For the cautiously optimistic among us, getting excited about Michael Brantley’s return is a new, confusing feeling. We’ve been down this road before. We’ve heard the stories of Brantley maybe being back for Opening Day last season, although it was a longshot at the time, and eventually we heard that his shoulder had healed and he’d be back playing with the team midseason.
Well, midseason was accurate last year, but it wasn’t great. Brantley played in just 11 games and he was not himself — on the field or in the box score. In 43 plate appearances before being shut down, he hit .231/.279/.282 with no home runs and a powerless swing that was far too herky-jerky to be considered the vintage Michael Brantley that we all know and love.
Coming into spring training this year, Brantley had not homered in a meaningful game since September 9, 2015 against the Detroit Tigers when he did so twice. He did hit a home run in his first game back last spring, but that was his only power output in the past 18 months. Brantley’s eye and ability to not strikeout may not have left him completely — though he did strikeout in 14 percent of his limited at-bats in 2016 — but it has been far too long since we saw that Dr. Smooth power stroke.
Well, I’ve got good news: It’s back.
It first appeared on March 26 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, just his fifth game back with the major-league squad this spring:
And again, three days later, against the Cincinnati Reds:
Everything about these swings is vintage Brantley ripped straight out of 2015.
If you don’t believe me, feast your eyes on this GIF that only took several hours, three separate programs, and a sketchy website to put together. On the far left we have Brantley crushing a home run against the Toronto Blue Jays shortly before the initial injury in September 2015, followed by the March 26 dinger, another blast from July 2015, and the most recent homer.
The first GIF is shows a bit of a stiffer approach, but Brantley was also caught ‘mirin his home run as opposed to the other three where he instantly hops to hustle to first. The other difference worth pointing out is that the third GIF is Brantley digging a ball out from below his knees, while the two home runs in spring were mom’s oven-roasted meatballs served up and ready to be splattered all over Goodyear Ballpark.
As of this writing, Brantley has still not been named an Opening Day starter, and I don’t expect him to be until it’s absolutely necessary. The Indians have been bringing along Brantley as naturally as possible this spring. No timelines, no rushing, just whatever speed he needs, he is at. Francona said as much when speaking to the media about Brantley on Monday:
He looks very good. He feels very good. It's pretty exciting. We just don't want to put more on his plate because he's done such a terrific job. But again, it's gone well. I'd rather have it be going like this than going the other way. [...] Last year he pushed so hard for opening day. It's important. Having your players is important. But we need to be sure we do right by him because that will end up being right by us.
Brantley is scheduled to start in tonight’s spring game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, concluding his first string of three-straight starts since last May. If that goes well, it’s a pretty good sign that he might be ready for Opening Day in Texas. One of the biggest hurdles of these recent shoulder and arm injuries for the Indians has been pain during off days, so don’t be surprised to see the Indians sit Brantley for the final couple spring training games to see if he still feels good while off the field.
Now, where are we supposed to put all this unbridled optimism? That’s still hard to say. Being able to mimic a swing that you have perfect throughout your entire adult life does not automatically mean you’re ready to return from a traumatic shoulder injury by any means. That swing being back, however, plus the guarded optimism coming from Brantley and the Cleveland Indians all spring long has me excited.