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Should we re-sign Brantley?

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Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Uncle Mike has become a beloved player for the Astros. Originally signed away from the Indians on a 2-year, $33-Million dollar player - Brantley came heralded as a capable star player who struggled to stay healthy consistently after playing 101 games across his 2016-17 seasons.

The ever calm Brantley has shown himself to be well worth every penny of that contract to date, with a .310/.372/.504 triple slash line during his time in an Astros uniform. His production earned him an All-Star nod, and the 148 games played last year put some of the durability questions to rest.

Let’s take a bit deeper of a look.

MLB: SEP 04 Twins at Indians Photo by Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So who is Michael Brantley?

At 6’2, 205 lbs, Brantley was a 7th round draft pick, coming in at #205 overall back in 2005. John Sickels continually rated Brantley higher than scouts, with his original draft profile in his book which he profiled in his Sleeper to all-star prospect retrospective

”Milwaukee drafted Michael Brantley in the seventh round last June, out of high school in Port St.Lucie, Florida. The son of former major league outfielder Mickey Brantley, Michael looks like a real sleeper to me. He already has good speed and knows how to use it. His strike zone judgment is EXCELLENT, and he had no problems with pro pitching in his debut. He is a good defensive outfielder, well-schooled in the game. His main weakness right now is lack of power. He is still growing into his body, and at this point is content to just make contact rather than deliberately drive the ball for distance. Michael’s dad had some pop in his bat, and it will be interesting to see how much Michael himself develops. He’ll need some time to mature physically, but I’m impressed with what he has done so far. Grade C+.”

Not to skip ahead to his MLB performance, but John had a prediction back in 2009, before Brantley was even recognized as a true prospect in which he stated:

”Unsubstantiated Prediction: Michael Brantley will have an All-Star season in 2014 at the age of 27, hitting .345/.425/.470 with 55 steals, finishing second in the American League batting title race.”

Actual 2014 Season? .327/.385/.506

Prediction: .895 OPS, Actual: .891 OPS ... and yes, he was an all star, came in 3rd in the MVP race, and won Silver Slugger. Oh, and he came in 3rd for the Batting Title... some pesky 2nd baseman who had never even hit .300 in the MLB surprised everyone and won it.

MLB Performance:

Brantley has not quite matched his 6.5 WAR season from 2014, but his time in the Astros has likely left little to be desired from an offensive perspective. I guess, you could argue his post-season performance was lacking. In the post season, Brantley remained a threat to get on base, but his power left a bit to be desired with his .286/.367/.329 triple slash. I am never a huge fan of judging someone based on post-season performances due to small samples sizes - although it’s been somewhat consistent as a trend with a .284 SLUG across his 107 post season plate appearances. And of course, he’s had some memorable moments such as this one:

Concerns:

Well there are 2 primary concerns in regards to re-signing Brantley. The first one is the easiest to discuss, and it’s simply payroll space. The Astros have one of the highest payrolls in baseball, and are challenged with staying under the luxury tax threshold. Brantley’s performance has helped eliminate durability concerns which will be reflected in his contract - which was a steal based on his current performance. With the entire outfield leaving, funds will be spread even thinner and that’s before the discussion of Correa, Greinke, Verlander, etc the following year.

But let’s ignore cost for the time being, as the other major concern is his age, as at 33 years old, he will likely decline over the next few years.

Speed - Brantley has clocked in at a sluggish 25.6 feet per second on his sprint speed. Of all the players on the team with at least 10 competitive runs, that’s slower than every other Astro than Martin Maldonado. That’s notably down from 2019, which already was a below average at 26.4 ft/second. Brantley did play through an injury based on the “accidental” foot placement of Joe Kelly, which may be skewing these numbers as well, but it will definitely be a concern even with the Astros smaller left field.

Defense - I’ve never been a big fan of defensive metrics, particularly with their challenges with the shift, and Brantley hasn’t been providing a ton of value with his glove, he’s actually slightly improved year over year with his UZR (1.5->1.6), Arm (-1.1->0.7) showing some positive signs. If his speed decrease is real and not just due to injury though, one has to assume these numbers will continue to degrade.

Offense: While Brantley’s .304/.370/.512 triple slash is not only an improvement (and remarkably similar to his 2019 triple slash of .311/.372/.503), the advanced stats don’t tell the same story. His xwOBA is down .020 (.365->.345), and his BABIP (.345) is the highest he’s had since his rookie year, despite lackluster speed. All of this points to some regression in his near future. To clarify, this isn’t saying he would be a bad player, but his expected stats of .278/.344/.456 is a significant decrease in performance.

Strike-out % - “Michael Brantley never strikes out™”. One of the parts of Michael Brantley’s game that I’ve admired most is his contact ability and eye, leading to a consistent offensive performer with a solid OBP. In 2018, he was in the top 1% of the league with a 9.5% K rate. In 2019, top 2% with a 10.4% K rate. This year? It’s jumped up to 15.9%. While it’s still a small sample size, there are some alarming indicators of his lowest contact % in his career by nearly 5% (at 85.1%), and it’s on pitches both inside and outside of the zone.

Conclusion:

I’ll admit, I love Brantley. He fit so well into this team, and the relationship between him and Springer has been so incredibly enjoyable to watch. Additionally 2020 is difficult to judge people on based on the weird, shortened season and injuries seemingly at every turn. In 2020, the Astros have not quite been the same offensive juggernaut, and the lack of protection in the line-up may be showing with Brantley seeing a much lower percentage of strikes (although he does a good job watching pitches outside the zone).

Unfortunately, I think we’re starting to see Brantley’s decline. While his offensive statistics look good now, and his sprint speed MAY be skewed by the injury earlier in the year, there are a lot of red flags. Don’t get me wrong it’s still a small sample size, but all indications (contact %, sprint speed, strike out rate, BABIP, etc) point to some fortunate luck for him and regression incoming.

While I hate to say it, the Astros cheating scandal may play a factor in Brantley’s desire to re-sign with the Astros as well. Despite being a member of a team that was directly competing against the Astros in the 2017 play-offs, he has still received the scorn and outlash of other fanbases.

From a intangible standpoint, the Astros will not be lacking in veteran presence as they currently field one of the oldest teams in baseball, and their stars are now well established. He is a fan favorite, but in my opinion, not as marketable as some of the others due to his demeanor.

Whether or not he’s worth re-signing will obviously boil down to the length and value of contract that he’s looking for. Especially as the Astros look to juggle their payroll challenges going into future years and coverage of the outfield next year.

What are your thoughts? Would you want the Astros to re-sign Brantley? What if Springer decided to move on? Are you concerned about regression or believe it is small sample size noise?