As the hot stove heats up, all eyes are on what the Atlanta Braves will do about Dansby Swanson. However, shortstop isn’t the only area of need for Atlanta. Left field is currently occupied by Eddie Rosario and Marcell Ozuna, but the two combined for -1.7 fWAR, and one target the Braves could upgrade the position with is Michael Brantley.
As the Braves look to solidify their team and go for their sixth straight division title, could they look towards Brantley as one of the final pieces towards a 2023 World Series run?
Why The Atlanta Braves should target Michael Brantley
The left-handed outfielder is hitting the free-agent market after spending the past four seasons in Houston as a solidly above-average hitter. In fact, across 1609 PAs in those four seasons, Brantley hit .306 and had a 128 wRC+.
Brantley, aside from 2016 when he was limited to just 43 PAs, hasn’t had a wRC+ lower than 109 since 2013. This has made him one of the most consistent hitters in the last decade. Over the past 10 seasons, Brantley has the 30th-highest wRC+ of all hitters with at least 3000 PAs. He outhit guys Adrian Beltre, Trea Turner, Manny Machado, and Robinson Cano over this time span
Of course, Brantley’s means of production are rather unique in this era of baseball. Despite being, year in and year out an above-average hitter, he’s not doing it by hitting the long ball. During his four-year Astro tenure, Brantley only hit a total of 40 homers, 22 of which came during his first season and was his career-high. Brantley also hasn’t historically walked at a high clip either, with a 7.9% career walk rate (though he did walk 11.2% of the time in 2022).
Brantley relies on a high BABIP for most of his production. This is usually an area of concern in the modern era, as front offices are generally skeptical of a player’s ability to repeatedly find the gaps in the defense. If you were to look solely at Brantley’s exit velocity, you’d probably be concerned as well, as his Max Exit Velocity was only in the 42nd percentile, and his Average Exit Velocity of 89.2 placed him 115th out of 411 hitters with at least 100 batted balls.
But, just because Brantley doesn’t hit the cover off the ball doesn’t mean he’s a luck machine. Last season, Brantley’s xBA of .310 was actually lower than his .288 AVG, meaning that, if anything, he was unlucky. This isn’t an outlier, either. In 2021, Brantley’s .312 xBA was in the 100th percentile despite only having an average EV in the 53rd percentile. This was, again, higher than his actual batting average of .311.
So how does this happen? How does a guy who doesn’t hit homers and doesn’t smoke the cover off the ball ala Yandy Diaz manage to have such a high xBA?
The first reason is something that would make traditionalists rejoice: he doesn’t strike out. Brantley, for his career, has never struck out more than 15.7% of the time, regardless of sample size, in a single season. If you limit the sample size to only include seasons where he had 250 PAs or more, Brantley’s K% has never exceeded 15.3%. In the last decade, he hasn’t K’d more than 13.3% of the time in a season of more than 250 PAs.
When xBA is calculated, it takes into account strikeouts, which of course have an xBA of .000. The fewer strikeouts you have, the less .000 is being averaged into your xBA, which in turn, helps keep your xBA higher.
Of course, not striking out doesn’t guarantee a player has a high xBA. Oakland Athletics’ 2B, Tony Kemp had a K% in the 94th percentile last season, striking out only 12.4% of the time. However, he only hit .235 and his .219 xBA was reflective of that.
So what did Brantley do that a player like Tony Kemp couldn’t? One is that Brantley did manage to hit the ball harder, on average by five miles an hour, but the other reason was simply that Brantley had a better swing tailored for line drive hits.
While Kemp had a higher average launch angle (15.0 compared to Brantley’s 10.7), the free-agent outfielder managed to hit line drives at a 30.7% rate, compared to Kemp’s 23.5% rate. Liners, even when they’re hit softly, deliver base hits at a much higher rate than fly balls or ground balls (especially if you’re not known for hitting the ball hard).
The outfielder’s ability to hit is, of course, one reason why he’s a fit for the Braves, but what sets him apart from a guy like Aaron Judge who is also a free agent and a much better hitter? Simply: price.
Obviously Judge will likely secure the biggest contract this offseason, both in terms of dollars and most likely in years, so using the AL MVP as a comparison against Brantley is unfair. However, even when you lower the bar, of the top free-agent outfielders, Brantley is one of the best who wouldn’t necessitate a multi-year deal. Fangraphs projected he’d receive a one-year deal around $10 million.
Why Michael Brantley may not be the best idea
Brantley turns 36 in May next year and while the past four seasons have been successful from a hitting perspective, there are some areas of concern. Brantley injured his shoulder in June and had season-ending surgery in August. Whether or not Brantley is able to rebound from this injury is a major question heading into 2023 and also why he may have to settle for a one-year deal.
Additionally, aside from Brantley’s contact abilities, his on-field abilities leave a lot to be desired. As previously mentioned, the outfielder has typically not walked a lot and has not hit for power. He’s also graded out as a negative defensive player by OAA since 2018. Unsurprisingly, the 36-year-old lacks in the speed department, as well. If the shoulder injury lingers and affects his contact abilities, Brantley has little else to offer a team on the field.
Despite this, the lefty still feels like a solid fit for Atlanta. While the Braves adding an outfield could be dependent on whether or not they can dump Ozuna and/or Rosario, Brantley’s constancy as a hitter, his renowned clubhouse presence, and his price tag makes him the perfect target for the Braves.