- The Astros may not need Michael Brantley, but he makes them a better team.
What do you get for the team that has everything? (Well, almost everything—another starting pitcher is always appreciated.) You can’t go wrong with a veteran left-handed hitter. The Astros treated themselves to just that: Michael Brantley reportedly signed for two years and $32 million, a boon for the 2017 World Series champion when the deal becomes official.
Houston didn’t have a hole in the outfield to fill. They already had George Springer, to be flanked by some combination of Josh Reddick, Jake Marisnick, and Tony Kemp; there are young players waiting to be promoted, too, including Kyle Tucker and Derek Fisher. In other words, there was already depth with varying levels of talent; the Astros decided to add a top free agent, anyway. Brantley was #8 on SI’s Ben Reiter’s Free Agent 50 and the highest ranked outfielder other than, you know, Bryce Harper. He was #6 on FanGraphs’ list and on Baseball Prospectus’, too. There are some reasonable concerns about Brantley, to be sure. He has a long injury history, his defense isn’t really anything to write home about and he’s 32 years old. Even when all of that’s been accounted for, though, he’s still clearly bolstering an already strong area on an already strong team.
Brantley’s a competent corner outfielder, if not much more than that, but he can also slot in at first base, and he might also be used as a designated hitter. With a 121 OPS+ since 2012, he’s offered solid offensive production when healthy. Beyond that, his approach at the plate makes him something of a unicorn. In a hitting environment that’s driven by big swings and misses, Brantley stands out. He made more contact in the zone than any other qualified player in 2018: 97.3% of his swings, compared to a league average of 85.5%. In raw numbers? Brantley saw 2,251 pitches in the zone this year and whiffed on just 25 of those.
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The veteran outfielder is similarly skilled at choosing his spots out of the zone, with an overall contact rate above 90%, again the highest in baseball. His 4.0% swinging strike rate was lower than anyone’s. And while not all contact is good contact, Brantley’s quantity of batted balls doesn’t mean poor quality. For line drives, he ranked in baseball’s top 25; for soft contact, he ranked in the bottom 15. As batting averages dip across baseball—.248 in 2018, the lowest figure since 1972—he can still be relied on to hit .300, as he has in three of his four most recent full seasons. (He hit .299 in the fourth.) This isn’t necessarily a better approach than the current dominant model, but it's a fun throwback aesthetic, if nothing else.
It’s a good get for a team that didn’t necessarily need a good get. The Astros won 103 games last year, after all, and essentially all of their key position players will be back for 2019. Brantley’s a boost to make them even better, a solid lefty bat to round out a lineup full of righties. Houston’s 109 OPS+ in 2018 was tied for the second-best in baseball; Brantley can perhaps help make the difference in pushing it up to the best. He offers something else, too—flexibility. Houston already had the depth to move pieces around in the outfield, of course. Brantley accentuates that. The Astros probably aren’t going to trade a top prospect like Tucker, but if they want to (J.T. Realmuto, anyone?), it will be far more feasible. Even if they don’t decide to move anyone, they’ll still enjoy increased opportunity for modular lineups, with better depth to protect against injuries. They’re not necessarily done adding, either—they’ve reportedly been linked to Nelson Cruz, and Brantley’s signing doesn’t preclude them from bringing on the veteran slugger, too. Cruz would certainly be a boon for the line-up who would only increase the outfield depth, but even if they don’t chase him, they’re still sitting in a nice spot. The Astros have baseball’s greatest luxury of all. They have options.