Culture / Sporting Life

Michael Brantley Proves He’s the Most Underrated Player in Baseball in Astros’ Bizarro World Opener

The Artist Hitter and New Age Will Clark

BY // 07.25.20

Michael Brantley could probably awake from a 99-year-long slumber and immediately get you two hits. He could jump out of a plane swinging and somehow still square his bat up to the ball before ever hitting free fall. Hitting a baseball — the hardest thing in all of sports — somehow seems as natural to Michael Charles Brantley Jr. as riding a bike is to most of us.

The Houston Astros great coup of the 2018 offseason — one of Jeff Luhnow’s final gifts — belongs on the short list of the most underrated players in baseball. Brantley reminds everyone of his unusual gifts — and his seemingly perpetual calm — in the most bizarro world Astros opener ever.

With no fans in the stands (and hardly any people overall in a suddenly cavernous Minute Maid Park), with Major League Baseball addressing issues of racism and social justice with very public support of Black Lives Matter, Brantley does what he always seems to do. He comes out swinging.

In the most precise, controlled way possible.

“He probably has the most tension free swing I’ve seen since Will Clark,” Astros manager Dusty Baker says, referencing the former San Francisco Giant who hitting geeks adore.

Brantley can make the art of hitting look almost easy.. That’s what great artists do whether they’re using a paint brush or a piece of white ash lumber. And Brantley is at it again in Houston’s 8-2 win over the Seattle Mariners that kicks off their 60-game, coronavirus-altered season on a Friday night in Houston. Hitting in the cleanup spot in Dusty Baker’s first Astros lineup, Brantley goes 2-for-3 with the three-run home run that breaks the game open.

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When casual, or even committed, baseball fans talk about the best hitters in the game, Brantley’s name seldom comes up. But it should. Having put two healthy seasons together after battling injuries for several years in Cleveland, the 33-year-old Brantley is arguably hitting better than ever in a game that skews increasingly young.

Brantley is not the next hot thing. He is the ultimate professional hitter. With one of the smoothest left-handed swings in the game.

Just ask Justin Verlander. The Astros’ 37-year-old ace battled against Brantley for years when Verlander was in Detroit and Brantley in Cleveland. In fact, Brantley has 76 at-bats against Verlander, by far the most he’s faced any pitcher in the Majors. He hit .289 in those at-bats, with only three extra base hits among his 22 hits against JV.

Still, even now, Verlander seemingly remembers every one of those at-bats as a battle. One that pained and taxed him, too.

“I’ve known what Michael Brantley can do at the plate for a long time,” Verlander says. “I’ve had so many battles with him. As a matter of fact, in the intrasquad game that we played, he just kept battling me. It felt like the old days when I was at Detroit and he was at Cleveland. Every time he comes into the batter’s box, I know it’s going to be a 10 pitch at-bat.

“He’s going to give you a hell of a time. That’s just what he does. He has professional at-bats. He does all the same things that you need to do in order to be successful. He’s such a talented ballplayer. I can’t say enough about what he’s done. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have him on my team as opposed to facing him.”

Baker goes as far as saying he tells his own son Darren — a talented young player at Cal — to watch how Brantley hits and approaches at-bats. The Astros manager knows Michael Brantley’s dad, Mickey, a former Major League player himself for the Mariners and respected big league hitting coach.

But growing up around MLB players — and even getting to be right there for Robin Ventura’s unforgettable Grand Slam Single in that bonkers playoff game at Shea Stadium — does not explain Brantley’s success. Brantley’s calm approach — one that can sometimes make him seem like some hitting Terminator cyborg — helps.

Still, the hitter who might seem to be a candidate to be the least affected by playing in an empty ballpark actually feels the absence of fans acutely.

“It was tough, I’m not going to lie,” Brantley says of playing without fans. “In big situations, I love it when the crowd’s standing up cheering. I love those nervous energies, those butterflies I get. At times it makes you feel human again. And I thrive on that.”

Most hitters are more than aware of how human they are. Michael Brantley requires super pressurized situations to remind him. Yes, he’s a little different.

They don’t make many hitters like this. It’s about time everyone notices that.

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