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Trend Spotting: Brantley, RBI production and a rambling wreck

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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.
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Author: Michael Hattery

I am a pre-law student at Clarkson University obsessed with all sports Cleveland. I am a columnist at Cleveland Sports Insiders, IBI and the managing editor of the Clarkson Integrator. As well as raconteur extraordinaire. You can follow me @MichaelHattery.

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