No matter what revisionist history anyone tries to sell you, the decision to pick up Michael Brantley’s $12 million club option last winter was met with a considerable amount of skepticism.
The Cleveland Indians’ front office was essentially betting $12 million — no small amount, mind you, considering it made Brantley the third highest paid player on the team — on a left fielder who missed all but 11 games in 2016 with shoulder injury, before being limited to 90 games in 2017 after two trips to the DL because of a right ankle sprain.
Would Brantley be able to hold up long enough to earn those $12 million?
Well, six Tribe outfielders made a trip to the DL in 2018. None of them were Michael Brantley. The only trip he made was to Washington D.C. for his third MLB All-Star Game.
He provided a steady presence at the No. 2 spot in the lineup, slashing .309/.364/.468, above his career average .295/.351/.430 line. His average exit velocity (89.9) and hard hit percentage (37.5) were both career highs for the Statcast era.
After five consecutive seasons hovering around 24 percent, Brantley did start reaching outside the zone more this season, swinging at a career-high 27 percent of pitches outside the plate. But his strikeout percentage returned to a more characteristic 9.5 percent after ballooning to 14 percent and 13.3 percent in 2016 and 2017, respectively. That strikeout percentage was best among qualified outfielders across the league. The tradeoff is that he doesn’t walk much, carrying a 7.6 percent walk rate that ranks near the bottom of the outfield ranks.
Defensively, Brantley has never provided much value, and this season was no exception. He was worth -3 DRS and 0.5 UZR. On batted balls with a 60 percent or better chance of being successfully fielded — considered either likely or routine — Brantley was perfect. Of the 81 batted balls he saw with less than a 60 percent chance of being fielded, he only caught three.
Even with his lack of power for a corner outfielder — Brantley’s .160 ISO was among the lowest in baseball for qualified left fielders — and almost no defensive value, it’s scary to imagine the Indians’ outfield in 2018 without Brantley’s reliable presence in left field.
Brantley saw action in more games (143) than any other Tribe outfielder, with only Brandon Guyer (104) and Rajai Davis (101) breaking the century mark. His total plate appearances (631) dwarfed those of any of his outfield teammates, with Greg Allen coming in at a distant second (291). Brantley also hit more than 15 home runs in a season for only the third time in his 10-year career, whereas no one in the Indians’ outfield even touched double digits.
The only other Indians outfielders who produced a higher wRC+ were Leonys Martin (176) and Lonnie Chisenhall (129) and that pair played in a combined 35 games for the Tribe.
By season’s end, Brantley was worth 3.5 WAR. The Indians’ nine other outfielders — excluding of course Jason Kipnis, who spent all of three weeks in center field at the end of the regular season when the Indians were trying to find reasons to crawl out of bed in the morning and show up to the ballpark every day — were worth a combined 0.9 WAR.
Now the Tribe faces a possible future without Brantley in field, who is a free agent this offseason. The Indians are likely to consider extending him a qualifying offer, which would be worth $17.9 million. But I don’t know how likely he is to accept it, considering he hardly needs to prove himself now and will be one of the top available outfielders on the free agent market.
If this season was his last in Cleveland after 10 years with the Tribe, Brantley certainly showed that the rumors of his playing career’s premature demise were greatly exaggerated.