The Astros’ offense has looked once again like its old, more-dominant self, coming off an 8-1 stretch that includes back-to-back games of double-digit run support after last night’s 15-1 blowout. But even a few days ago when things were looking a little rougher, there was one consistent cog in the offense machine that was still working: Michael Brantley.
Three-quarters of the way through the season, the 32-year-old outfielder is putting together quite the impressive campaign for himself, looking like not just the best signing of the offseason, but also like he might be having the best season in his career. If you watch any Astros broadcasts this year, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the broadcasters discuss Michael’s league-leading 52 multi-hit games (a title he shares at the moment), but that’s only part of it.
Of course, he also recently moved into first place in the race for the batting title, edging past Yankees second baseman D.J. LeMahieu .337 to .333, thanks to a pretty incredible run. On August 2nd, Houston had a blowout win against the visiting Seattle Mariners, 10-2. Surprisingly, Brantley didn’t contribute to any of that, going 0-5 on the night with a quintet of groundouts.
That was the last game Brantley didn’t add at least a hit to an Astros offense; in the ensuing nineteen games, Brantley has gone 34-75, a .453 average that’s best on not only the Astros in that stretch by nearly 70 points, but better than any other qualified player in the game by nearly 60 points. And on top of that, he’s the only qualified player in that stretch with an OBP over .500 (.512), and he’s added ten doubles, three homers, and a triple in that stretch as well, good for a 1.167 OPS. Plus, for fans of history, he’s almost two-thirds of the way to Willy Taveras’s thirty-game hitting streak from back in 2006, still the franchise record.
Brantley has always been stellar at hitting pitches in the zone; his 96.1% Zone Contact rate is best in the league. However, his contact rate on pitches out of the zone is back up in the low 80s where it was a few years ago after multiple down seasons in the low-70s; only Nick Markakis, David Fletcher, and Jose Iglesias have been better this season at making contact when they swing at things out of the zone. Those combine to give him a contact rate of 90.9%, just slightly behind Fletcher’s 91.3% mark.
That contact rate on pitches outside of the zone is also interesting; Brantley is also swinging at noticeably more pitches outside of the strike zone than he has in the past, with a 28.7% mark that’s four points above his career average. That may not seem like much, but for a guy who’s, at his best, been consistently one of the thirty or so pickiest batters in the game when it came to what to swing at over the last few years, it does seem to signal a change in approach at the plate. And that has paid off, with a hard hit percentage this season a full ten percentage points above his career average, and what looks like they’ll be career-bests by a decent margin in a variety of batting stats, from homers to isolated slugging to even batting average on balls in play.
It’s hard to say if this type of season will get him any awards season votes; I’ve seen some people beginning to talk up D.J. LeMahieu’s candidacy, but if that’s the case, then Brantley definitely deserves consideration as well; Brantley might only narrowly edge him out in batting average, but he has larger leads in OBP (.397 to .380) and slugging (.545 to .531) that translate into a sizeable lead in wRC+(152 versus D.J.’s 138, and third in the AL behind just Mike Trout and Alex Bregman).
And Brantley is just ahead of LeMahieu in both Fangraphs’ and Baseball-Reference’s versions of WAR, right around the fringe of the top ten (4.8 and 5.2, respectively). That might not be enough to get him to the top of the ballot, but it might match his career-best totals from 2014 (6.5 and 6.7), when he placed third in the overall voting on the strength of a .327/.385/.506 batting line and a 151 wRC+. Again, that looks a lot like what he’s managed this year, so you never know; he might surprise and finish third again with a strong enough finish.
Of course, there’s a lot of stiff competition for that title this year, even on just his team. Between Alex Bregman, Yordan Álvarez, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and so on, it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle. But his recent hitting streak is as good a time as any to appreciate just how much Michael has contributed to this amazing season so far.