Opposite Field Struggles Limit Michael Brantley's Ceiling
Michael Brantley got the first legit payday of his career earlier this week, agreeing to sign a four-year, $25 million deal with the Cleveland Indians -- a contract extension that also includes an $11 million team option for a fifth year. In his first two full seasons in Cleveland's outfield, the former seventh-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers has posted a .286/.340/.399 slash line with 110 OPS+ over 300 games. Compared to the league-average .265/.331/.424 slash line over that span, one could certainly argue the extension was a bit premature -- especially considering Brantley would not have hit the free agent market until after the 2016 season.
Showing an ability to hit for a decent average (.277 BA, .304 BABIP since his rookie 2009 campaign), pick bases at a solid rate (70% career stolen base rate compared to the 73.1% league mark since 2009), minimize mistakes in the outfield (.993 career fielding percentage compared to .987 league average), and show an above-average eye at the dish (10.7% strikeout rate, 7.1% walk rate) Brantley is without question a well-rounded player considering everything he brings to the table.
But there is one glaring void to his game, however, which you may have picked up on earlier: Power.
Since entering the league in 2009, Brantley owns an underwhelming .382 career slugging percentage (fourth-lowest among outfielders with 2,000 plate appearnces since 2009) and .107 isolated power (fifth-worst). Looking at his career spray chart, we immediately notice that most (if not close to all) of his power has come from pulling the ball, predominantly in the right-center gap. Our data backs up this observation, as Brantley has posted a career .551 slugging percentage to that portion of the field.
But on the opposite side, it's a different story. Amassing just 14 career opposite-field extra-base hits in 325 plate appearances, Brantley's career slugging percentage to left field sits at .361 -- worst among left-handed batters with at least 300 plate appearances since 2009, and nearly .200 points lower than his career mark to right field. The reason behind this low number may well be the quality of contact he puts behind these hits -- owning a career .131 well-hit average on hits to the opposite field compared to .281 to his pull-side.
Brantley's SLG% heat map to pull-side
Brantley's SLG% heat map to opposite field
Why will it become increasingly more important for Brantley to hit for power to all fields, rather than simply pulling the ball? First and foremost, pitchers are already taking advantage of his weakness, pitching 'away' from Brantley more often (54.8% of offerings against him have been located 'away' since 2012, compared to 51.8% from 2009 to 2011), which will make pulling the ball for power more difficult. Secondly, managers could simply adjust their outfielders' positioning to Brantley's power alleys, which may annul any power he had in the first place.
I commend Cleveland's confidence in Brantley -- he may well turn out to be one of the better outfielders in baseball by the end of it. However, his lack of power to all fields is concerning -- and if not addressed will certainly limit his potential at the big league level.