March 3, 2024

Michael Brantley Is One of My Favorite Indians/Guardians Ever

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Michael Brantley’s approach at the plate, both physically and mentally, was the biggest thing that made him such a great ballplayer. Standing from the left side, Brantley would work from a square stance. Everything about him at the plate was quiet- no waving the bat around, no rocking, no elaborate timing mechanisms- just a small, light stride towards the pitcher to get ready to swing followed by quick hands going straight to the baseball.

Every. Single. Time. Foot up. Foot down. Hands through. Crack!

0-1 count in the first inning on the pitch he was looking for? Foot up. Foot down. Hands through. Crack!

3-1 count in the 5th inning of a lopsided blowout? Foot up. Foot down. Hands through. Crack!

Protecting in a 2-2 count with the tying run on second and two outs in a tie ball game in the 8th? Foot up. Foot down. Hands through. Crack!

He was like clockwork. He was ol’ reliable. You never felt like Michael Brantley blew an at-bat. You always felt like you were going to get his best. Any situation, any game. Brantley was up? I was as cool as a cucumber. If he didn’t get a hit, it wouldn’t be because of a failure on his part.

Coupled with a discerning batting eye and a diligent plan at the plate to find his pitch and his pitch only early in the count and trusting his natural ability to solidly put the ball in plate late in the count, Brantley became one of the steadiest, most dependable offensive producers in all of baseball for more than a decade from 2012 to 2022.

That production, quiet approach and confidence at the dish would lend itself to Brantley being given one of the best nicknames in recent baseball memory during his time in Cleveland: Dr. Smooth.

 

 

But the doctor almost never got to practice in Cleveland.

On July 7th, 2008 the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers consummated a trade that would see Cleveland’s homegrown ace CC Sabathia be sent to Milwaukee in exchange for four young minor leaguers: star prospect Matt LaPorta, left-handed pitcher Zach Jackson, right-handed pitcher Rob Bryson and a Player to be Named Later. Brantley was eventually named as that fourth player, but the saga that sent him to Cleveland isn’t that cut and dry.

For one, the trade almost never happened. The Los Angeles Dodgers general manager at the time, Ned Colleti, has confided in his memoir that he thought he actually had locked down a trade for the Indians’ imposing left-handed ace before the LaPorta deal was complete. Terms had been agreed to, but there was a problem. The problem was that Dodgers’ owner Frank McCourt was going through a tumultuous divorce that was having an effect on his funds and therefore, on the team’s funds. McCourt either could not or would not give the additional $4 million needed to fund the acquisition of Sabathia. The two teams would still ultimately make a deal that would send Casey Blake to the Dodgers for future Indian Carlos Santana, but could not figure out the finances to send Sabathia to Chavez Ravine.

With LA essentially out of the picture, negotiations progressed with the Brewers and a framework for a deal was set up. The teams agreed on the three main players that would be part of Cleveland’s return, but there was some debate on the Player to be Named Later. The debate centered around two players: third baseman Taylor Green and our man, outfielder Michael Brantley.

In doing some research, how this conflict would be settled is still a little murky to this day. What we know is that the decision would be tied to whether or not the Brewers made the post-season. If the Brew Crew played in October, Cleveland could pick which player they received. If not, Milwaukee would choose. This is where some confusion starts.

One way I have seen the situation portrayed is that Cleveland wasn’t sure which player they preferred, but was looking forward to having the rest of the season to come to a consensus, hoping to be able to pick at year’s end. Another way I have seen the situation portrayed is that everyone involved knew the Brewers would rather send Green, but the Indians wanted Brantley and how much Sabathia helped propel Milwaukee to the playoffs would decide which team got their way.

Whatever the case may be, Sabathia was stellar in a Brewers’ uniform. He had a 1.65 ERA in 130 2/3 innings down the stretch, pitching on three-days rest multiple times and was so good that he finished sixth in National League Most Valuable Player voting despite not joining the league until right before the All-Star break. Milwaukee made the tournament, and Cleveland ultimately got to choose. And whether they needed the rest of the summer to come to a consensus or not, they would choose Brantley.

So yeah, if Sabathia hadn’t turned into a foot taller left-handed 1999 Pedro Martinez for half a season, we probably never get to watch Michael Brantley play in a Cleveland uniform. If Frank McCourt’s marriage wasn’t on the rocks at the wrong time, maybe we never get to watch Indians outfielder Michael Brantley play in that alternate dimension either.

But even with the PTBNL choice going the Indians’ way, there was a significant period of time when this trade didn’t look so rosy. I’m talking years of fans stewing over the return they got for their beloved ace, further exacerbated but the next year’s trading of another Cy Young Award winner, Cliff Lee.

As stated before, the Sabathia deal went down in July 2008. So, by three full years later in the 2011-2012 off-season, fans would expect to be seeing some fruits come to bear from the swap.

Instead, by that winter, LaPorta was looking like the bust that he would eventually become. He had been worth negative WAR for the last two seasons in the Majors and was about to turn 27. 2011 had seen him hit .247 with 11 home runs in 107 games as someone who was slated to be a slugging first baseman. He was an abysmal fielder and never walked or hit for enough power to make up for his swings and misses.

As for the pitchers involved in the deal, by the off-season in question, Jackson had been out of the organization for two full years, having pitched to a 6.11 ERA in 12 appearances between 2008 and 2009. Bryson had yet to pitch above AA and was slotted to return there for all of 2012.

