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Michael Brantley might be back

It’s only 100 or so plate appearances, but the Tribe outfielder is looking very encouraging.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

A team like the Indians, pretty much set in stone to represent their division in the playoffs and considered among the elite in baseball, really shouldn’t have the kind of indecision swirling around like it did this offseason. But with both a key bat and arm leaving, an abject disregard for most of free agency and the counting on of bounce-back seasons from former key contributors dealing with injury, the Indians kind of did it to themselves. One of those was Michael Brantley.

Three and four years ago he was in the elite of hitters, then felled by mysterious injuries and bad luck. He’s back though, seemingly healthy after a belated start. It might still be a little early, but Brantley might actually be back.

As we enter mid-May, the Sample Size Gremlin begins to lose his powers. Once a guy has 100 or so plate appearances, you start to get a feel for how his season is going to shake out. Brantley is at 107 plate appearances coming into Tuesday, slashing .323/.355/.525 which is good for a 134 wRC+. This is what we all wanted, basically that exact slash line. The walk rate is a little low, only 34.7 percent instead of the 8-10 percent mark he’s shown in the past, but the batting average, the power, that’s what he’s supposed to do.

But it’s early, and even at 100 plate appearances it’s not concrete. After all, Tyler Naquin is hitting .319 with a 102 wRC+. Things are still a little out of wack. The difference between the two, aside from a dire power deficit in Naquin’s case (he’s slugging below .400) is that old friend BABIP. Naquin’s is a gaudy and unsustainable .429, while Brantley’s comes in at a much more acceptable .326. Brantley being the type of hitter he is — using the whole field, a good supply of grounders in his hit total – lends itself to a higher than average BABIP. His is .315 for his career, so that .326 tells a very encouraging story.

The theme the last couple years in baseball has been launch angle; the spike in fly balls. It’s what turned Yonder Alonso into a bit of a star last year, it’s what caused Francisco Lindor’s massive homer run spike. It’s something a few select writers (read: me) have preached as something Michael Brantley should lean in to as he’s had very strong exit velocity numbers. Over the last three years he’s struck the ball at 89 miles an hour on average, which isn’t elite or anything, but it’s above noted power hitters like Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas, and Nomar Mazara over that span, and includes a pair of injury-plagued seasons.

But the hope was never for him to start blasting fly balls — that’s the job of Alonso or Edwin Encarnacion. If he could elevate his line drive rate though, just stop hitting so many grounders, surely he could up the doubles (and perhaps home run) totals. It’s early, but he seems to be trending that way.

Brantley’s ground ball rate so far this year is 42.4 percent, five points lower than his career and also his lowest rate ever. The fly ball rate hasn’t taken all the slack, though at 32.6 percent it’s just barely his highest rate and also a few points higher than his career. It’s more the 25 percent liner rate that seems so encouraging. It’s three points higher than his career average, so not a huge spike, but the focus here should be his hitting fewer ground balls. Which is good — it means less easy outs, more damage. Plus liners actually have a higher chance of becoming a hit than a grounder — the league BABIP on line drives the last three years is .681, compared to .240 for grounders and .147 for fly balls. If Brantley isn’t going to start knocking dingers, then this is the next best thing.

It’s encouraging not just because he’s eschewing grounders, but also because the contact rate hasn’t fallen at all. Remember that Alonso’s focus on fly balls and doing big damage caused a big dip in his contact rate. At 90.6 percent so far this year, Brantley is right in line with his best years, and his in-zone contact rate (95.8 percent) is precisely his career average. The only minor concern is his going after pitches out of the zone more than ever. His 2018 rate is 28.3 percent, a far cry from the 23.8 percent for his career and close to his highest rate from 2016, which was also his most depressing year.

It’s still early, but Brantley has been good so far, and sustainably so. I do expect the walk rate to rise evne as the batting average slides a bit. But if the batted ball profile holds then a .310/.380/.500 season is quite feasible. He’s on pace for a 15ish home run season, which is all that any of us expect, along with like 45 doubles. Basically Jose Ramirez’s 2016 season really. The dingers are for Alonso, Edwin and the two tiny infielders, not the outfielder. Wait, that seems wrong. But it’s Brantley. He’s a pleasure to watch at the plate, a pillar of calm among the youthful excitement of Lindor or the sheer power of Encarnacion.

It’s nice to have him (possibly) back.