Finding a Fit for Jackie Bradley Jr.

While Jake Odorizzi is clearly the top free-agent pitcher still available as March opens, Jackie Bradley Jr. is the market’s top position player still on the shelves, No. 18 overall on our Top 50 Free Agents list. Beyond the fact that they and their agents may have aimed too high with their contractual desires in an industry still feeling the economic pinch of the COVID-19 pandemic and treating the $210 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold as a salary cap, the pair don’t have a ton of similarities beyond their availability. But like Odorizzi, Bradley could provide a clear boost to a contending team.

Bradley, who turns 31 on April 19, spent the past 10 years in the Red Sox organization after being chosen as a supplemental first-round pick out of the University of South Carolina in 2011. It took him awhile to find his footing in the majors: Since he couldn’t keep his batting average above the Mendoza Line over the course of 530 plate appearances in 2013–14, he bounced up and down between Triple-A Pawtucket and Boston and spent nearly half of 2015 on the farm as well before finally sticking around for good.

Since the start of the 2015 season, Bradley has produced at about a league-average level offensively (.247/.331/.438, 102 wRC+) and provided exceptional and often spectacular defense. His +33 DRS in center field is tied for fifth in the majors in that span, and his 19.9 UZR is sixth, though he’s somewhere around 10th or 11th on a prorated basis, depending upon the innings cutoff one chooses. Likewise, his 42 runs via Statcast’s Runs Prevented metric ranks sixth since the start of 2016. In a league where Kevin Kiermaier has dominated the defensive metrics, Bradley has just one Gold Glove to show for his efforts, but he’s nonetheless put together some enviable highlight reels. Here’s one that covers just the last eight weeks of his work:

Over the course of his 2015–20 run, Bradley’s solid offense and strong defense has been worth a total of 15.0 WAR by FanGraphs’ measure using UZR as its defensive input (17.4 by Baseball-Reference using DRS). That prorates to 3.5 fWAR (and 4.1 bWAR) per 650 PA, though only once has he even topped 600 due to his difficulties against same-side pitching; he averaged 570 PA in the four complete seasons within that stretch. Still, three-win center fielders don’t grow on trees, so one would have expected Bradley to be popular upon hitting free agency, particularly without a qualifying offer to complicate matters.

If only it were that simple. Leaving aside his early-career struggles at the plate, Bradley has basically had two types of seasons offensively: those with a wRC+ around 120, two of which have been of fewer than 300 PA (2015 and ’20, with his 26-homer, 636 PA ’16 season the full-length exception); and those with a wRC+ around 90 (2017–19). In the pandemic-shortened season, he hit .283/.364/.450 (120 wRC+) and set career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, and walk rate (10.6%) as well as career lows in swinging strike rate (10.6%) and strikeout rate (22.2%). He chased pitches outside the zone with less frequency (27.3%) than in any season since 2015 and made contact in the zone with more frequency (82.4%) than any season since ’16.

While it’s certainly a good thing to enter free agency on a high note like that, Bradley has a multitude of problems working against him. The most obvious one is the sample size of his recent success. Teams are similarly wary of spending on a player who had a a better-than-expected 2020 after a mediocre ’19 as they are when it comes to a player like Odorizzi, who missed most of the shortened follow-up to a strong campaign.

Beyond that, Bradley’s actual production was well ahead of what his quality of contacts suggest. His 88.3 mph average exit velocity was just 0.1 mph better than his career low from 2017 and placed in the 40th percentile, and both his career-low 36.1% hard hit rate (34th percentile) and 7.6% barrel rate (47th percentile) were below average as well. The gap between his actual stats and his expected ones (.230 xAVG, .376 xSLG) was massive. He hit the ball on the ground with more frequency than ever before, setting career extremes with his 53.1% groundball rate and his 4.4 degree average launch angle; among batters who saw at least 500 pitches last year, the 48-point gap between his .347 wOBA and .299 xwOBA placed him in the 97th percentile. In other words, the slash line he put up isn’t sustainable without much stronger contact.

Bradley’s second major problem is that his defense, while still chockfull of spectacular plays, isn’t what it used to be:

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

Statcast holds Bradley in high esteem, but by UZR, Bradley’s been only 3.7 runs above average per 150 games over the past three seasons, and by DRS, he’s only been one run above average per 150.

