Before the Cleveland Indians kicked off their season in Toronto more than four months ago, most fans and experts alike predicted a vast improvement in the team’s defensive play, especially in the outfield.
The club acquired two Gold Glove-caliber outfielders during the offseason in Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs. Bourn would stake his claim at his normal dwelling in center, and Stubbs – who was also accustomed to playing center – would move to right. Together, they would instantly form one of the league’s best outfield duos defensively.
Lost in the shuffle of rearrangement was the incumbent Michael Brantley, who – with the acquisitions of Bourn and Stubbs – was shifted back to a corner outfield spot after spending nearly all of his 2012 playing days in center. Although never considered an elite defender, Brantley performed well in more than 1,200 innings of work in center during the 2012 season while committing only one error.
Michael Brantley has developed into one of the game’s best defensive outfielders. (Photo credit: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)
Now, as we approach the final month of the season, there is no denying that Brantley – not Bourn or Stubbs – has been the Indians’ most consistent defender by far this season.
In 1,037 innings of work, the 26-year-old has not committed a single error while maintaining a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. On Monday, Brantley set a new club record for consecutive errorless games played by an outfielder, passing the beloved Rocky Colavito.
With the streak, Brantley has pushed himself into Gold Glove contention, something that cannot be said for either Bourn (.986 fielding percentage) nor Stubbs (.965). Perhaps even more impressive than Brantley’s consistent glove has been the left fielder’s throwing arm.
While Brantley will never have the sheer arm strength to match that of former Indians outfielder Shin Soo-Choo or Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig, the marvelously consistent accuracy of Brantley’s throws from left field in 2013 have proven to be a major game-changer for the Tribe defensively.
Not surprisingly, the left-hander currently ranks tied for third amongst all qualifying MLB left fielders in assists with ten. Baserunners are slowly learning to avoid testing Brantley’s arm in left, so don’t expect a dramatic rise in that number during the remaining month or so of the season.
The streak, which now sits at 215 games, is a testament to the all-around consistent nature of Brantley’s play. Not only has he performed well defensively, but his performance at the plate has been equally steady.
Coming off of a breakout year at the plate last season in which he hit .288, Brantley has followed up with a similarly successful fifth season. While his on-base percentage has dipped a bit from last season (.348 in 2012, .329 in 2013), Brantley has more than made up for it by batting at a .359 clip with runners in scoring in position, where he has also accumulated 47 of his 58 RBI.
Overall, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Brantley has hit .275 so far this season while cranking out a career-high eight homeruns (hey, eight is better than none). Barring any sudden injury, he will positively surpass last year’s career-high mark of 60 RBI, as well.
Brantley has been a better base runner this season, also, stealing 12 bases in 15 attempts. Compare that to Brantley’s 2012 season in which he stole 12 bases but was also thrown out nine times.
Although he has struggled at the dish of late (.230/1 HR/6 RBI during the month of August), it would be wise to expect a resurgence in the left fielder’s offensive production. Brantley has been known to work his way out of slumps, and he finished last season on a high note by batting .313 during the final month of the 2012 season.
His defensive play has been outstanding all season long, so a drop-off in that regard does not appear to be on the horizon either.
With just a little more than a month remaining in the season, the Indians are hoping to close the gap between them and the division-leading Detroit Tigers, while also pursuing a Wild Card spot.
With Michael Brantley providing consistent production in all aspects of the game, a strong case can be made that – if the Indians are not able to secure a spot in the 2013 postseason – it will in no way be the fault of the Tribe’s left fielder.