Michael Brantley is no stranger to the leadoff spot. He’s been perched atop the Tribe’s batting order more often than not since making his big league debut in 2009. But 2012 could potentially be his first full season as the Tribe’s primary table setter, and there is definitely pressure to perform.
A leadoff hitter’s number-one objective is to get on base, something which Brantley has flat out failed to do in his time in Cleveland. Over the past two seasons, among the 24 players with at least 125 games in the leadoff slot, no one has posted a worse on-base percentage than Brantley.
To make matters worse, Brantley particularly struggles when no one is on base – exactly the situation in which he’s expected to excel. In 2011, Brantley posted a .289 OBP with the bases empty, ranking him 198th out of 234 qualifying players.
And with a southpaw on the mound, Brantley is essentially worthless as a leadoff hitter, posting a .247 OBP with the bases empty, due to massive holes in his swing as illustrated by the accompanying heat map.
So what exactly is going wrong for Brantley at the plate?
While a good leadoff hitter’s primary goal is to get one base, a secondary goal is to work the pitch count. The more the pitcher works early in the inning, the less comfortable he’ll be by the time the 3-4-5 hitter come to the plate. And the more he works overall, the faster he’s out of the game. Unfortunately, this is a goal which Brantley may be taking a little too seriously.
In 2011, among players with at least 400 plate appearances, Brantley took the first pitch of his at-bat 90.3% of the time – the third-highest rate in the majors. He then took the second pitch of the at-bat 32.8% of the time, the 8th highest rate in the majors. This strategy resulted in Brantley working his way into an 0-2 count 40 times (just over eight percent of his plate appearances).
The issue here isn’t Brantley’s desire to take pitches – that can often be an asset for a leadoff hitter, or any hitter, for that matter. The problem is that Brantley doesn’t know which pitches to take.
Using data provided by Pitch F/X, we’re able to analyze whether any given pitch was in the strike zone, or out of the strike zone (not just whether it was called a strike or a ball). We’re also able to be see what a batter does with this pitch (swings or takes). As a result, I was able to play around with the numbers and come up with a stat which we’ll call “Good Eye Rate.”
Good Eye Rate is the percentage of time a batter makes the right decision – either swinging at a pitch in the zone, or taking a pitch out of the zone.
Yes, there are times when making a “bad” decision is a good strategy (hit-and-run situations, taking on 3-0 count, etc), but since many batters see well over 1,000 pitches over the course of a season, these instances have a minor impact on the results.
By using Good Eye Rate (or GER), it’s easy to see Brantley’s issues. In 2011, his GER of 65.9 ranked 158th out of 205 qualifying players, and was below the league average of 67.6 (the overall range spanned from Chris Getz’s 60.5 to Lance Berkman’s 75.6).
While there are plenty of quality hitters with a poor GER, many of them are power hitters such as Ryan Braun (65.2) and, of course, Vladimir Guerrero (64.6).
Strong leadoff hitters, however, frequently rate near the top of the league. In 2011, Jacoby Ellsbury, Michael Bourn, Ian Kinsler, Yunel Escobar, Alex Gordon and Rickie Weeks all posted GERs above the league average.
It will be interesting to see how Brantley changes his approach in 2012. He is undoubtedly aware of his low OBP, and the Tribe coaching staff has hopefully worked with him this spring on improving his approach. If his Good Eye Rate improves early this season, it could be a promising sign for the future.
Follow Ryan on twitter @TribeFanMcC