Enrique Bradfield Jr. Is Running Down a Dream

Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

You come to your senses at the controls of a small, single-engine airplane. The pilot is gone. The terrain below is unfamiliar. And suddenly, as if by the whim of a cruel god, the aircraft rolls violently to one side, pitching you from your chair and out the door.

From an altitude of 8,000 feet, you have a little less than 30 seconds to fall. The wind stings and dries your eyes, the sound of rushing air pummels your ears, blocking out all other noise except the rapid thumping of your heart. It’s a long enough fall to leave you time to contemplate your fate, to dwell on your regrets, to consider those you’ll leave behind. The horizon falls away as the ground rushes toward you. You can make out trees, fenceposts, telephone poles. The end, by every indication, is here.

But you are not afraid, because Enrique Bradfield Jr. will catch you.

Vanderbilt’s junior center fielder is the school’s top prospect in this draft class, and the no. 17 player on The Board overall. The 21-year-old Florida native was a three-year starter for the Commodores, who have one of the best reputations in college baseball for developing pitchers but are also known to churn out the odd outfielder: JJ Bleday, Bryan Reynolds, Mike Yastrzemski, and so on.

Bradfield is not like those players. He’s a good hitter, with a .311/.426/.447 line in 896 college plate appearances, but he possesses a tool that is almost certain to give him substantial big league staying power. That tool is not his bat, but his glove:

We tend to underrate how difficult it is to play good center field defense. The physical requirements — speed, most notably, but also a strong throwing arm — are rare. Even more so the spatial reasoning to read balls off the bat, the fearlessness to fling oneself onto the ground and into walls, and the coordination and body control to come up with the catch. It’s not as physically and intellectually demanding a position as catcher, but it’s harder than it looks.

For that reason, many teams just don’t have a legit center fielder. In some respects, Aaron Judge is the perfect archetype of the modern center fielder: He runs well enough to fake it, he’s got a good arm, and he’s smart enough to make all the right plays. Plus he’s tall enough to rob home runs. Sticking him in center — as the Yankees have done for roughly one out of every six defensive starts he’s made in his career — might cost a tick or two defensively, but getting an extra corner bat in the lineup is a worthwhile tradeoff.

Bradfield is an old school center fielder.

“There’s not a ball that’s hit — unless it’s on the ground or over the fence — that I think I can’t catch,” Bradfield says, matter-of-factly — almost bashfully. “I can go cover ground a majority of people can’t.”

Speed is a funny thing in a baseball context, because the ability to run fast isn’t really an essential skill in and of itself. A split second that can be gained by foot speed can also be gained by anticipation or good positioning. Many elite defenders or baserunners are merely above-average runners, but their ability to read the game makes them play faster than they actually are. Bradfield says he’s concentrated on that aspect of the game over three years of college, and that the key to learning to make good reads and run good routes is mostly just building confidence through repetition. But he also has to make adjustments for each opponent.

“Some guys with their swings are very telling as to where they’re comfortable hitting the ball, and where they’re not so comfortable, so sometimes you can cheat a little bit,” he says. “But at the same time, you really have to use your eyes to get a good jump and a good read. For me, that part of the game is something I’ve gotten a lot better on, made a lot fewer misreads, just because I’ve been able to really use my eyes and visualize what somebody’s going to do before they do it.”

Bradfield is so fun to watch because he makes those reads, both on defense and on the bases, but he’s also legitimately the fastest player in college baseball. Coming out of high school, Bradfield ran the 60-yard dash in under 6.3 seconds, which is a hair faster than Corbin Carroll at the same age. Bradfield moves like gravity doesn’t work the same on him as it does on other people. He bounces a little when he walks, and glides when he runs.

Given that description, it comes as no surprise that Bradfield is also one of the best basestealers in recent college baseball history: 130 steals in 143 attempts in 191 games, good for third on the all-time career SEC stolen bases list. That includes a sophomore campaign in which Bradfield went 46-for-46 in 62 games, then stole four more bases without being caught in 11 games in the Cape Cod League.

Bradfield’s ISO at Vandy was just .136, but as Chris Gilligan wrote about Esteury Ruiz recently, a sufficiently motivated and skilled basestealer can turn singles and walks into de facto doubles and triples.

Bradfield puts huge effort into studying his opponents, so once he gets on base, he knows when to teleport.

“Being able to visualize and get eyes on a pitcher and catcher, knowing their tendencies and what they do is probably the most important thing as a basestealer,” he says. “I want to be able to know when to pick my spot, and then just do it.”

Bradfield studies his opponents in minute detail, going over film and scouting reports to pick up any information that can give him an edge on the bases.

“Catchers can be prone to giving things away,” he says. “You might know when they’re going to back pick because you know what their sign is. You might know when they’re probably setting up to pitch out. So it’s good to know everything you can before you get out there.”

Suffice it to say, there’s more to getting a good jump than just waiting for the pitcher to twitch.

“It might even be something with the body language of the pitcher, or where he is when he’s on the mound,” Bradfield says. “Some pitchers, when they know they’re going to pick, it’s premeditated because it’s coming from the coaching staff. They’re not out there doing everything on their own, like it used to be. You have a pitcher and catcher looking at their watch, wrist, whatever, for a sign. And they’re being told exactly what to do. So if a pitcher falls into a rhythm or a pattern on film, it’s easy to pick up: ‘Okay, he’s looking at a 45-degree angle here, he’s probably going to throw back here.’ Or if his head is more toward the plate, he’s probably committed to the plate.”

