Michael Brantley is Cleveland's little secret. He's become maybe the most popular plater on the team, but few outsiders seem aware yet, of what a good player he's become. Entering Sunday, he has a .287 batting average, a .347 on-base percentage, and a career-high .500 slugging percentage. He's already hit 7 home runs (putting him just three shy of the career-high 10 he hit last year), which puts him on pace to hit 30 of them. This increased power has Brantley pointed towards the best year of his career.
If the power is here to stay, the contract extension that keeps him under club control through 2018 is going to work out incredibly well for the Indians, and even if he ends up with only 15 home runs, he'll be a very good player.
Brantley has been a solid hitter for the last couple years, but it wasn't until he hit especially well with runners in scoring position during the second half of last season (and drove in a bunch of runs) that he got much attention from fans, many of whom still viewed him as a symbol of a failed trade involving CC Sabathia. He's already got 30 RBI this season, putting him on track to become the first Indians with 100 in a season since Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner back in 2007. While RBI are as much about opportunity as ability, Brantley has been taking advantage of his opportunities better than anyone on the team.
One factor that allows him to do this is his elite ability to put the ball in play, and unlike his newfound power, Brantley's ability to avoid strikeouts isn't something new. Brantley has struck out in just 8.7% of his plate appearances so far this season, which is among the lowest rates in baseball.
From 2009 through 2011, Brantley struck out 14.1% of the time. That was already a good rate (AL average for those years was 18.4%), but in 2012 he got even better at it, and since the start of that season, no American League player has been tougher to strike out than Brantley:
AL K% leaders, 2012-2014 (min. 1,000 PA):
1. Michael Brantley: 9.9%
2. Dustin Pedroia: 10.1%
3. Erick Aybar: 10.3%
4. Ichiro Suzuki: 10.5%
5. Nick Markakis: 10.6%
(the AL average has climbed to 19.9% for those years)
Among qualified AL players, Brantley has swung at the eighth-fewest pitches outside the strike zone during that time, and when he does swing, he rarely misses. He's made contact on 91.5% of all swings over the last 2+ years, the highest percentage of any player in the league. Brantley has swung and missed on only 3.4% of the pitches he's seen during that time, which is also the best rate of any player in the league.
When you put the ball in play, you give yourself a chance at a positive outcome, and Brantley has become one of the very best in baseball at putting the ball in play (his BABIP so far this season is only .274, far below his .302 career average, which means there's reason to think his numbers could be even better going forward). If Brantley keeps doing what he's been doing, he's going to be an All-Star for the first time in his career, and the secret will be out.