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Michael Brantley’s quiet return

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Maybe he isn’t the MVP candidate he was, but Michael Brantley has become himself again.

Cleveland Indians v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

This has not been the most fun season to be an Indians fan. Yes, they’re in first place, and it’s hard to get too worked up. But there’s a struggle to it, a lack of joy in the slog of the season. Games simply aren’t entertaining, especially in this prolonged swoon. Whatever makes great seasons feel special, like 2016 or 2007, it’s missing right now.

Amid all this, though, there’s something very nice going on. We are overlooking the return of a nearly full-strength Michael Brantley. He’s no longer the best player on the team, but after waiting seemingly forever and worrying if ever see that swing again with setback after setback, he’s back to being the player he always was.

Remember Superstar Michael Brantley? The one that was third in MVP voting, hit 90 doubles in two years with a combined 143 wRC+, and was feared by opponent pitchers and cursed by opposing teams’ internet message boards? That was awesome, an event every plate appearance. He was a buzzsaw, blasting liners all over the AL Central and bouncing key ground ball singles right past the pitcher time and again to fire up rallies and nab leads. After three or four years of seeing MIguel Cabrera obliterate pitching, suddenly the Tribe had their own response. It wasn’t nearly the same as what Cabrera was doing, but it was something to point to, to boast about. When there’s a man who’s become unto a god in your division, you at least need something to give hope.

His season so far isn’t quite as amazing, not like 2014 when he exploded from the depths of averageness with a 152 wRC+ and 20 homers, coming in third in the MVP race. To see a player go from what Brantley was his first couple years to what he became at his peak was incredible, so out of nowhere. What’s truly cool is, we’re seeing Jose Ramirez do the exact same thing, two years in a row. First when he just showed up on the team last year to fill a role Brantley vacated and perfectly replicated the expected offensive output, then this year as he becomes one of the best hitters in the American League. It’s Brantley’s whole career, squeezed into two seasons.

But for Brantley, hitting .300/.365/.429 is fine. It’s probably not “batting third” stats, but the Indians lineup makes very little sense sometimes anyway. And there’s something to be said for giving a bit of a hat tip to what a man did. Don’t go too far, but it’s fair to treat Brantley as the team’s star because along with Corey KKluber (and with apologies to Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, very good at the same time), he’s this version of the Indians’ first, biggest one.

It might cost some marginal runs here or there during the season to bat him third, and ultimately it’d be nice if Francona could have a nice talk about maybe moving the best hitter up in the lineup in the playoffs, but for now (and despite my own protestations just weeks ago) it works. Who knows, maybe it took some extra time of getting back in the groove from his long absence, and he’s about to start hitting like 2014 again.

At this point Brantley reminds me of Michael Young. Young was a very good hitter for the Texas Rangers for 14 years, hitting .300/.346/.441, and was known jokingly (I hope) as a “professional hitter” as his career wound down. Basically, he was fine, a slight offensive positive.

Some years Young was excellent, an All-Star and nabbing a few MVP votes (as high as 8th in 2004 and ‘11) and other years he was simply a 100ish wRC+ hitter. If he found himself in the right situation, as he did in 2006, he could 100-RBI man, hit .300, and convince box score glancers that he’s a great hitter, one of the best even. Young retired with a career 104 wRC+, which Brantley is certainly outpacing at 112 this year which is right in line with his career rate. But he’s also peaking, growth wise.

Young was never truly great, he peaked with a 134 wRC+ in 2007. But he was always consistent and very good. More than that, he was a central figure in launching the run of the Rangers at the turn of the decade. Before Josh Hamilton or Ian Kinsler or Nelson Cruz, there was a that face, that guy in the middle of the lineup who's been there. A leader, an elder statesman of sorts for the new big faces. So too with the Indians, before Lindor and Ramirez and Encarnacion, it was Brantley.

The Indians have a bunch of legit stars now. But there’s a reason that Brantley went to the All-Star game this year despite being possibly the fourth best hitter on the Tribe. He’s still the face for the moment, ‘till Lindor inevitably takes over.

I don’t think Brantley is going to show the same power this year, he hasn’t been able to develop the same kind of power on inside pitches as he did in 2014. Check it out, using slugging percentage by pitch location:

He’s not doing his greatest, isn’t quite the hitter he flashed as. But that might be fine. He’s still a good hitter and that’s a good thing to have in your lineup. He was the first Good Hitter the Indians produced since what, Asdrubal Cabrera? More followed, but he’s the first, and he’s been really great. He might leave soon since he’s only got one more option year on his contract.

The Indians don’t have Rangers money to make him their own Michael Young, and that’s a bit sad. But for right now, it’s just nice to have him back.