Saturday, March 19, 2011

Analysis: Michael Brantley

Cleveland should move their fences back and raise the center section. You know, create a mini-Green Monster in dead center.

Wait...This is 2011 and not 1991....And I want to write about Michael Brantley and not Alex Cole. Sorry for the confusion......right.....Michael Brantley.

Alex Cole was a 6' 2" left handed hitter. He played centerfield and Michael Brantley is a 6'2' left handed hitter. He plays centerfield and left.

Alex was acquired via trade. He debuts for Cleveland the following year at the age of 24. He hits .300 in 227 ABs....stop.....Brantley. Brantley. Brantley...Michael was acquired via trade. He debuts for Cleveland the following year at the age of 22. He hits .313 in 112 ABs.

Okay, I am going to stop here. But it is worth noting the 20th anniversary of the Great Alex Cole fever dream. Yes, it is true. Ttfc, in its infinite wisdom, moved its outfield wall back and created a mini-green monster in center. Its visual aesthetic matched the genius of the strategy. Remember, this is an organization with a young Albert Belle coming up through the system. At this point, Albert is smashing everything in sight, be it baseballs or bathroom faucets. True, Albert wasn't managing to get on the field for full seasons, and you couldn’t blame them for not rushing to stake their entire future on a player with, let’s just say, issues. But he hit 20 HRs in 312 ABs in '89 while at AA. That is an eye-popping stat worth remembering.

But Cleveland caught Alex Cole fever in '90. He hit .300 and stole 40 bases in only 256 plate appearances. 40 stole bases in 256 plate appearances! What could he do in over 500 PAs? The delirium was taking hold. However, Cleveland's brass did notice one unsettling stat, of his 68 hits 59 were singles. And Cole didn't hit any home runs. What to do? What to do? Got it. Level the playing field, or in this case, expand the playing field. If Alex Cole wasn't going to hit any home runs, then no one was.

How did it turn out? Well remember Cole's 40 stole bases? And Belle's 20 home runs? Cleveland learned a very valuable lesson. 2 SBs are less than 1 HR. I think Bill James wrote a tract on that once.

On the 20th anniversary of Cole inspired madness, we can use Cole as both a role model and cautionary tale for Michael Brantley. How could Michael Brantley improve his game by learning from Alex? How might Michael avoid the pitfalls of Alex's game?

Alex Cole role model

Let's start with how Michael can learn from Alex. The ttfc’s front office wasn't completely insane. Alex Cole had value as a leadoff hitter. His OBP in '90 was .379 and .386 in '91. That is pretty good. As a point of reference, Kenny Lofton had a career OBP of .372. In contrast, Brantley has a career ML .313 OBP. Brantley's value, like Cole’s, is going to come by establishing himself as a leadoff hitter. Sure, Brantley's OBP is, in part, a product of a lower batting average, but let's focus on the walks for a moment.

Cole managed those OBPs, in part, by walking 86 times in 708 PAs (12%). Brantley now has 446 ML PAs and 30 walks (6.7%). What is interesting is that Cole had close to a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio. In Brantley's minor league career, he has always walked more than he has struck out. Moreover, his ML strike out percentage is 12.8%. By getting his BB/KO ratio back to 1:1, he should have a walk rate around 12%

This can be accomplished by taking more pitches. Brantley is swinging at 21.7% of the pitches he sees outside the strike zone. Let’s compare Brett Gardner with Michael Brantley. Gardner last year walked in 13.9% of his PA (Brantley 6.7%). Gardner (90.6% contact per swing) isn't as good a contact hitter as Brantley (92.1% contact) but only swung at 18.2% of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone. By simply taking more pitches early in the count regardless of their location, Brantley can reduce the amount of pitches he swings at outside the strike zone. Because Brantley has such a high contact rate, even when he looks at more strikes early in the count, it won’t drastically increase his strikeout rate. Getting into more 3-ball situations will lead to more walks. This will, in turn, move the BB/KO ratio toward the coveted 1:1.

Combine the 1:1 BB/KO ratio with a batting average approaching .300, and you model Alex Cole’s value. Brantley hit .292 after July 31 last year (195 ABs). He has a career minor league BA of .303. And there is the aforementioned, .313 BA in his first 112 major league ABs. Even his struggles during the first half of 2010 were coupled with a .125 BAbip. All indicators are that Brantley could hit around .300.

A batting average close to .300 and a 12% walk rate will get you Alex Cole value. That is Alex Cole the role model.

Alex Cole cautionary tale

As previously indicated Cole was a slap hitter. Cole had a total of 89 extra base hits over 2012 career PAs. 82% of Cole's career hits were singles. Cole was a wiry 6'2" 170 lbs, and he lacked the strength to drive pitches into the gap. (If only there had been some magic juice that would have given Cole more strength, his career would have been more successful.)

Alex had one value and one value only. He could get on base and into scoring position. The problem with being a slap hitter is that you are extremely vulnerable to the cruel whims of BAbip. If you hit the ball where they ain't, then you can get on base. But if you hit them where they are, the BA plummets. The low BA brings down the OBP, and your one and only value goes the way of Alex Cole's career.

While both Cole and Brantley are 6' 2", they do not share the same frame. Brantley is 6'2" 200 lbs. It is a slim but muscular build. So far, Brantley has a total of 19 extra base hits in his career 446 ML PAs. 82% of Brantley's hits so far have been singles. Further, 82% of Brantley’s career hits have been singles, and that should send a cold chill down Chris Antonetti’s spine. Thus far in his baseball career, Brantley has been a slap hitter.

If Brantley is to avoid ghosts of Cleveland’s past, he must develop gap power. In 1992, Alex starts the year in Cleveland with a .260 BAbip. He has a .206 BA and .284 OBP. The Cole fever breaks. Cleveland awakes. Cole is shipped to Pittsburgh. He plays two more years as a starter. The man that inspired an organization to change their ballpark to suit his skills is out of the majors before age 31.

Alex Cole's career stands as a cautionary tale for Brantley.

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