Bradfield’s study of both defense and baserunning invites examination of what “instinct” means in sports. Bradfield used it himself in the course of our conversation on basestealing: “When I get out there, it’s all instinct, but I have a game plan prepared going in.”

“Instinct” is a fraught term in scouting circles, because it’s part of a vocabulary that’s historically been used to paint Black athletes — and especially Black athletes who can run, like Bradfield — as getting by on natural talent rather than hard work. And it’s a bit odd to think about anything involved in baseball as instinctual; it’s not like picking up spin on a breaking ball was essential to hunting mammoths 15,000 years ago.

Making good reads and knowing what pitch to steal on isn’t instinctual, but it can look that way on first glance. In order to play the way he does, Bradfield has spent years consuming massive amounts of information about player tendencies, both on the individual level and in the aggregate, so that when the time comes he knows which direction to run without having to waste time making a conscious decision.

Bradfield said “it’s all instinct,” and then spent the next seven minutes explaining all the inputs he’s looking for when he’s on base or in center field, up to and including stealing opponents’ signs. He doesn’t actually know what’s going to happen beforehand — he’s just done so much homework he makes it seem that way.

Why is he such a fun player? Part of it is because he seems to see or know things other players don’t. But also, he’s really damn fast, which means he’s constantly making highlight-reel plays.

Bradfield’s speed is so extreme, and the value of elite center field defense is so great, that he figures to make some impact on the majors no matter how he develops. But if there’s a drawback to his game, it’s the bat. The worry isn’t that Bradfield will fail to hit at all — he hit .311 across three seasons at Vandy, struck out just 13.6% of the time, and walked more than he struck out. It’s that he could be limited by a lack of power. The most common comp I’ve seen for him is Juan Pierre.

“I’ve met [Pierre]. He’s a great individual,” Bradfield says. “He was a great, great player, and he had a great career.”

That’s all true; Pierre played 14 seasons in the majors, racked up more than 2,200 hits on a .295 batting average, won a World Series, had a top-10 MVP finish, and has almost 100 more stolen bases than anyone else since the year 2000. If Bradfield achieves all that in his career, you have to imagine he’d retire a happy man.

But the comp stuck with me because Pierre, perhaps more than any other good player of my lifetime, is defined not by his strengths but by his limitations. I wanted to know what Bradfield thought of being compared to a player who was known for his weaknesses?

“For me, I think there aren’t many weaknesses,” he says. “Obviously, people always talk about how I’m not a power guy, and that’s just what it is. But I know I can be an above-average hitter. Did I have the best year? Probably not.”

(Bradfield hit .279/.410/.429 with 37 stolen bases in 44 attempts this past season and helped Vanderbilt win the SEC Tournament, so to be clear, it wasn’t a bad year. But he didn’t grow into the power scouts have been hoping to see from him since he was in high school.)

“But at the same time, if you never struggle, you never find out who you really are,” he says. “You never know how to get past your struggles. I’m more comfortable with failure than anyone I know. I know what it is to have a good day, I know what it is to have a bad day, and my personality wouldn’t change either way.”

Seeing as how baseball is mostly a game of failure, that seems like a healthy attitude to have. And Bradfield credits his time at Vanderbilt with helping him mature into someone who’s ready to face professional competition. Bradfield was a serious prospect coming out of high school, but he graduated in 2020, when basically no high school players were picked in the COVID-shortened five-round draft. Absent a professional offer, Bradfield went to Vanderbilt, and while he regrets not winning a national championship (Vandy lost in the College World Series final his freshman year before bowing out in the regional round in 2022 and 2023), Bradfield has no doubts that he’s better off for having gone to school.

“When you get to college, you find out pretty quickly the type of person you are, and the type of people you want to surround yourself with,” he says. “That was the most important thing for me, my development and growing as a person, being able to handle myself as a young man in this society, and to be a productive person. It’s something that was taught from the day I walked in.”

When he was talking about how to deal with disappointment, Bradfield kept coming back to the importance of process; he says playing in college helped him build good habits, which he could then lean on for support when the results weren’t going the way he wanted to, both on the field and in the classroom. (Bradfield’s keys to success include writing things down and drinking plenty of water.)

Vanderbilt also offered him a support system not available to many high school prospects. Since taking over in 2003, Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin has had 20 players drafted in the first round; Bradfield is a near-lock to be no. 21. He’s watched former teammates Kumar Rocker, Jack Leiter, and Spencer Jones go in the first round, and Hunter Owen could go off the board on Day 1 as well.

Bradfield has also had access to Vanderbilt’s expansive alumni network within baseball.

“Guys that I never crossed paths with on the field because they played five or six years ago are reaching out to me, like, ‘Hey if you ever need anything, don’t hesitate.’ It’s such a good culture that we have,” he says. “Tony Kemp is a person who I’ve come to know the past couple years. We speak a decent amount. Even Dansby [Swanson] reached out to me, and that was pretty cool. This guy’s a big league shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, doing his thing, and he took time out of his day to reach out to me and see how I’m doing.”

That’s something of a tradition; the day Swanson was drafted no. 1 overall, David Price made the trip to Vanderbilt’s NCAA Tournament game in Illinois to cheer him on, as well as Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler, who went off the board later in the first round.

Someday, it’ll be Bradfield mentoring the next generation of Vanderbilt prospect, delivering insights only a big league vet can dispense. And like everything else about Bradfield’s game, it’ll happen extremely quickly.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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10 months ago

Haha that intro 😂