Now in his 11th season in the Majors, Michael Brantley has certainly developed a reputation as a steady hitter. Reliability has been the name of the game with him -- when healthy -- pretty much since 2014. In that span, Brantley is hitting above.300 with an OPS above .850, and has been an All-Star four times, including in three straight seasons.
By many measures, this season has been his best yet.
An offensive upgrade didn’t seem necessary in Houston when he signed for two years and $32 million in mid-December, but the move has paid dividends. And especially with the injuries that the team has dealt with this year, from George Springer to Jose Altuve to Carlos Correa, Brantley has been the steadying force. He’s played in all but 10 of the Astros’ games this year. The only player on the team to appear in more games this year is Alex Bregman, who's also the only position player on the team with more WAR than Brantley.
Brantley is leading the Yankees' DJ LeMahieu in the race for the batting title, with both having seasons that their former clubs could probably use right now. Brantley is hitting .338, just ahead of LeMahieu's .331.
Let’s take a look at what he’s doing and how he’s doing it.
He has more power
Brantley has a .544 slugging percentage this year, which would be his highest in any season of his career. He’s already at 18 home runs, just two shy of tying his career high of 20 from 2014. By the conventional stats, power is certainly there.
The contact that he’s making bears it out -- showing that this isn’t just a fluke. While his expected slugging percentage -- based on quality of contact, plus strikeouts -- isn’t as high as his actual slugging percentage, it’s still .467, which would be his highest in any season tracked by Statcast (since 2015).
He has a 5.9 percent barrel rate, which wouldn’t necessarily be notable -- the league leaders boast rates above 15 percent -- but again, it’s on pace to be his highest in the Statcast era.
He has 25 barrels this season, after not having more than 19 in any other season since 2015.
You name it, he can probably hit it
Hitting fastballs hasn’t been much of an issue for Brantley at any point since 2014. But offspeed and breaking pitches have been a different story. In that span, he hasn’t exactly been bad against other pitch types -- but he hasn’t always been outstanding.
This year? He’s hitting .331 in at-bats that end on fastballs, .330 in at-bats that end on breaking pitches and .346 in those that end with offspeed stuff. That’s about as well-rounded as you can get.
Just how well rounded is it? Well, there are only three players who have a .315 or better batting average in each of the three categories -- fastballs, breaking and offspeed pitches: Brantley, LeMahieu and Tim Anderson. That’s it.
Last year, Brantley hit .289 in at-bats ending on breaking balls. In 2017, it was .284. And on offspeed pitches, he hit .342 last year, but prior to that, in '17, it was .279. Not bad marks -- but this year’s are certainly an improvement.
His expected stats, again, are a bit lower here, but still tell the story that he hasn’t really struggled with any pitch types. He has a .302 xBA on fastballs as well as.302 on offspeed pitches. It’s a bit lower against breaking balls -- .280 -- but league average xBA against breaking pitches is .214, which tells you that he’s still doing better than most.
It should come as no surprise that Brantley leads the Majors with 52 multi-hit efforts.
And he isn’t missing much
Brantley has a 10.7 percent whiff rate this season, which is his lowest in a season with at least 50 games played since 2015, when it was 8.7 percent.
There are 260 batters this season who have swung at least 500 pitches. Only two of them have a lower whiff rate than Brantley’s: David Fletcher (9.7 percent) and Joe Panik (10.5 percent).
Put all that together, and he's in the race for the batting title
Brantley has never won a batting title. His best chance was in 2014, when he hit .327. But he lost out to his now-teammate Altuve, who hit .341. Brantley finished third, behind Altuve and Victor Martinez (.335).
Now, he’s neck and neck with LeMahieu for this year’s mark. The only player in Astros history to win a batting title is Altuve, who has done so three times.
A batting title for Brantley would give the Astros four of the last six American League batting champions. Altuve won in 2014, '16 and '17; Miguel Cabrera took '15, while Mookie Betts led in '18.
Brantley spent his first 10 Major League seasons with the Indians before signing with the Astros entering 2019. It’s worth noting that his former team has not had a batting champ since Bobby Avila in 1954.