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Farewell to Michael Brantley...and who is the Astros’ replacement?

Michael Brantley announced his retirement. He is one of the team’s most respected and productive hitters. Who can replace his role?

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Texas Rangers
Michael Brantley bats in Game 3 of the 2023 ALCS.
MAndrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Late last week, Michael Brantley announced his retirement. He probably could have played at the age of 37, but he decided it was time to spend more time with his family. During his 5 year tenure with the Astros, Brantley was one of the most respected and popular Astros. Teammates and fans loved what he brought to the game. Now we can look back at his career with the Astros...and also look at who might take his role in the future.

Many labels can be placed on Brantley. A “pro’s pro.” The professional hitter with a sweet lefthanded swing. Mr. Cool. Calm and collected Dr. Smooth. He was proficient in all facets of hitting: clutch home runs, plate discipline, avoiding strike outs and attracting walks, hitting doubles, and hitting for average. Brantley wasn’t flashy on defense, but he brought solid fielding and an accurate arm to the outfield.

I’ll get to the stats shortly. But first let’s salute the intangibles he brought to the team. In early 2022, Fangraphs asked a number of veteran players who they viewed as “most underrated” player in baseball. Two former Astros said Michael Brantley. Catcher Jason Castro said:

“If you look at the body of work he’s put together over the course of his career, how consistent a hitter he’s been… I know he’s been an All-Star five times, but he’s not a guy that really gets talked about all that much...”

Kendall Graveman, who at this point was a White Sox pitcher, said:

“Michael Brantley. I don’t know if you can say he’s underrated — everyone knows he’s a good player — but at the same time, he doesn’t get the notoriety because he’s probably not hitting 400-foot home runs. I think he’s the best ‘professional’ I’ve been around. And for somebody to hit as well as he does, for as long as he has — especially in today’s game — and not search for more power, just be really true to who he is… and there’s also the impact he makes on the outfielders on his team. That, to me, makes a player underrated. The intangibles — being a professional and helping teammates — are something you can’t put a number on. From being inside different clubhouses, that’s something I view as underrated.”

Some of Brantley’s statistics:

  • Over his five years with the Astros, he batted .305, and posted a .365 OBP with an OPS of .828 (OPS+ 123).
  • I love doubles machines. Brantley didn’t make his reputation with home runs. But he hit plenty of doubles. Scaling his games played to a 162 game season, Brantley averaged 41 doubles per 162 games with the Astros.
  • He played in 12 post-season series with the Astros. True to form, he averaged almost 6 doubles per series.
  • He is 4th among active players in batting average, He is 1st among active players in At Bats per Strike Out, averaging about 8.5 at bats between strike outs.
  • He is 1st among active players in assists from left field. He is 1st among active players in double plays initiated by a left fielder (11). He is 1st among active players in fielding percent as a left fielder.
  • An unselfish player when it comes to advancing baserunners, Brantley has 45 sacrifice flies (25th among all active players).

Astros fans bid “fond farewell” to Michael Brantley. He will certainly be missed.

Replacing Brantley’s Left Handed Bat

Michael Brantley split time between LF and DH. In his last year, he was used more frequently as a platoon bat, inserted into the lineup when a tough right hander was the opposing pitcher. At least initially, it appears that Chas McCormick and Yordan Alvarez will split time in LF, with Alvarez moving to the DH spot in the lineup when McCormick is playing LF. McCormick hits better against lefty pitchers than righties. When Brantley was available, Alvarez and Brantley could man LF and DH, which provides extra firepower against tough RHPs.

Alvarez and Kyle Tucker are the only Astros’ starters who bat from the left side. Among MLB teams, the Astros have the fewest LHBs available. This results in a somewhat less balanced lineup, making the offense more vulnerable to tough RHPs.

Therefore, replacing Brantley’s role means finding a platoon LHB who can be inserted into the same DH/LF role. We will start with internal options and then move to free agent options.

The Astros have a number of LH outfielders in the minor leagues. However, none of them appear to be immediately ready for promotion to the major leagues. But it is conceivable that one of them could make a splash early in the regular season which might lead to a ML promotion sometime during the regular season.

The listing below shows the top of the LH OF minor league options. For each player, the AAA BB/K rate is calculated as an indicator of plate discipline. The 2023 AA/AAA wRC+ is shown as well. Finally, the comparable 2024 major league projection (ZIPS) for those two metrics is listed for each of the players. As a comparison benchmark, the table shows Michael Brantley’s ML BB/K and OPS+ in 2022-23.

K/BB wRC+ BB/K (projected) OPS+ (projected)

Loperfido 0.36 123 0.27 87

Dirden 0.34 68 0.29 85

Hamilton 0.76 84 0.36 84

Barber (AA) 0.62 111 0.32 82

Melton (AA) 0.25 117 0.26 74

Comparison: Brantley K/BB 1.03 wRC+ 127

Not surprisingly, minor league players have much worse BB/K rates than Brantley, providing a rough sketch of the likely weak plate discipline. Based on the OPS+ projections, ZIPS appears to rate the minor league players as “not ready for prime time.” Loperfido and Dirden carry the best projected OPS+ at 87 and 85 respectively, which is quite a drop from Brantley’s wRC+ of 127.

We haven’t seen any indication that the Astros intend to sign a free agent left handed outfielder. If the Astros decide to enter the free agent market for outfielders, cost would be a major consideration.

In November, I wrote an article about left field free agent options. Not many signings have occurred since then, so the conclusions are about the same. The top free agent left handed outfielder, Cody Bellinger, is likely outside the Astros’ price range. The Fangraphs free agent tracker for unsigned outfielders is shown here.

As I suggested in the previous article on free agent left fielders, Joc Pederson (111 wRC+ and 15 HR) or Eddie Rosario (100 wRC+ and 21 HRs) are probably the most attractive fit for the Astros. A recent Fangraphs article identified Pederson as a candidate for improvement based on his “x-” hitting stats, and stated:

Pederson has shown a lot of promising skills and positive trends. His walk rate jumped to the second highest of his career, while his strikeout rate dropped to its best since 2018. His maxEV shot up to a career high, while his Barrel% matched the second highest mark of his career.

If the Fangraphs crowd source contract estimate for Pederson is correct (2 year, $12 M per year), his cost is relatively reasonable. However, given the rather steep price that the Dodgers recently paid for outfielder Teoscar Hernandez, it’s possible that free agent prices for outfielders will be higher than we expect.

Given the outlook for free agent outfielders, as well as the available minor league options, the most realistic answer may be that the Astros will not have a left handed outfield replacement for Michael Brantley.