Over the past few seasons, it has been easy to forget just how valuable Michael Brantley, a finalist for the 2014 American League Most Valuable Player Award, can be to a contending team. And early in the 2019 Major League Baseball regular season, the veteran lefty has been found gold for the Houston Astros.
With the Cleveland Indians, Brantley enjoyed a bounce-back season in 2018, but was overshadowed by a pair of MVP-worthy teammates in the Cleveland middle infield, Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor. After being limited to 101 games over the prior two seasons, Brantley appeared in 143 contests in 2018, hitting .309 with 17 home runs in another All-Star campaign.
But the Indians, made clear by the trade rumors surrounding ace Corey Kluber, had no intentions to pony up and pay the oft-injured but solid former Silver Slugger. Brantley hit free agency and signed with the Astros in mid-December, signing a pretty team-friendly deal of two years at $16 million a piece.
The Astros, regarded by many before the season as a favorite for the AL pennant, are off another solid start in the 2019 campaign. At 22-15, the American League West division looks to be theirs for the third consecutive season, as the Seattle Mariners sit three games back. The main reason for Houston’s strong start is their electric offense; the Astros rank first in MLB in hits (344), batting average (.275), and OPS (.841), second in on-base percentage (.352) and home runs (65), and fifth in doubles (71).A free agent acquisition in the winter, Michael Brantley has been found gold in the batter's box and in left field for the @astros this season, as @bytomdorsa explains.Click To Tweet
Even in a lineup with former Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuve, lethal third baseman Alex Bregman, and the best leadoff hitter in baseball, George Springer, Brantley has been the driving force for much of their unequaled offensive production. In 36 games, Brantley has slashed .340/.386/.603, all of which are career highs, and has posted career-best home run (nine), RBI (27), and total base (85, a current AL-high) paces so far.
His ability to dominate the strike zone as someone with the discipline to strike out so infrequently has been a blessing to the power-hitting Astros, as has his production as their primary left-handed hitter. Houston’s best hitters before the acquisition of Brantley were all right-handed (Correa, Altuve, Bregman, Springer, Yuli Gurriel), but the veteran left-fielder provides versatility and multiple facets to an otherwise potent but easy-to-approach lineup, especially in the wake of losing switch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez in free agency.
Only one other left-hander is a common starter for the Astros, that being right fielder Josh Reddick, who hit just .242 in 2018. It was clear the Astros needed a pivotal left-handed bat in a murderers’ row full of righties, and Brantley has not only filled the void, but has completely surpassed preseason expectations to become one of the game’s most feared hitters again.
Brantley has long been called “Dr. Smooth” for his calm demeanor and level head, on and off the playing field. His relatively microscopic strikeout percentage (11.1 percent in 2019, 9.5 percent in 2018) ranks in the top-five percentile in MLB, as does his .416 weighted on-base average (WOBA), meaning he has avoiding soft contact and bad swings, giving the Astros good at-bats every time he digs in. That is the untroubled, straightforward value of Brantley’s offensive game.
The 31-year-old has been stellar defensively in left field this season as well. With a team-best four defensive runs saved in 247 innings in left, Brantley’s age and injury concerns have been erased in the early parts of the season. His Dr. Smooth identity has transitioned over to the Minute Maid Park outfield grass, where he has not committed an error in 2019.
Houston has an elite offense that is capable of winning the World Series for the second time in three years. Altuve and Correa make up one of the best middle infields to ever play the game, the emerging Bregman is a bonafide star, Springer has continued his dominance from the leadoff spot, and guys like Gurriel, Robinson Chirinos, and Aledmys Diaz are playing their roles perfectly.
The Astros pitching, as it has been for much of their ongoing competitive run, is in a class of its own. A pair of ace right-handers Justin Verlander (5-1, 2.86 ERA) and Gerrit Cole (3.15 FIP, 74 strikeouts), versatile relievers-turned-starters Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh, and free-agent signing Wade Miley have combined to make a formidable starting rotation backed by top-class relief pitching. Ryan Pressly and Hector Rondon have been elite setup men for closer Roberto Osuna, and Will Harris and Chris Devenski have performed as exceptional middle relievers to this point.
But you can argue, and make a good point in the process, that Brantley is the nexus of the club and the guy who puts everything together. A dangerous hitter, great defender, and mature dugout presence, Michael Brantley has been nothing short of found gold for the Astros in the 2019 season.