And our Player to be Named Later? He came up as a September call-up in 2009 and reached base safely in his first 12 games as an Indian. At the time, Brantley was considered a center-fielder, and as a speedy left-handed hitting center-fielder rising to the Majors the immediate inclination was to ask if Cleveland had found their next Kenny Lofton.

Those notions would cool by the following summer. Brantley would make the Opening Day roster due to an injury to Russell Branyan but would hit a dreadful .156 through April 19th when he was sent down. He would return to the Majors in July due to an injury to Grady Sizemore, and he would improve… by one percentage point, hitting .157 in 70 at-bats. He would be demoted once again before returning to the Majors one more time in September.

2011 would go somewhat better. Brantley hit .266 with seven home runs and would at least stick in the Majors, but he would miss the final quarter of the season or so due to a broken hamate bone in his right hand. He wasn’t bad, but his season wasn’t overwhelmingly stupendous and an injury sending him home early certainly didn’t help. I think the narrative of the time would certainly be that he wasn’t the next Kenny Lofton nor worth being the return for an ace and Cy Young Award winner.

So yeah, in the winter before the 2012 season, the return on the Sabathia trade looked bleak. LaPorta was in the midst of bombing and Brantley looked like he was maybe a serviceable light-hitting center-fielder… maybe.

 

But that following summer, something clicked. For one, Brantley took over the everyday center-fielder job, starting 140 games at the position over the course of the season. More importantly, his approach to the plate had finally shown through.

In 2012, Dr. Smooth seemed to be born. Brantley established himself that year. He still only smacked six home runs, but hit a much improved .288 and nearly walked as much as he struck out. He wasn’t an All-Star, but he did accumulate 2.6 WAR and looked to be a part of Cleveland’s future.

And that he was. 2013 would bring the beginning of the Terry Francona era. Francona would move Brantley to left field, where Brantley would learn to patrol Progressive Field’s 19-foot wall expertly over time and show off a deceptively strong throwing arm. In 2013, he would put together another season offensively similar to 2012. Again, he wasn’t at the All-Star level, but Cleveland liked what they saw enough that rather than go through arbitration before 2014; they made a four-year commitment to Brantley to stay in Cleveland along with an option for a fifth year.

That move would pay off in spades. If Brantley became Dr. Smooth in 2012, then by 2014 he was Chief Resident Smooth. He hit .327 on the season and doubled his home run total from the previous year, hitting 20 over the course of the 2014 campaign. The year would also see him finally earn his first All-Star appearance as well as a Silver Slugger Award. And from then on, that level of production could be expected from Cleveland’s left-fielder.

Between 2014 and when his option year ended in 2018, Brantley would slash .311/.371/.475 with 17 home runs, 41 doubles and 17 steals per 150 games. No Indian over that time period would post a better K-rate, batting average, on-base percentage or weighted Runs Created than Brantley over those five years on a minimum of 700 plate appearances- not Lindor, not Ramirez, not Encarnarion, not Santana.

The only unfortunate blemish to speak of is how much time Brantley missed at really pertinent times in the Francona era. In the off-season before the Indians’ World Series appearance in 2016, Brantley underwent shoulder surgery. He missed the beginning of the season but made his debut on April 25th. The problem was, that Brantley still wasn’t right. He played in just 11 games that year, never appearing again after May 9th. It turned out that he would need another surgery on the shoulder that would end his season for good. He missed both the good and bad of the Indians’ Cinderella October run. Perhaps he would have been the little bit extra needed in Game Seven of the World Series.

Dr. Smooth would be ready for the start of 2017. He would make his second All-Star team, playing with a clean bill of health through the start of August. However, a freak injury during a play on a ball in left field on August eighth that year would cause Brantley to go on the IL with a bad right ankle strain. Brantley would miss the entirety of the Indians’ record-setting 22-game winning streak and would only return for a couple of games right before the season ended in an effort to get some timing for the playoffs. He would make the playoff roster and ended up playing a major role in Cleveland’s 2017 American League Division Series against the New York Yankees, DHing in games due to an injury to Edwin Encarnacion, but Brantley wouldn’t be able to shake the rust off. He hit .091 in three games in the series. Again, health cut short his opportunity to create post-season memories.

Brantley would return to form and good health in 2018, hitting .309 with 17 dingers in what would end up being his final season in Cleveland. His swan song would be another All-Star year as the picture of consistency and dependability he would be best known for.

He would leave the following winter and head to the dark side, playing for the Houston Astros for the remainder of his career, making his final two of five total All-Star appearances and collecting a World Series ring in 2022.

But when I think about old Dr. Smooth, I don’t think about his Astros years or what could have been on those ’16 and ’17 teams. I don’t think about the slow start to his Major League career. I don’t even really think about the All-Star appearances.

What I think about is what a pure joy it was to watch Michael Brantley hit. Quite frankly, I didn’t do it justice above. He might not have had the gaudy power numbers of someone like Aaron Judge, but I’m not sure if you could find a better hitter pound for pound when it came to making solid, effective contact during his time in the game.

Let me put it this way. If you’re teaching kids that are getting into baseball the right way to approach hitting; the right way to approach an at-bat, there wasn’t a better person for them to emulate than Michael Brantley.

So as he has announced his retirement from the game on Friday, much love and respect to the Doctor. He’s one of my favorite Indians ever. Indian, Astro or otherwise, I’m going to miss watching him operate.

 

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