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Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, and selecting the right sample

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Two Tribe stalwarts are headed in opposite directions with their season. Maybe.

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

The Indians are far from a perfect team. Even after they filled some holes at the deadline, flaws still exist. They could really still use a bat to lengthen and embolden the lineup. The general consensus is, one worry they don’t have is in Michael Brantley, because he’s consistent, he’s one of the All-Stars, and he’s good, right? On the other hand, the voices of “TRADE JASON KIPNIS” were, if not deafening, certainly out there in the first months of the season. He had a slow start, but baseball being the game of the long season, things get a chance to shake out. In both cases, they are. For better, and for worse.

Prior to June, one of these men was hitting like a man possessed, the other like he was carrying a pool noodle to the plate each game:

Brantley and Kipnis stats before June 1st

Player Team G PA AVG1 OBP SLG HR wRC+ BB% K% BABIP
Player Team G PA AVG1 OBP SLG HR wRC+ BB% K% BABIP
Brantley CLE 45 201 .337 .383 .560 9 154 6.5% 9.0% .333
Kipnis CLE 54 238 .199 .283 .303 3 61 9.7% 19.7% .241

It’s about as hard to understate how nice it was to see Brantley make this kind of comeback as it is to overstate just how bad Kip was at the plate. He looked simply lost. It seemed like there was no power, no patience and no ability to make contact. It was dreadful.

In Brantley’s case, as worrying as the lower than normal walk rate was, the BABIP at least didn’t scream that he was simply super lucky and riding a wave of false hope. If anything it was Kipnis who deserved the benefit of the doubt at that point. He was hitting a lot of fly balls and has been logging a healthy-seeming 88.7 mph exit velocity all year. The optimist’s mind said that Brantley was real, Kipnis merely unlucky and due for a correction.

So come June, and since then, the script has flipped just a bit:

Brantley and Kipnis stats after June 1st

Player G PA AVG1 OBP SLG HR wRC+ BB% K% BABIP
Player G PA AVG1 OBP SLG HR wRC+ BB% K% BABIP
Brantley 50 219 .257 .303 .381 3 83 6.4% 8.2% .268
Kipniaa 44 174 .252 .333 .432 7 107 10.3% 19.0% .278

Now, this is just a bit unfair to Brantley, this chart was compiled as he was mired in an 0-for-13 mini slump, prior to which he was still hitting a still pretty miserable .271/.315/.394 since the beginning of June. Even with that though, he’s been admittedly nothing short of bad for two months now. Meanwhile, Kipnis has been, if not offsetting Brantley’s slide, at least been a positive influence on the offense with that 107 wRC+, but also showing off a bit of pop with those seven homers. Those fly balls he was launching to the warning track in the late spring started finding seats come summertime.

So what’s real here, what’s fake, who are we to believe is having a more real stretch? Well, one thing to always remember is that baseball is a game of hot and cold. Nobody just performs at exactly their average of course. That would be unsettling to say the least. Kipnis, at least, is having a more realistic BABIP stretch, and does have a track record of being an above average hitter when he’s healthy.

Brantley’s big problem may actually be hard to shake. It may simply be his own skills that are doing his season in. As a hitter, the image we have in our head (whether true or not) is of a batter that uses a lot of the field to spray the ball around and hits a lot of grounders. This year though, while his 45.7 percent ground ball rate this year is below his career 47.2 average, he’s pulling the ball 40 percent of the time, the highest rate since 2015. That was a very good year for him.

The thing is, defense has changed since then, adapted. This year teams are shifting on hitters 21.9 percent of the time. In 2015 when Brantley was pulling the ball as much as he is now, teams shifted 13.3 percent of the time. Brantley personally has faced a shifted infield in 143 of his 420 plate appearances, 34 percent of the time. In 2015 he saw a shift 54 times out of a total 596 plate appearances, or 9 percent of the time. He’s not the only person experiencing this big change, but considering he missed a season and a half of baseball, it’s probably pretty surprising.

So is that where Brantley’s hits are going lately? He’s not giving himself the chance to hit the ball over the infield like Kipnis is, which means he’s going to find way more gloves. And of those 154 shifted at-bats, 92 have come since the beginning of June. The league has plainly caught on to how he’s hitting the ball these days after barely having half a season’s worth of data over the last two years.

The Indians, and Brantley, surely see this too. He needs to adjust — or just get a bit more lucky and elevate that BABIP some back to near where he was a couple months ago. But even with the luck, he’s going to be outpaced by Kipnis in the power department simply by virtue of Kip giving himself the opportunity to hit home runs and extra-base hits more often because of the fly balls. The evidence of a better season was there for Kipnis early, and it’s getting realized. As for Brantley, the league may have adjusted to who he is. He just needs to become a better version of himself.