Figuring Out Jackie Bradley Jr.’s Brewers Fit

Earlier this week, when I examined the potential landing spots for center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., the Brewers stuck out as a team that didn’t appear to have a glaring need, particularly with center fielder Lorenzo Cain returning to the roster after opting out early in 2020. Yet FanSided’s Robert Murray, who previously covered the Brewers for The Athletic, had recently reported that the team was in the mix for them, and a week and a half later, they landed him via a two-year, $24 million deal that includes an opt-out after this season. The question is, how’s this going to work?

To these eyes, the bigger surprise than the Brewers adding to their stockpile of outfielders is that Bradley landed a multiyear deal in March, and at a healthy AAV at that. Aside from Bryce Harper‘s 13-year, $330-million megadeal, which was announced on March 2, 2019, in my research for the Bradley piece I was unable to find another multiyear position player deal that was completed in March during the past decade, with Manny Ramirez’s two-year, $45 million return to the Dodgers in 2009 the last one that came to mind. It’s just not a month for lasting commitments.

Given that slim history, plus Dan Szymborski’s less-than-glowing ZiPS projection for Bradley — WARs of 1.6 and 1.3 in the first two seasons over about 1,000 total plate appearances, a serviceable return if accompanied by a solid platoon partner — I figured it might be a stretch for him to approach the three-year, $27 million deal from the ZiPS contract model, to say nothing of the reports that he was seeking a contract of at least four years. Bradley (and agent Scott Boras) didn’t get the years, and his total guarantee is less than that of the model but not by much; with his opt out after the first season, he’s exchanged that for a good amount of control.

Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns, who’s been on the job since October 2015 (initially as general manager) has a history of overstuffing the roster and letting manager Craig Counsell figure out the playing time, and it’s helped the team to three straight postseason appearances for the first time in franchise history. On back-to-back days in late January 2018, Stearns traded for Christian Yelich and signed Cain to a five-year deal, that despite corner outfielders Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana — not to mention first baseman/outfielder Eric Thames — coming off solid seasons; Santana had bashed 30 homers in his age-24 campaign. In late July 2018, he dealt for Mike Moustakas while third baseman Travis Shaw was in the midst of a 32-homer season; Shaw took up playing second base seamlessly and the team came within one win of a trip to the World Series.

Stearns then re-signed Moustakas via free agency in late February 2019, and he played mainly second base until Shaw’s injuries and offensive struggles forced him out of the lineup and Keston Hiura arrived, whereupon the Moose returned to third base; the team claimed a Wild Card spot (though they lost the game). Last year, he signed Avisaíl García to add to his Yelich-Cain-Braun collection of outfielders. The last-minute introduction of the universal designated hitter put the Brewers in a seemingly strong position until Cain’s opt-out created a hole that García and Ben Gamel could only do so much to fill. The Brewers did make the playoffs despite just a 29-31 record, but were quickly dispatched by the Dodgers in the Wild Card Series.

So not only did Stearns history suggest something like the Bradley signing was possible, but the Brewers’ recent but unsuccessful pursuit of Justin Turner (who returned to the Dodgers in mid-February) showed that he still had money to spend. And spend it he has.

As to how the Brewers could piece this together, it’s worth noting that both Cain, who turns 35 on April 13, and Bradley, who turns 31 on April 19, both have some experience in right field. During Cain’s run with the Royals, and particularly in 2014 and ’16, he often started in center and moved to right in the late innings while Jarrod Dyson took over center. For his career, he’s played 157 games in right but started just 91; in 977 total innings there in his career (but none since 2016), he’s 16 runs above average according to DRS, 13.4 according to UZR. Bradley has played 64 games in right, with 43 starts and a total of 437 innings, mostly from 2013-15, when he was still finding his footing in the majors; he’s got 4 DRS and 3.0 UZR in the spot.

As far as their center field work goes, here’s the table I previously made for Bradley, showing the recent erosion of his defense from excellent to merely above average:

Jackie Bradley Jr.’s Fielding Metrics, 2017-20
Year Innings DRS UZR OAA
2016 1375.2 14 8.2 9
2017 1204.1 15 3.7 15
2018 1137.1 -1 7.4 9
2019 1247.0 -2 -1.2 6
2020 471.0 5 1.8 7

Still, the man has a flair for the spectacular. Here’s a top five from a mid-2018 article at The Athletic by Chad Jennings, less relevant than his more recent work (a reel of which I included in my previous Bradley piece) but plenty entertaining:

According to the metrics, Cain has generally outdone Bradley, with a gap that had widened in 2018-19, but he had no meaningful data from his 44 defensive innings last year:

Lorenzo Cain’s Fielding Metrics, 2015-19
Year Innings DRS UZR OAA
2015 1173.1 16 10.1 n/a
2016 614.2 9 4.8 7
2017 1275.0 4 3.3 21
2018 1180.0 18 8.7 22
2019 1177.1 22 7.0 16

Counsell didn’t equivocate at the introductory press conference, telling reporters, “Lorenzo is our center fielder,” and adding, “We don’t have any fourth outfielder. We’re going to have a lot of starting outfielders and we’re going to have to figure out how that works. That’s kind of how I’m viewing it. But there is playing time, absolutely.”

