GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Michael Brantley’s career with the Indians has followed a constant upward arc.
From the time he played in almost half the Indians’ games three years ago until the end of 2012, Brantley’s batting average, extra-base hits and OPS (on-base plus slugging) have climbed steadily.
For example: In 2010, when he played in 72 games, he batted .246 with 15 extra-base hits and a .623 OPS. The next year, he batted .265 with 35 extra-base hits and a .702 OPS in 114 games.
Last season Brantley seemed to hit his stride, batting .288 with 47 extra-base hits and a .750 OPS in 149 games. Or did he hit his stride? Maybe he still hasn’t reached his ceiling.
Brantley never has been a guy who launches many balls into the seats. He sprays line drives around the field. That’s the way he likes it. He hit six home runs last season, and he’s not apologizing.
“I think I should stay in the middle of the field and drive the ball in the gaps,” Brantley said. “If the ball goes out, it goes out. But I really want to focus on staying gap to gap this year.”
A left-handed batter, Brantley believes he fell short of that goal in 2012 by trying to yank too many balls to right field.
“There were a lot of times when pitchers made good adjustments,” he said. “But I feel I could have gone the other way more last year, and I got a little pull happy.”
Brantley isn’t the same hitter he was when he came up in 2009 and played 28 games. He was more tentative. He seemed relieved just to make contact, seldom hitting the ball hard or trying to. He said there was a reason besides inexperience.
“I was a leadoff hitter in the minors,” he said. “My job wasn’t to drive the ball, it was to get on base. I took a lot of pitches, too, and walked. I was always a leadoff hitter. That’s all I knew. But at the major league level, hitting in different spots, I had to change.”
Even last year, Brantley said he had opportunities to drive the ball and passed them up. He is determined to change that after having several conversations with his father, Mickey, who played in the big leagues.
“Every day we talk about hitting,” Brantley said. “Every day we talk about the game before and what he saw. He said to me in the offseason that it would be very beneficial to me to drive the ball and not try to guide it. Sometimes last season I would go for a single instead of taking the same pitch and driving the ball.”
Brantley’s father seems to have a knack for breaking down a complex task, like hitting a round ball with a spherical bat, and streamlining the process. Whatever he has told his son seems to have worked.
“Sometimes I would try to guide the ball to left instead of saying, ‘If the pitcher throws it there, I’m going to put a great swing on it, and that’s it.’ My father and I were really trying to simplify the game. It’s hard enough as it is, so the more you simplify it mentally, the easier it’s going to be.”
In most important offensive categories, Brantley performs above the norm. His career average with runners in scoring position is .290; he bats .289 with two outs; from the seventh inning on in close games (if his team is one run behind, tied or one ahead) his average is .285.
Brantley has batted in the leadoff spot more often than any other, but Michael Bourn has that job. It appears that Indians manager Terry Francona will use Brantley in the fifth spot or maybe the sixth. Coincidentally, Brantley’s career average batting fifth is .307, in the sixth position it is .333.
Brantley looked bigger and stronger when he arrived in camp, but he said there’s no difference in his physique.
“Every year I come in with a little more muscle,” he said. “In the past, I had trouble keeping weight on. I would lose 10-15 pounds every season. But I’m 25, and I know exactly what I need to do to maintain my weight.”
Does Francona think Brantley will be more of a home run threat now that he has become a more mature hitter?
“You never know,” Francona said. “That’s the fun of baseball. He’s a good player who is going to get better. He does everything right. Just wind him up and let him go play.”