It’s been a tough couple years for Michael Brantley. In 2016, he played in just 11 games. In 2017, he played in more than eight times as many…and still topped out at just 90 games. He registered a mere 418 plate appearances in that span because of injuries and was only worth 1.5 wins.
These injuries were the kind that start small, like inflammation or a sprain so often do, and cost a player a few games. Then news comes out about them being more serious than expected or about how the player has experienced a setback. And when those types of injuries start to pile up and happen in back-to-back years, it’s easy to wonder when, exactly, that player will be themselves again. Or if they ever will.
So far in 2018, though, Michael Brantley is showing us he’s back to being his vintage self.
Alone, the numbers this season are impressive. But compared to 2014, they’re downright eerie. It’s as if he’s looking into a mirror and seeing the 2014 version of himself looking back. He was worth 6.5 wins that year. The biggest difference is that he’s traded in steals for more power — he had 23 stolen bags in ’14 and is on pace for about 5 this year — but that matches the direction of today’s game, anyway.
Everything else paints a special picture. The league’s average strikeout rate has hovered around 16.5% for the last five years. Its average isolated slugging is around .150, and the average weighted on-base average is about .325. Brantley has been 50% better than average at not whiffing, at least 20% better at driving the ball, and 60% better at creating offense. Those kinds of results put him in rarefied air.
If we look at the single season leaderboards, we can see just how rare. Here’s a list of qualified players since 2014, which was when Brantley was last healthy for a full season, who have struck out in less than 10% of their at-bats and had an ISO of .170 or better:
- Michael Brantley, 2014
- Victor Martinez, 2014
- Michael Brantley, 2015
- David Murphy, 2016
There were 537 qualifiers over that time period. It happened four times. Brantley did it twice. No one managed to do it in 2013 or 2017. While we’ll have to wait to see if they can keep it up, the only three players to do it so far in 2018 are Brantley, teammate Jose Ramirez, and Nick Markakis(?!).
In many ways, ISO and strikeout rate in tandem can inform us a great deal about who’s being productive and how. Brantley’s skill at deciding when to swing is truly unique.
But what really makes his start to the 2018 season special is that he’s 31. With evidence building over the last several years that players peak earlier than we ever thought, it was fair to wonder if the time he lost to injury meant we were all robbed of some of his best years. Aging curves consider as large a pool of players as possible, though, so getting to witness players who force exceptions is always a blast. His 15 game rolling wOBA and K% averages tell us we’re having a pretty good time.
The bigger the gap between the red and blue lines, the better. We can see what he was like at his peak in 2014 and his valleys over the last couple years. As the space between the two lines grows in 2018, so does the one where we get to appreciate what he’s doing. We don’t know when the next injury will come or when Father Time will show up. We should enjoy this Michael Brantley while we can.
Data from FanGraphs. Feature image from Rod Mar for Sports Illustrated.