.