On December 19, 2018, the Houston Astros officially acquired outfielder Michael Brantley on a 2-year, $32 M contract.
As a lifelong Astros fan, I had many questions upon hearing the news. Why not sign Nelson Cruz – a durable run-producer out of the DH slot, and a player with knowledge of the AL West? Would Brantley (32 years this May), continue to produce as he had in 2018, or would he succumb to injury as he had in 2016 and 2017, when he appeared in only 101 out of his team’s 324 total regular season games? Did Brantley “peak” in 2014, at age 27, when he played in 156 of 162 games, finished 3rd in the AL MVP voting, and hit .327/.385/.506, with 20 HR, 97 RBI, and 23 SB? How would Brantley fit in the Astros’ crowded outfield? Would he successfully adjust to playing first base, if asked to do so? Why had the Astros signed Brantley to a 2-year deal, when he was reportedly seeking a longer, 3-year contract? Did the front office have injury concerns? Despite my questions, I remained optimistic. The Astros’ data-driven approach to scouting and player development has proven nearly bulletproof in recent years.
But there is perhaps a more significant reason for optimism, beyond the track record of the Astros’ front office. Brantley’s signing strongly resembles the Astros’ acquisition of Carlos Beltran in December of 2016, which contributed to an unforgettable World Series campaign…. and I believe Brantley’s arrival will prove even more significant than Beltran’s in improving the Astros’ World Series chances. Brantley possesses all of the intangible qualities that made Beltran’s signing crucial to the Astros’ success, but Brantley can deliver more punch as an everyday player at this point in his career. Brantley is essentially “2017 Beltran” and more.
Both players had standout years prior to signing with the Astros. At the time of his signing in December of 2016, Beltran had just completed a 2016 season (at age 39) in which he played 151 games for the Yankees and Rangers, and hit .295/.337/.513, with 29 HR and 93 RBI. At the time of Brantley’s signing in December of 2018, he had just completed a 2018 season (at age 31) in which he played 143 games, and hit .309/.364/.468, with 17 HR, 76 RBI, and 12 SB. Beltran’s on-field statistical output with the Astros was subpar relative to the team’s expectations. He appeared in 129 games and hit .231/.283/.383, with 14 HR and 51 RBI in 467 ABs; those numbers were dramatically below his career standards and his 2016 output. Despite the lackluster “box score” impact, his intangible contributions during the 2017 regular season and postseason cannot be overstated. Beltran guided the Astros’ young core of players and helped lay a foundation for the team’s locker room camaraderie. Throughout the regular season, he mentored Carlos Correa (a fellow Puerto Rican) and served as a “player-coach” with critical batting advice; he bridged a “language gap” between the team’s non-English (Gurriel) and English-speaking players; and he was a vital part of the Astros’ family-like locker room culture. Stories have it that the team gathered one day in mid-July for an on-field “burial” of Beltran’s fielding glove (as the team’s primary DH, he rarely used it), complete with three fake tombstones and a eulogy delivered by Brian McCann (robed in black, to boot!). During the 2017 World Series, Beltran may have secured his team the championship without delivering a single hit (0/3, 1K in the 7-game series) when he pinpointed a physical glitch in Yu Darvish‘s delivery, which the Astros keyed upon to knock Darvish from the game in both of his World Series starts.
Beltran’s contributions as an Astro were significant primarily because of his intangible value. What about Brantley? Most importantly, his on-field capabilities at this point in his career are lightyears more impactful than Beltran’s in 2017. Brantley is a “professional hitter” and one of baseball’s most well-rounded players. In good health, he’s capable of doing anything the Astros ask of him. Playing first base? Sure, he spent time at first base as a minor leaguer. Pinch-hitting in a crucial late-inning situation? Laying down a sacrifice bunt? Executing a hit-and-run to score a teammate? He’s plenty capable and more than willing to play whatever role his team needs. Over the last 5 seasons, Brantley has hit .311/.371/.846. He’s also recorded no more than 76 strikeouts in any single year during his 10-year major league career. Brantley’s career strikeout rate (10.7%) is better than teammates Jose Altuve (11%) and Alex Bregman (15%). While he’s no longer a prolific base stealer, Brantley is a “smart” baserunner, and is rarely caught when he attempts to steal (62 SBs in the last 5 seasons; only caught stealing 6 times). Brantley also fills several of the Astros’ greatest “needs” – his left-handedness will bring flexibility to a heavily right-handed lineup, and his presence in left field provides an immediate upgrade at arguably the Astros’ weakest position – in 2018, Astros LFs combined for a .232 BA (13thin AL), .312 OBP (11thin AL), and .702 OPS (11thin AL).
Brantley is capable of delivering on-field production to meet the Astros’ expectations. Beyond his on-field abilities (and the reason I believe the Astros targeted Brantley over other free agents like Nelson Cruz, A.J. Pollock, or Andrew McCutchen), Brantley (much like Beltran) is uniquely capable of providing intangible value as a leader within the Astros’ locker room. It is rare to find a free agent that is capable of arriving on Day 1 and fitting seamlessly into his new team’s locker room. Brantley fits the bill and he has displayed leadership at every stage of his career. As a Cleveland Indian, he chose to travel with his teammates during the 2016 postseason, despite recovering from a season-ending shoulder injury, in order to offer hitting advice. “I really looked at myself as a coach,” Brantley said. “I was talking to guys about at-bats. I was talking to them about their approach with certain pitchers. If anyone had a question of me, I made sure I was in the dugout cheering them on and made sure they knew I was there. I accepted the role, even though I didn’t want to” (https://www.mlb.com/news/michael-brantley-battles-through-injuries/c-297320986). Cleveland advanced to the World Series before losing the series to the Chicago Cubs in 7 games. At Brantley’s introductory press conference with the Astros on December 20, 2018, A.J. Hinch explained how impressed he was in 2018 to find AL All-Star teammates seeking out Brantley’s advice over All-Star weekend, when Hinch managed the AL All-Star squad. Hinch also lauded Brantley for his preparedness, his “smooth swing,” and his “smooth demeanor.”
For all of the similarities between Beltran and Brantley, Brantley is at a point in his career where he can not only offer “Beltran-like” intangible value, but also the on-field firepower to match. The intangible contributions that Beltran provided in 2017 were crucial to the Astros’ postseason success and World Series title. Brantley will deliver in the same manner, with more of a quantifiable, “box score” impact as an everyday player. Brantley is everything that Beltran was for the Astros in 2017 and more.
Featured Photo: David J. Phillip/AP