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Trend Spotting: Brantley, RBI production and a rambling wreck

Trend Spotting: Brantley, RBI production and a rambling wreck
September 12, 2013
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When an offense is struggling, the blame is spread quickly and with relative ease usually beginning with expected cornerstones and then the manager. This course inevitably leads to a discussion about lineup optimization and if the fan base is particularly blood thirsty, issues with the hitting coach.

In all reality, Terry Francona has adapted at an acceptable rate, balancing the challenges of moving hot hitters up or into the lineup while trying to build confidence in struggling starters. Of courseAsdrubal Cabrera was left to hit at the top of the lineup for too long or perhaps in the lineup too frequently but Tito has adapted. Yan Gomesmay have earned more playing time earlier in the season but Tito has changed the balance of late.

At any moment there are always small changes that one could suggest be it Gomes sliding up, Cabrera down or anything else which one may fancy. There is a particular performer who is incredibly hard to slot in the lineup because his tool profile would seem to dictate a different location than his output suggests.

This of course is starting left fielder Michael Brantley. Brantley is an incredibly interesting player because as much as one may want to suggest that he is ill suited for the cleanup role he does seem to have an innate ability to drive in runs. I am not - explicitly not - suggesting he should or must hit cleanup, but there are a few interesting experiments one could try in terms of the order.

These changes can be discussed in a moment. First, I must note the following: RBI’s are a somewhat dependent statistic based on opportunities, BABIP luck and a myriad of other factors. However, monitoring someone’s other statistics coupled with RBI’s can explain whether or not someone is a good hitter with runners in scoring position.

Brantley is one of those rare players who legitimately is a stronger hitter with RISP over the course of his career and his statistical output highlights some interesting trends.

Situation

LD%

BABIP

BB%

K%

PPPA

Bases Empty

21.0

.289

5.6

12.8

3.76

Men on Base

23.1

.304

8.9

6.8

3.58

Men in Scoring Position

23.2

.357

10.6

8.1

3.64

(These are his 2013 splits, however his career statistics mirror these fairly closely except for his BABIP with Men in Scoring Position being more extreme than usual. The PPPA statistic is average pitches per plate appearance.)

In order to include some baseline or more simplistic statistics, Brantley’s career OBP in the three different situations is: .300, .371, and .382. Which other than destroying any hope for him ever being a good table setter also shows his changed approach and impressive capability with runners on base.

The differentiation between his success with the bases empty and runners on base almost causes one to question the approach he employs without ducks on the pond. One might surmise that while he is still a selective hitter, he is much more aggressive early in counts with runners on base trying to take advantage of the situation and the pitcher’s need to throw a strike.

Indeed, looking at pitches per plate appearance, I would submit that, like Wednesday afternoon when Brantley took an 0-1 fastball up the middle for a two run single, Michael is more aggressive in terms of swinging at pitches inside the strike zone. From a subjective standpoint it is quite often that due to his strength with two strikes, Brantley is willing to watch one or two strikes with no one base.

Brantley’s predisposition when leading off games or innings is to see as many pitches as possible, work the starter and try to barrel something up; which  is born out into an elevating strikeout rate and surprisingly low walk rate in bases empty situations.

Unfortunately, rather than reveling in the success that Brantley has with runners in scoring position it becomes incredibly challenging not to be frustrated with his inadequacy without runners on. For someone with above average base running ability it is unacceptable that he possesses a .300 OBP with the bases empty when the majority of his plate appearances occur during such situations.

This is not to say that one would like to see his splits reversed because in terms of run production they are very favorable. However, one would just hope to see more stability from situation to situation. Of course there are mitigating factors including how one is pitched to in different situations but the gap in production from situation to situation is vast enough to say that it is more than just situational shifts.

What is clear is that Brantley is pretty close to his perfect spot in this lineup, whether you buy into the approach shifts - which seem obvious or not - it is clear that he cannot hit in the top of the order. He is a valuable asset as his above average ability to hit with men on base is sustainable although perhaps not quite as high as this year’s rate.

Shaking up the order

I said that Brantley is pretty close to his perfect spot in this lineup because I have one bold change which I might implement in order to “shake things up”.

