The Cleveland Indians are starting to put it together as April draws to a close. They sit with a winning record and tied for first place heading into a series against the Houston Astros. It's their first test against an expected October participant (depending on how you think the baseball gods will treat the Texas Rangers) and should be a good early measuring stick.
The Indians look good though, and it's nice to see Michael Brantley in the middle of it all, evidently performing like the star he was before his lost year. The numbers look right - .310/.385/.517, he's hit some homers, some doubles and he even stole a few bases. It looks good. OR DOES IT? (BUM, BUM, BUMmmmmmmm!)
As with anything pretty, in this case Brantley's slash line, there's always some kind of flaw lurking ready to bring a big bad bummer. For instance, Brantley's batting average on balls in play is .366 right now. He will always have a higher-than-normal BABIP because he hits the ball all over the place, has a decently high ground ball rate, hits it hard, and doesn’t chase too much, but that's still more than 50 points higher than his career average. This doesn't mean we're going to have to lop 50 some points off his average as things normalize, but it's a hint that maybe he's overperforming.
That said, he is hitting a bit more line drives in the early going, 25 percent compared to 22 percent in his last full season. That's not so outsize that it's an outlier, but it could lead to a slight bump in his BABIP if he holds true on that. The 52.3 percent hard hit ball rate is a bit less tenable, since it’s 15 to 20 points higher than any time in his career. That’s where the BABIP drop will likely come. Less hard-hit balls means less liners, which have the highest average BABIP. Last year the highest hard hit ball rate was 45.9 percent by David Ortiz. Brantley is great, but he’s no David Ortiz.
A more troubling part of his batting profile is his strikeout rate. For his career, Brantley has been stunningly good at not striking out — 10.7 percent of the time prior to this year. That number has leapt to 21.5 percent in 2017. We're nearly done with the month, and if it holds it would be his highest strikeout for a single month since he became a star in 2013, besting the 21.1 percent mark he set last April. This by itself isn't too troubling, though strikeout rate does start normalizng somewhere around 60 plate appearances, right where Brantley finds himself.
Attached to that is his contact rate, which has long been as high as his strikeout rate has been low. Brantley has routinely made contact when swinging somewhere north of 90 percent of the time. The only time prior to this season it was lower was last season, and even then it was 89.5 percent of the time when he wasn’t fully healthy. This year? down at 84.9 percent, and his swing rate has jumped to 46.9 percent of the time, well above the 40.5 percent career rate and even the 42.8 percent rate the last time he was fully healthy in 2015. Something's up. He's swinging more and making less contact and making way less contact on pitches outside the zone (63.3 percent so far vs. 81.6 percent of the time). It's very out of character for him.
This early spike in strikeout rate by itself isn't that worrying. His rate is right there with other great hitters like Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. All of them routinely have high batting averages like Brantley. He's also walking a decent amount, 9.2 percent of the time. It's not an immense jump from his career average, and lower than the 10.1 percent rate he had in his excellent 2015, but it's a decent positive aspect to the early goings.
It's not as though he's pressing so much he's become recklessly aggressive. And again, it cannot be stressed enough, it's super early. It's just the strikeout rate is something to pay attention to, since it generally stabilizes earlier than most other offensive stats.
It could be a nonissue, since if anything a strikeout in a double play situation is a better outcome and means Edwin Encarnacion gets to hit. It’s just out of character for the usually contact-heavy Brantley. The strikeouts combined with the contact issues could combine to be worrisome. Unless he stays slugging homers and turned into a true power hitter. He’s never profiled to be Edwin-esque, though; it would be weird for it to start now. Maybe he just did a lot of squats the last year since he didn’t have anything to do, we don’t know. For now, it should just be watch to see if it’s systemic of some greater issue.
We’ll check back on it in a few weeks.