Michael Brantley: An Underrated Yet Unrealized MLB Career

Former Cleveland Guardians and Houston Astros' outfielder Michael Brantley announced his retirement from MLB last Friday.

Michael Brantley, Houston Astros outfielder, announced his retirement
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 23: Michael Brantley #23 of the Houston Astros in action against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 23, 2022 in New York City. The Yankees defeated the Astros 7-6. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

After 15 years in the big leagues, Cleveland Guardians and Houston Astros’ outfielder Michael Brantley is calling it a career.

A five-time All-Star, and one-time Silver Slugger, Brantley was one of the more consistent offensive forces in the game for over a decade. While Brantley had an excellent career, injuries certainly took their toll and kept him from realizing his full potential.

After announcing his retirement on Friday, let’s reflect on a career filled with trials and tribulations, as well as that overarching ‘what if?’ that seems to elude many professional athletes.

Former Cleveland Guardians, Houston Astros outfielder Michael Brantley is hanging up his cleats

For the record, Michael Brantley had a productive big league career. In fact, his was largely underrated.

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Sure, he was never the best player at his position, nor did he have a larger-than-life presence wherever he went. Rather, he was a respected teammate and a fierce competitor who possessed a sweet left-handed stroke. And those qualities, one could argue, are just as important to have.

Reaching his peak in Cleveland

While you may recall Brantley’s recent (and successful) stint as a Houston Astro, the now 36-year-old’s career took off with with the Cleveland Guardians (then the Indians).

Acquired by Cleveland as a Player to Be Named Later (PTBNL) in the July 2008 CC Sabathia trade with the Milwaukee Brewers, Brantley ascended quickly to the big league level. He made his debut with the Indians in 2009 as an injury replacement for starting outfielder Grady Sizemore.

Though it took a couple of seasons for Brantley to establish himself as a regular at the big league level, he finally broke through in 2011 with his first positive season by Wins Above Replacement (WAR). That year, he had a 1.3 fWAR across 496 plate appearances.

His steady rise towards becoming an offensive force continued into 2012 and 2013, with respective fWAR totals of 2.6 and 1.9 before truly breaking out in 2014.

That season, Brantley played in a career-high 156 games, finishing with a robust 6.5 fWAR and 151 wRC+ while slugging 20 home runs. Sure enough, he was decorated that season, honored with the first of five career All-Star Game selections, his only Silver Slugger and finishing in the top three in AL MVP voting.

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Brantley followed up that stellar 2014 season with a solid 2015, before suffering injuries in 2016 that shelved him during the Guardians’ run to the World Series.

Another ailment-riddled campaign sidetracked what was a promising 2017 season (though he did make the All-Star team despite playing in just 90 games) for Brantley before delivering a great season in 2018, his last in Cleveland.

That year, he notched a second-straight All-Star selection and a 3.7 fWAR.

Evolution into a championship-caliber leader and player

Timing is everything, and Brantley was able to parlay that 2018 season into a nice pay day elsewhere. He would leave Cleveland that winter for the Houston Astros, where he spent five years and won three American League pennants, as well as the 2022 World Series.

The veteran outfielder made two All-Star teams in Houston (2019 and 2021), but his leadership and penchant for winning was what truly defined his Astros years.

It was obvious how important Brantley was to the fabric of that 2022 Astros club, for example. His teammates made him the center of their World Series celebration despite him not playing that October. That’s because he had already stamped his legacy for good in Houston with a scorching hot playoffs in 2019, hitting .286 across 79 plate appearances en route to that season’s World Series.

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He would do more of the same in 2021, achieving a .319 postseason batting average in 70 plate appearances as the Astros clinched their second AL pennant in three seasons. And in 2023, Brantley proved he still had something left in the tank by crushing a game-tying home run off Minnesota Twins’ starter Joe Ryan in a clinching Game 4 of the American League Division Series.

But let’s go back to 2022 for a second. Even in a year where he had finally reached the top of the baseball mountain, that success didn’t come without suffering an injury along the way.

A shoulder ailment kept him out of action from late June to late September of that season. That injury was (unfortunately) just a microcosm of a larger narrative that persisted throughout Michael Brantley’s career; injuries which robbed baseball fans of further greatness.

What if Michael Brantley had stayed healthy?

That’s the million-dollar question.

Brantley, known as “Dr. Smooth” and “Uncle Mike”, likely could have reached incredible heights of productivity had he simply been able to stay healthy.

One obvious plateau? The vaunted 2,000 hit mark. Instead, however, he fell 344 hits short of reaching that milestone, ending his career with 1,656 hits.

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But while 1,656 isn’t a number to scoff at, it’s also fair to wonder if Brantley could’ve had a borderline Hall of Fame case with 2,000 or more career hits. Currently, about 300 players all-time can lay claim to crossing that threshold (including Brantley’s Astros teammate Jose Altuve) and a sizable chunk of them found their way to Cooperstown.

In the end, though, it’s difficult to envision the 36-year-old outfielder having many regrets about his career. Injuries are fickle, and he still managed to win a lot during his time in baseball. Here’s hoping Michael Brantley can find success wherever his next stop may be.