The order would look as follows:

1. Michael Bourn - CF
2. Carlos Santana - 1B
3. Jason Kipnis - 2B
4. Michael Brantley - LF
5. Yan Gomes - C
6. Nick Swisher - RF
7. Ryan Raburn - DH (When healthy if not Jason Kubel or Mike Aviles)
8. Asdrubal Cabrera / Jose Ramirez - SS
9. Lonnie Chisenhall / Jose Ramirez/ Mike Aviles - 3B

I absolutely expect to take some heat or at least feedback on this lineup but I will in an abridged form explain my reasoning. While Santana does not offer his speed his most elite ability is his on-base ability, which in terms of run creation you want you highest OBP guys to get maximum at bats.

Brantley is moved up because of his ability with runners in scoring position. With the two best OBP guys on the team in front of him, hopefully he can thrive. The back to back lefty situation is an issue but not large enough to affect the advantage this lineup offers.

Obviously, Gomes is young but it is shocking he has not moved up in Francona’s lineup as he has the fourth highest OBP of a semi-regular.  The DH position could be rotated based on matchups and necessary rest fairly easily.

Lastly, is the Jose Ramirez insertion. Quite simply he is a step up defensively at shortstop and while he does not offer the power of Cabrera he is not a slouch offensively. Ramirez has the sort of plate discipline that will allow him to be successful at the major league level, limiting strikeouts, putting the ball in play and using his speed to collect base hits.

This does not include his solid walk rate. I am not for a full removal of Cabrera at short but if Ramirez was to grab three starts a week between third and short it would add tangible value.

I'm always interested what people have to think about potential lineup construction.

A few things that may only interest me:

  • Michael Bourn is on his way to posting his highest full season strikeout rate of his career. 
  • The most valuable base runner so far according to Fangraphs is Drew Stubbs. He would be an ideal fourth outfielder on a contender.
  • The worst UZR/150 of any qualified major league shortstop is Asdrubel Cabrera (yes it is an imperfect measurement but if your eyes aren’t confirming it at this point I don’t know who you are watching).
  • Carlos Carrasco as a starter: 5.18 K/9, 3.55 BB/9, Carlos Carrasco as a reliever: 6.94 K/9, 3.09 BB/9.

Interact with Michael by email at  michael.hattery@gmail.com and on Twitter @MichaelHattery

User Comments

BrianM
September 13, 2013 - 8:04 PM EDT
I think Santana's unwillingness to take the ball the other way makes me freak out about him sometimes. I also can't stand watching him watch strike three go by when there is runners on base. I can't argue the stats though if they're accurate Seth. He's been one of our best.

I wish things could be as simple as just swapping Brantley with Swisher in the lineup, but I would hate having three lefties sitting atop the order.
Seth
September 13, 2013 - 3:46 PM EDT
B-ref has all of those splits. With a runner on 3rd and 2 outs Santana's his .318/.444/.636. .308/.552/.308 with runner on third and less than 2 out. Those are pretty small samples when you're getting down to that kind of thing, but he's done well. With less than 2 out and RISP pitchers I would say pitchers aren't giving him much of a chance to drive in the run. Probably especially when Slumping Reynolds, the automatic K, was hitting behind him. I think hitting Santana second could work, but a healthy Swisher is probably a better fit.
Lisa
September 13, 2013 - 2:21 PM EDT
We drafted 3 HOF caliber sluggers in 1987,89, and 91, every other year - Belle, Thome, Ramirez. I'm not sure any other club has done that. Since then though we've had a hard time coming up with one legit cleanup hitter and obviously it hasn't changed if we're looking at batting Brantley 4th.

Fingers crossed on Frazier, Mejia, N. Rodriguez or someone soon from our system.
Discollama
September 13, 2013 - 1:51 PM EDT
Santana has been better with men on than with bases empty over the course of his career, so why move him to the second spot in the line up? The problem isnt a lack of middle of the order hitters, there's no one to man the 2-hole!

Now, before I get a ton of hate, Swisher and Bourn are both having down years. Swish has admitted to pressing to try to 'earn' his contract and respect of the Tribe faithful, Bourn on the other hand was hurt early in the year and that may be a factor in his reduced performance.

