A Paternal Touch Yields a Smooth Swing

By Tyler Kepner

New York Times

Hitters change their swings subtly throughout a season, with slight alterations that can make a big difference. Most of these are unintentional, but inevitable.

“It’s hard to keep your swing right, even when you practice it every day,” Cleveland Indians infielder Mike Aviles said. “There’s days you come in and you’re a little tired. Your arms don’t want to move the way you want them to. That’s just how it is.”

Michael Brantley, Aviles said, is an exception. As an opponent, Aviles admired the grace of Brantley’s smooth left-handed swing. As a teammate, he said, he is amazed by Brantley’s uncanny ability to keep it the same every day.

Brantley, the Indians’ center fielder, does not take underhand flips in the batting cage, as many hitters do, favoring extensive work off a tee to emphasize the repetition of his swing.

“Good or bad that day, I know I prepared the same way and I was ready for the game,” Brantley said. “I just try to take the best swings I can and swing at good, quality pitches. I don’t always look at results or what happens. My whole goal is to get the barrel to the ball as consistently as possible. The results will come after that.”

If that sounds like the mantra of a hitting coach, it should. Brantley’s father, Mickey, held that position for the New York Mets in 1999, and later for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Brantley was born in Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, where his father played for the Mariners. But he lives in Port St. Lucie, Florida, the Mets’ spring training home, because of his father’s time with the organization.

When the Mets started slowly in 1999, they fired three coaches after a June loss at Yankee Stadium and named Mickey Brantley, then their minor league hitting coordinator, to replace Tom Robson. The Mets went 70-38 the rest of the way to capture the National League wild card.

Robson returned in 2000 as a peace gesture to manager Bobby Valentine, so Mickey Brantley, who was reassigned, missed the Mets’ pennant-winning follow-up season. But the summer joy ride in 1999 made an impact on Michael Brantley, who was 12 at the time.

“I’d go to the field with him almost every day, just be around the guys, shag fly balls, hit in the cage,” Brantley said. “Being around major league players at that young age, seeing how they acted, seeing how they prepared, it just made me want to get better and kind of showed me how to carry myself.”

Brantley said he would mimic the swings and stances of some of the Mets’ best hitters, like Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura, and when the Mets reached the National League Championship Series, Brantley took off from school to attend the first two games in Atlanta and the next three at Shea Stadium. He was in the stands for Ventura’s famous grand-slam single to win Game 5.

“We got to experience a playoff atmosphere last year with this team,” Brantley said, “but to experience it at 12 years old, that’s something I wanted to do as a kid.”

The Indians, who hosted the American League wild-card game last October but lost to Tampa Bay, have been sluggish this season, hovering around .500 for months. But Brantley has been a breakout star at 27, validating the Indians’ decision to sign him in February for four years and $25 million.

Brantley’s rise has also redeemed the Indians for the C.C. Sabathia trade in July 2008. Cleveland sent Sabathia, then the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, to the Milwaukee Brewers for three prospects, headlined by Matt LaPorta, and a player to be named. LaPorta would hit just .238 in four forgettable seasons with the Indians.

Brantley became the player to be named on Oct. 3, 2008, while Milwaukee was playing in the division series. The timing was not a coincidence.

“The rumors were that if Milwaukee made the playoffs, they could pick from a different list, and I was on that list,” Brantley said. “But if they didn’t, I was untouchable. Especially in Double A, you hear rumors and you don’t know if it’s made up or not. But once Milwaukee made the playoffs, a couple of days after, I found out I was being traded.”

The Indians, notably the scout Don Poplin, liked Brantley for his swing, athleticism, bloodlines and, perhaps most of all, his approach to the game.

“With Michael, one of the things we thought was a strength of his was his makeup, his demeanor, the way he carried himself, his professionalism,” general manager Chris Antonetti said. “Having a chance to see that firsthand, to see how prepared he is for every game, how important it is for him to work and improve, it’s been incredibly fun to watch.”

Brantley showed signs of blossoming last season, when he hit .284 with 10 homers. He failed to make contact on just 9.9 percent of his swings, the second best ratio in the AL behind Jeff Keppinger of the Chicago White Sox.

After spending the last two winters recovering from injuries - wrist surgery in 2011 and sports-hernia surgery in 2012 - Brantley was able to pour himself into his offseason preparation, much of it with his father. The result has been his first All-Star season.

“He’s a nice guy to pencil in, because he wants to be better,” manager Terry Francona said. “He wants to win desperately.”