As is the case with most pennant-winning baseball teams, the Cleveland Indians came into the 2017 season with very few question marks. The biggest one may have been whether or not left fielder Michael Brantley could return to his old All-Star form following two shoulder surgeries and a 2016 campaign that was essentially lost, aside from 11 games played.
While the rest of his teammates were celebrating a division title and trip to the World Series last season, Brantley was forced to be a spectator. The club’s best hitter and a team leader the prior two years, Dr. Smooth simply could not work his way back from a right shoulder injury he suffered diving for a fly ball near the end of the 2015 season. He attempted to come back twice, but otherwise, he was resigned to be a cheerleader from the dugout during the Tribe’s amazing American League championship run.
Some wondered if Brantley may have tipped the scales in Cleveland’s favor last October and been the difference in the one more win the team needed against the Cubs in the Fall Classic. That answer may be coming as this early part of the season unfolds.
The answer to whether or not Brantley could work himself back and regain his ability that made him a 2014 All-Star is, so far, a resounding yes. Brantley seems headed for more than a cameo appearance during this latest comeback. As the first month of the season closes, he has already played more games and done much more damage at the plate than a year ago. He looks like the guy who finished third in the A.L. MVP voting three seasons ago. He entered Saturday hitting .300, with four homes runs and 15 RBI. He had a ten-game hitting streak that ended Thursday.
That puts him on a pace to have a similar season to those he had in 2014 and 2015 when he was Cleveland’s best offensive weapon. In ’14, he hit .327 with 20 home runs, 97 RBI, and stole 23 bases. All were career highs. He was nearly as good the next year, hitting .310 with 15 home runs, 84 RBI, and 15 steals. He played in 19 fewer games due to injuries. Otherwise, the 2015 stats may have come a lot closer to matching those from his All-Star year the season prior.
Just to see Brantley swinging the bat well is refreshing. Even when he did come back last season, he did not look anything like his usual self as he may have played in fear of hurting himself again. In those 11 contests, he hit just .231 with seven RBI. Two doubles were his lone extra base hits in 39 at bats. The shoulder issues seemed to impede his typically smooth swing and revoke any of his power.
That is certainly not the case this year. By comparison, Brantley had six RBI in a three-game stretch this past week, alone. Clearly, the shoulder is much sounder than a year ago, which is clearly a very good thing for both him and the Tribe.
Brantley’s return to form has helped the Indians offense maintain its strong output of scoring, following last year’s second-best finish in runs scored in the A.L. The Indians entered this weekend’s series with the Mariners averaging 4.7 runs per game, just off of their 4.8 of last year. This is despite slow starts for Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana, whom the team was counting on to be the mashers in the middle of the batting order. Jason Kipnis, another important player in the lineup, missed the first two-plus weeks of the season with an oblique injury.
Along with Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, Brantley is a major reason the offense has continued to produce at a strong rate this year. Brantley is hitting near his old All-Star form and does not show signs of slowing down. He is not likely to play 156 games this year as he did in 2014 but he is showing the ability to be the every day player the Indians need in left field. He has sat out just four games so far in the Tribe’s first 23 games. Two of those have come in Sunday afternoon tilts. Tribe manager Terry Francona has opted to rest Brantley in day games following night games when his surgically repair shoulder has less time to rest up.
The Indians are likely to err on the side of caution with their superstar for most of the season. Even though he has shown zero signs of fatigue, as the recent hitting streak would attest, Cleveland management does not want to push Brantley too far or hard for fear of any sort of shoulder discomfort creeping back.
It is the smart approach. As Encarnacion and Santana regain their powerful hitting strokes and Kipnis works back into game shape, the Indians lineup has plenty of talent to withstand a night off here and there for Brantley. Dr. Smooth helps make the offense hum all the better, but it is more important to have him playing all season than to try and push him to go every single game and risk losing him midway through.
Last year Brantley missed getting to celebrate on-field successes with his teammates. He longed to be on the field with them during the pennant chase. If he can keep producing like an All-Star and maintain his current physical routine, odds are he will have his opportunity to be in the pennant chase and potential October mix this time around.
The Indians may have been a healthy Brantley away last year from their first World Championship since 1948. This year, he may be giving the club just what it needs to get back into position to make another run at winning that one more game it fell agonizingly short of in 2016.
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