Bourn is a good lead off hitter, and I want him to stay put, maybe alternate Bourn and Stubbs vs lefties, but I cant find anything about Stubbs hitting with bases empty vs llefties specifically. But his raw numbers with bases empty are kind of ugly. Aviles could fit the bill of a #2 hitter, but he wouldn't be the best fit there either. My lineup would be:

CF Bourn
SS Aviles
2B Kipnis
1B Swisher
DH Santana
LF Brantley
C Gomes
3B Chisenhall
RF Stubbs

I don't really trust Gomes yet as a run producer given his inflated BABIP and lack of an MLB track record, Aviles has done decently this year with bases empty, which makes him one of the better table setting options on the team and I'd hate to squander Santana's bat too high in the order, though swapping either Santana or Swisher with Kipnis may not be a terrible idea, though you may wind up squandering Kipnis' ability to run.

I like the idea of Brantley hitting 5th or 6th, but I want a guy with some power in the clean up spot. It's just too hard to score men on first or second with a base hit consistently and Brantley's 35 XBH's isn't setting the world on fire. Cabrera's defense and offensive drop off this year keeps me from wanting to give him a ton of playing time, my suggestion would be to swap roles with Aviles for now,
BrianM
September 13, 2013 - 1:16 PM EDT
Maybe its just the eye test Seth, but lately it seems he has really under-performed with men on base. I would be curious to see what his numbers look like as far as bringing a runner home from third with less than two outs. I do love his OBP, but when we have a runner on 2nd with 2 outs, we don't necessarily want a walk. That is why I think he would be more productive in the 2 hole considering how our lineup is built right now. Sometimes I just wish the guy would shorten up his swing a little bit and take the ball the other way instead of taking these massive cuts on every single pitch he sees.
Seth
September 13, 2013 - 12:47 PM EDT
Brian, Santana's hitting .291/.442/.504 with RISP this year
BrianM
September 13, 2013 - 11:54 AM EDT
I called your Santana move half way through the article :). Its been hard watching him swing the bat with runners in scoring position lately. A move to the 2 hole should not only take a little pressure off him, but he may see more fastballs if Bourn/Stubbs/Ramirez can get on base in front of him.

I am a little concerned about the back to back lefties at 3rd and 4th spots. Im pretty sure Brantley's splits vs lefties are decent, but I think a more realistic lineup would have him slotted in the 5th spot with either Raburn, Swisher, or even Gomes in the 4 hole.

This is a very good article, but it does remind me of how bad we need a legitimate cleanup hitter in our lineup. If you look around at the playoff contenders in both leagues, almost all of them have an all-star presence sitting in the middle of their lineup.
larry
September 13, 2013 - 6:57 AM EDT
I have been saying for quite some time that Santana is not a very good hitter, but he does walk a lot so I think the second spot in the lineup would be perfect for him.
Seth
September 12, 2013 - 9:41 PM EDT
Good analysis. Probably the two most interesting splits for Indians players are Brantley's bases empty vs. runners on, and Kazmir's bases empty vs. runners on. In both cases, I'd say they need to find a way to let their approach with runners on base carry over to situations with no one on. Brantley, it's always been his thing where he'll take pitches right down the middle until he gets two strikes. Just a bad approach.
Kenneth
September 12, 2013 - 6:22 PM EDT
You make a good case. Looking at your proposed lineup made me think how badly we need a RH-hitting guy to platoon with Chisenhall at 3B. Ramirez is not really a 3B, and anyway he's strictly a singles hitter. Aviles's value is maximized if he's playing 2B or ss. Gomes, when he plays, which should be frequently, needs to be behind the plate.
Tony
September 12, 2013 - 5:07 PM EDT
Bourn has a history as a leadoff hitter, so at this point the Indians have to hope for the best from him. But I agree, if the struggles continue they may need to slide him way down the order next year and find another leadoff candidate. But I find that unlikely in that they are paying him $14M to leadoff and not be a 9-hitter. Wow, that contract might end up looking BAD here very soon. I still liked the signing, and it is the risk you take. Like with Swisher too.
Rich S.
September 12, 2013 - 4:53 PM EDT
Bourn's OBP is .311. Brantley's is .330. If we can't play Brantley in first hole, why should we have Bourn bat leadoff?

Stubbs on base percentage vs lefties is .358. Interestingly, Bourn's OBP is higher vs. lefties this year than righties. I'd at least consider batting Stubbs first when he starts against left-handed pitchers.

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