Given the mix of players — the lefty-swinging Yelich and Bradley, and the righty-swinging Cain and García — the most basic building block for playing time would appear to be a García/Bradley platoon, particularly given their splits:

Lorenzo Cain, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Avisaíl García Platoon Splits
Split Cain PA Cain wRC+ García PA García wRC+ Bradley PA Bradley wRC+
Career vs RHP 3109 99 2342 95 2318 97
Recent* vs RHP 1419 102 785 93 931 103
Career vs LHP 1207 126 892 119 963 84
Recent* vs LHP 490 126 337 116 388 75
* 2017-20 stats for Cain, 2018-20 stats for Bradley and Garcia

Though he hit for a 143 wRC+ in all of 69 PA against lefties in 2020, Bradley has generally been less effective against them in recent years than at the outset of his career. I noted in my previous piece that Bradley’s strong offensive showing (.283/.364/.450, 120 wRC+) in 2020 wasn’t supported by his Statcast quality-of-contact numbers. That’s true to an even greater degree when one drills down into the splits:

Jackie Bradley Jr. 2020 Batted Ball Splits
Split wOBA xwOBA Dif wOBAcon xwOBAcon Dif
vs. LHP .387 .311 .076 .438 .322 .116
vs. RHP .336 .302 .034 .399 .349 .050
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

This table imbues the splits with more importance than they deserve, as we’re talking about 45 batted balls events versus lefties from a partial season, but my point is simply that nobody should expect Bradley to rake against lefties as he did last year. Theres a whole lot more evidence that upholds the wisdom of sitting him against most lefties.

As for the 29-year-old García, the first year of his two years-plus-option, $20 million deal did not go so well. After batting .282/.332/.464 (112 wRC+) with 20 homers for the Rays in 2019, he sank to .238/.333/.326 (82 wRC+) with two homers last year, his fourth out of the past six with a wRC+ of 92 or lower and a WAR of 0.7 or lower; besides 2019, his other good season was ’17 with the White Sox, when he hit for a 138 wRC+ and produced 4.2 of his 6.8 career WAR. He’s a free swinger who chases about 40% of pitches outside the zone, annually has outstanding maximum exit velocities (last year was the first where he didn’t top 115 mph at least once) but hits the ball on the ground too often to consistently do damage. Last year, he produced a groundball/fly ball ratio of 1.7, and set career lows with an 87.4 mph average exit velo (26th percentile) and a 3.8% barrel rate (15th percentile); his .321 xwOBA was his lowest mark since 2016.

García has always carried the burden of being compared to then-Tigers teammate Miguel Cabrera at too young an age due to his size, Venezuelan background, and apparent power. Listed at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, he reported to camp having lost 36 pounds over the winter due to a healthy diet, putting him at or near the top of the mythical Best Shape of His Life leaderboards. Even before losing the weight, he brought speed (78th percentile, via Statcast) and athleticism to the table, and he’s improved defensively since his younger days, though he was overexposed in center field (-5 DRS in 348.1 innings) last year. While he’s 10 runs below average by that measure for his career in right field, he was 12 below in 1,425 innings alone in 2014-15, and is five above average in 3,040 innings since then.

All of which is to say that García makes a thoroughly credible short half of a platoon with Bradley. Both will have larger footprints than that, because Cain’s age and penchant for injuries, particularly lower body ones, mean he’ll require maintenance. He’s topped 141 games just twice in parts of 11 seasons, and after missing 98 games in 2012 due to left groin and right hamstring strains, averaged only 134 games from 2013-19. He missed 26 games in 2013 due to an oblique strain, and 17 in 2014 due to another left groin strain. In 2016, he was limited to 103 games, first missing a month in the summer due to a Grade 1 left hamstring strain, and then all but one game in September due to a Grade 2 left wrist sprain. After playing in a career-high 155 games in 2017, he lost 13 games to another left groin strain in ’18, and while he played 148 games in ’19, he battled right thumb, left knee and left ankle injuries en route to an 83 wRC+, his worst showing since 2013. Staying healthy isn’t his forte.

As if the point about Cain needed further underscoring, he has reportedly been dealing with tightness in his right quad, and’s Adam McCalvy added earlier this week that the Brewers would wait until next week before getting him into spring games. The team is “Letting him get his legs back under him after he elected not to play last year.”

Thus it stands to reason that building some off days into the schedule for Cain will be necessary. Given his platoon splits above, the preference would be to do so when righties are on the mound, letting Bradley do his thing in center while García is in right. García could also pick up playing time backing up Yelich, who’s coming off a comparatively dreadful season (.205/.356/.430, 113 wRC+, 0.7 WAR) after two MVP-level ones, both of which saw him miss handfuls of games due to back spasms, not to mention his season-ending fractured kneecap in 2019.

Bradley’s arrival probably spells bad news for outfielders Derek Fisher and Billy McKinney, a pair of former Top 100 prospects who are both out of options. Both are lefty swingers, and both have yet to fully establish that they can hit any kind of major league pitching with consistency; for what it’s worth, Fisher has actually hit lefties (110 wRC+ in 112 PA) while getting eaten alive by righties (68 wRC+ in 346 PA). Righty-swinging utilityman Daniel Robertson has a smattering of experience in left field for when the need for a fifth outfielder arises.

As with the free agent signing of fielding wizard Kolten Wong, which pushed Hiura to first base, the addition of Bradley will help bolster a defense that was 23rd in the majors in DRS (-14) and 22nd in Defensive Efficiency (.687), and an outfield that was 25th in DRS (-11) — particularly when coupled with the return of Cain. This team may not be the second coming of Harvey’s Wallbangers, but preventing runs is half the game, too.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

Seems like another savvy move on the margins from the Brewers’ front office! Lots of question marks, but the Brewers seem to have sky-high potential. They’ll need good health (perhaps the biggest of the aforementioned question marks), and bounce-backs from Hader and Yelich to meet it, but I think the foundation of a real contender is here given the pitching depth and potentially impact bats, along with the concerted effort to improve their defense this offseason. Should be a fun year for them!