Michael Brantley is off to a hot start this season, but can he keep it going and finish with a (prorated) repeat of his 2019 campaign?
After playing just 101 games over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Michael Brantley had a solid and healthy 2018 for the Cleveland Indians (.309, 17 home runs 76 RBI, .832 OPS over 61 plate appearances). He signed a two-year, $32 million deal with the Houston Astros after the season.
Lost in the shuffle of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal is what Brantley did last season. He posted a .311/.372/.503 slash-line, as he set a career-high with 22 home runs, with a career-best 40 doubles and 90 RBI. The .311 average was fourth in the American League, and he was also top-10 in hits (179; third) and doubles.
Entering Friday’s action, Brantley is off to a hot start in 2020. He has a hit in all six games thus far, with multiple hits four times and in three of the last four. Overall he’s hitting .435 (10-for-23) with a 1.196 OPS, one home run, three doubles, six RBI and five runs scored.
Can Michael Brantley keep it going?
Before and after injuries threw his career off, if only to offer better samples, Brantley has combined a solid walk rate with a low strikeout rate. Along with good plate discipline, he makes a ton of contact, in the 90 percent range every year (via FanGraphs). Even with a heavier ground ball tilt than is ideal (45.3 percent in 2019), Brantley’s contact is typically not “soft” contact (just 13.3 percent last year).
More balls in play provide more opportunities for hits. But Brantley’s BABIP has never been so elevated (.325 last year, per FanGraphs) that a .300 average would be vulnerable to a correction in fortune.
The 60-game sprint that will be the 2020 MLB season means raw stats will look different than any other season (in other words, lower). Specific to Brantley, he won’t be hitting 22 homers, driving in 90 or hitting 40 doubles in the truncated season.
But if we use his 148 games from last year, here’s how Brantley’s numbers would have prorated over 60 games.
9 home runs, 36 RBI, 36 runs scored, 16 doubles
Allow for a missed game or two, and the raw numbers above don’t change much. Here’s how the projections from Brantley’s FanGraphs page look.
ZiPS (46 games): .302/.361/.470 slash, 6 home runs, 26 RBI, 26 runs scored
Steamer (45 games): .289/.349/.464 slash, 6 home runs, 28 RBI, 26 runs scored
Through six games, Brantley’s current 60-game pace would be 10 home runs, 36 RBI, 30 runs scored and 18 doubles. That is very close to how his 2019 numbers would have looked over 60 games, which shows sustainability.
Brantley won’t finish the season with a .435 batting average or get on-base half the time, even if this is the ultimate “never say never” season with such a short set of games. But a .300 average, with an OBP in the .360-.370 range and a slugging percentage between .450 and .500 look like easy marks, to go with 8-10 home runs, 35-40 RBI, 30-40 runs scored and 15-20 doubles. In fantasy baseball terms, assuming we get through a full 60 games or something close, Brantley might be a top-10-12 outfielder when it’s all said and done.
So can Brantley repeat his 2019 campaign this year? The evidence suggests the answer is yes, even though the counting stats will of course be prorated. But this is a long-standing sustainable skill set and batted ball profile, with health the only thing that has derailed it in terms of bigger sample sizes to evaluate.