There are professional hitters and then there are Professional Hitters™.
Michael Brantley might be chief among the latter. In 2022, at the age of 35, he finds himself alone in an impressive, specialized category.
Of the 158 qualified hitters in baseball, only eight have accrued more walks than strikeouts.
Brantley is one of them.
But when it comes to also making hard contact, only one of those eight players has a Hard-hit rate of at least 45 percent: Brantley.
There is another name who falls just shy of inclusion: Nationals superstar Juan Soto, whose Hard-hit rate is 44.7 percent. That’s decent company to be in.
Since the mid-2010s, Brantley has been one of the game’s steadiest hitters. His breakout in 2014 saw him finish third in AL MVP voting by way of hitting .327/.385/.506 with 20 home runs while striking out just 8.3 percent of the time. It amounted to a career-high 151 wRC+, a mark that remains Brantley’s best in his 13-plus seasons.
Eight years later, the five-time All-Star is amid what could be his most productive season since his remarkable 2014.
Entering 2022, expectations were fairly high for Brantley, but it was somewhat unknown if he could sustain his outstanding past production. The fact that it would be his age-35 season meant that a potential decline could be on the horizon.
With a 139 wRC+ (.297/.380/.434, 5 home runs) through 251 plate appearances, however, that concern has been thoroughly extinguished.
Brantley is not only hitting around his usual .300, but, as mentioned above, he’s walked more times than he’s struck out, something he’s done in a single season only once (2015).
Considering the late stage of his career, what’s perhaps most impressive about Brantley’s 2022 is his batted-ball data — his current Barrel rate, Hard-hit rate and Sweet Spot percentage are all the highest they’ve ever been in the Statcast era.
Unsurprisingly, the excellent walk-to-strikeout ratio coupled with more optimal contact has resulted in a 91st percentile xwOBA:
Brantley’s focus on hitting line drives and going up the middle has helped yield his elite 40.2 percent Sweet Spot percentage, a metric that typically sees many of baseball’s top hitters atop the leaderboard. Yordan Álvarez is the only other Astros hitter in that 40 percent club.
One particular area that has unexpectedly seen stark improvement from Brantley is his output versus left-handed pitching.
In 2021, he hit .219/.261/.314 against them in 180 plate appearances. Through 80 plate appearances in 2022, that line sits at .310/.380/.394. The small sample sizes notwithstanding, his 132 wRC+ against lefties this year is markedly better than his career figure of 92 wRC+.
Brantley’s wOBA splits display the progress he’s made this year:
(Nice, aesthetically pleasing symmetry at the end.)
Much is known about Brantley’s ability at the plate, but now well into his 30s, he’s understandably been given a reduced role on the other side of the ball.
Though he’s a below-average runner and splits time with Álvarez as the Astros DH, Brantley has garnered decent grades from both OAA and DRS in his 27 games in left field this season, which echoes the average-or-better marks he received from the preceding 111 games in 2020 and 2021 combined. He’s not going to make an impact in the field, but simply being a competent contributor with the glove is more than sufficient for the Astros, given his age.
A former seventh-round pick, Brantley has become one of baseball’s most revered hitters. His sharp eye at the plate pairs well with a sweet, fundamentally sound swing that consistently leads to solidly-hit line drives.
It’s a testament to his skill and savvy that rather than trying to maximize his fly-ball output in order to hit for more power — as many have attempted in recent years — he’s instead optimized his contact-oriented, line-drive centric approach:
Fittingly, he’s reaped the rewards of sticking to his guns, as MLB has ostensibly deadened the ball.
2022 is a contract year for Brantley. He signed a two-year deal with the Astros before the 2019 season and then re-upped for another two years (in dramatic fashion) before 2021. Based on how well he’s performed this year, it seems he still has plenty of baseball left in him.
His future in Houston is something that the club will have to reckon with merely months from now, but for the time being, it looks like the Astros will continue to receive top-notch production out of the 2-hole.