Hope in Cleveland: Lottery Wins, Johnny Football, & Michael Brantley

Widely predicted to challenge for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs prior to the 2013/4 NBA season tipping off, the Cavaliers instead endured a year from hell. The grand Andrew Bynum gamble was an irrevocable disaster, the bowling enthusiast turning practice into a spectacle worse than even his hair. Dion Waiters and the team’s star point guard Kyrie Irving allegedly fought. No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett was an unmitigated flop. The coach they re-hired, and gave a five-year contract too in the process, was duly fired after one.

Naturally then, the Cavs landed the No.1 pick for the 2014 draft, and thus the right to presumably choose between Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid.

There weren’t so many high hopes for the Cleveland Browns last season – the AFC North always looked to tough for them to truly challenge – but still, not much went according to plan. Jimmy Haslam, the team’s new owner, was (and still is) under federal investigation. Just as Brian Hoyer was starting to look good at the QB position, he tore up his knee. Coach Rob Chudzinski was fired after one year, as was Mike Lombardi – even after acquiring a first round pick for Trent Richardson.

Of course, they not only landed Justin Gilbert in the draft, but some kid called Johnny Football? With Manziel in tow, along with a ton of merchandise money, there’s now hope for the Browns.

The Cleveland Indians meanwhile, have so far been nothing but disappointing. After going to the Wild-Card game last year, they currently stand at 22-25, last in the AL Central. Danny Salazar is in the minors. Carlos Santana is batting .146. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, the team’s big free agent additions a year ago, have alternately been battling injury and ineffectiveness. All-Star second baseman, Jason Kipnis is currently sidelined with a strained oblique. 2013 pitching ace Scott Kazmir is thriving, except he’s in Oakland now.

But if there’s one reason for optimism amongst Terry Francona‘s motley bunch, it’s the performance of Michael Brantley.

Now in his sixth season in the big leagues, the 27-year-old Brantley has been the lone bright star in what has otherwise been a gloomy quarter-season for the Indians. Case in point, the left fielder leads the team in darn near all offensive categories; batting average (.302), on base percentage (.370), slugging percentage (.523), home runs (9), RBI(zzzzzz) (36), hits (52), oWAR (1.6) – you name it, Brantley probably leads it. In fact, if it weren’t for Asdrubal Cabrera having one measly run scored more than him, Brantley’s name would head every offensive leaderboard for the team. With little help coming from elsewhere in the lineup, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the left-handed Brantley has almost single-handedly kept the Cleveland offense afloat amidst their early season struggles.

It hasn’t exactly been a fluke either. A career .277 hitter prior to the season, his 2014 success in hitting for average hasn’t been BABIP fueled; his current batted ball mark of .277 is actually 25 points below his career average. After being considerably limited by fellow southpaws in the past too (his average fell .30 against portsiders, whereas his slugging percentage dropped .80), Brantley has this year been an equal opportunities hitter, battering lefties (.288 average, .887 OPS) at a clip almost identical with his mark against right-handers (.292 and .872 respectively). Sure you can point to his 2013 Will Venable impersonation in regards to his HR/FB rate – which currently sits at a round 20.0% – and thus scream regression at his power totals, but having just turned 27 (and apparently, having carried his newborn baby around everywhere all winter too), is it totally unreasonable that Brantley is hitting for more power than ever? His approach at the plate certainly can’t be argued with – only marveled at; having struck out just 16 times in 192 plate appearances, ‘Dr. Smooth’ ranks fifth-lowest among AL qualifiers in K% with a mark of 8.3%. Thanks in part to his elite contact rate (91.2% for his career) and decent patience, he’s actually drawn ball four (17) more often than fallen victim to the K. 

All signs then, point to Brantley continuing to enjoy his ‘breakout’. The Cleveland front office will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of him doing so – prior to the season, they locked him up to a four-year contract extension worth a total of $25 million which will see Brantley in an Indians uniform through his age-30 season (a club option for a fifth year for $11 million could extend that to through 2018).  

God might still hate Cleveland, but there’s always room for optimism. He might not be a Wiggins-esque franchise savior, and is nowhere close to becoming a Manziel-level cash cow, but Michael Brantley is darn good. 

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