Jul 27, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Cleveland Indians center fielder Michael Brantley (23) singles against the Kansas City Royals during the seventh inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Brantley's surprising breakout

No, I’m not trying to imply in any way, shape or form that Indians’ All-Star OF Michael Brantley is engaging in any sort of illicit activity. I really do mean that his breakout is just flat out confusing. For years, Brantley has been the epitome of average. He posted a league average fWAR spread out from 2011-13, a career 97 wRC+ up through ’13, never saved any extra runs in the outfield and never showed any stand out tool. He always was thought to have some untapped potential left, yet the code was too hard to crack for the quickly aging Tribesman (he turned 27 this season). Time was running out, hopes of his career year dwindled and then because baseball is a beautiful sport, Brantley forced upon us one of the greatest mid-career breakout stories of the decade.

He’s posting career high marks in basically every statistic known to man, and several yet to be discovered. He’s been the 14th best player in baseball so far by fWAR, adding 3.9 wins over a replacement level player. His wRC+ of 149 is good enough for 13th in the sport, as he works on establishing himself as a premier hitter.

If you didn’t believe me when I said I can’t find anything on Michael Brantley’s 2014 season, look at his stats. Exact same ground ball and fly ball rates, no difference in swing percentages and tendencies, heck even his BABIP is in line with his career marks.

But the mystery will surely fade once we can get an interview. Thanks to Paul Hoynes of the cleverly named Northeast Ohio Media Group, it looks like Brantley is ready to shed some light on his breakout:

“I’m just putting the barrel on the ball. If it goes out, it goes out. I don’t control that. I just try to put the barrel on the ball as much as possible.”

Well that’s…uninsightful. That seems like something all hitters try and do. Maybe a new mindset at the dish has been his fuel?

“I haven’t changed my approach at all. It’s all about putting the barrel on the ball consistently. I don’t have a real reason why.”

Not encouraging either. Well certainly there’s something powering the new and improved Brantley, right? Please?

“I’ve said it before, I’m not a home run hitter. I put good swings on the ball and whatever happens after that is out of my control. The key is to put good consistent swings on the ball as much as possible.”

Now, I’m not one to argue with major leaguers, but Michael, you have hit 50% more homers than your previous career high barely halfway through this season, and lead your entire team in long balls. Just sayin’…

Even through all this confusion, players don’t just randomly have great years. There’s always something behind them. Sometimes it’s easier to look at some simpler stats than the gory formulas to truly understand a player. Brantley’s Slugging Percentage this season jumped up from a career rate of .383 to this season’s towering .505 number. Obviously he’s hitting more homers, but it’s how he’s been doing it. His batted ball distance on flies and homers has spiked from 276 feet last year to 282 this season, one of the largest jumps in the bigs. Thanks to more distance, more fly balls are leaving the yard; his home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB) is at another career best mark, 15.3% (major league average is around 10%).

Adding distance is one thing, but he’s changed how he’s hitting in more than one way. He’s shifted his spray angle of batted balls, pulling a career high to right field. He’s not just hitting farther, but with more authority in regards to location as well.

Michael-Brantley1Despite Brantley’s best efforts to tell us literally nothing about his fantastic 2014, we’ve uncovered the results of whatever changes he’s made. Yet sometimes, no amount of fancy stats, charts or graphics will make up for just sitting back, cracking open a cold one and watching the game itself. Had I maybe done that to begin with, it would have been a lot easier to get to the root of the All-Star performance. Brantley has adjusted his swing mechanics.

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The first change of note is a slightly higher leg kick this year. This is helping him get his legs more involved to drive the ball farther. He still rotates his body by pushing his hips back towards the first base dugout, but what’s impressive is how much more he’s clearing his hips recently. Instead of finishing facing towards the mound, he’s rotating much farther where he’s almost in line with the right field foul pole. Where his finish was higher previously, that was an effect of early hand separation. He’s keeping his hands together longer now and keeping the bat through a powerful contact zone longer.

The changes made all help explain what the stats have already shown. His new swing is just more powerful, and helping drive him to a banner year. Part of the greatness of the new swing is that it’s made it easier for Brantley to hit balls on the middle third, and he’s been crushing them this season. In 2013 he managed a .381 SLG% against belt high pitches, and this year he’s launched them to a .593 tune.

It’s safe to say that Michael Brantley is quietly having one of the most exciting seasons in baseball. His mix of speed, contact and power is one well known by Indians fans for being flashed, but after a swing fix he’s ready to catch the nation’s eyes with prolonged success. Brantley has transformed himself from the most average Joe you could find, to a cornerstone type player.

Tags: Cleveland Indians Michael Brantley

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