With those two problems in mind, Bradley’s multiyear ZiPS projection as he heads into his age-31 season is rather underwhelming:

ZiPS Projection – Jackie Bradley Jr.
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .235 .317 .409 464 66 109 23 2 18 56 48 133 10 94 2 1.6
2022 .233 .314 .406 424 58 99 21 2 16 50 43 117 9 92 1 1.3
2023 .230 .306 .390 387 51 89 19 2 13 44 36 102 7 86 0 0.8
2024 .226 .299 .376 327 42 74 15 2 10 34 29 81 6 81 0 0.4
2025 .223 .292 .348 273 33 61 11 1 7 26 22 62 4 72 -1 -0.1

That’s for a neutral park, not Fenway Park, for which his 2021 slash line projects as .241/.323/.416. The projection reads to me as two pretty serviceable seasons with a clear opening for some platooning — Bradley owns a 75 wRC+ against lefties over the past three seasons, compared to a 103 wRC+ against righties — followed by a dropoff into a smaller share of playing time. It’s a profile that has more appeal to a win-now team that can pair him with a lefty masher and significantly out of line with the deal Bradley and agent Scott Boras reportedly sought as of early February, which the New York Post’s Mike Puma characterized as “a significant contract, perhaps beyond four years” — hence the five-year projection above.

In our conversation about the projection, Dan Szymborski pointed out that ZiPS holds Bradley in a more favorable light than the other systems housed at FanGraphs when it comes to both OBP and SLG. He added that ZiPS see Bradley’s 2020 BABIP (.343) as about a 30-point overperformance based on his Statcast data; “Thus it views him like a .250/.330/.420 hitter who’s now on the wrong side of 30.”

The additional problem for Bradley is that if such a forecast is in the public sphere, it’s quite possible that teams’ internal projections are telling them something similar, making it all the harder for him to land the contract he envisions. Even so, the ZiPS model places a $27 million valuation on the first three years of the above projection. While multiyear contracts among outfielders haven’t been as scarce as those for pitchers this winter, only George Springer, Marcell Ozuna, and Jurickson Profar have landed deals for longer than two years, with five others (Michael Brantley, Brett Gardner, Robbie Grossman, Enrique Hernández and Kevin Pillar) landing two-year deals. Besides Springer, Ozuna, and Brantley, all of the other deals have had an average annual values of $7 million or less. Something along the lines of Profar’s three-year, $21 million deal might have been a realistic target under the circumstances.

Whether that deal is out there in March is another matter. Bryce Harper’s $330 million contract — agreed to on March 2, 2019 — aside, it’s been at least a decade since a position player landed a multiyear deal in March. It’s not hard to understand why: While a rotation’s depth chart can change significantly with one pitcher going down during spring training, which happens all the time, the odds of a team suddenly having a previously unforeseen need in center field is much lower.

That said, MLB.com’s Jon Heyman reported last week that “about half a dozen” teams are considering Bradley, and to these eyes, there are about that many landing spots that still make sense, mainly for teams that have at least vague notions of contending. All but one of the teams below has been reported as having expressed interest in Bradley at some point this winter, as have other teams. With the Blue Jays signing Springer, the Mets opting for another patchwork solution involving Brandon Nimmo, Pillar, and perhaps Albert Almora Jr., and the Cubs adding Jake Marisnick and Joc Pederson, I’ve ruled out those teams. Working upwards from the bottom of our Depth Charts projections this time:

Phillies (29th in Depth Charts Projections, 0.2 WAR)

The return of Didi Gregorius bumped Jean Segura back to second base and Scott Kingery into the center field mix along with Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn, with Odúbel Herrera — who hasn’t played since May 26, 2019 due to a suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy — potentially an option as well. There’s not much in the projections to suggest that this will work, though Quinn or Kingery might at least function as the short half of a platoon. As noted in connection to Odorizzi, whom they recently checked on, the Phillies are already at $201.7 million for CBT purposes, but the fact that they’re still shopping is telling, as right now they line up as the fourth-best team in the NL East according to our Playoff Odds, not to mention the one (ahem) with the longest playoff drought.

Cleveland (26th, 0.6 WAR).

You can practically set your watch by my critiques of Cleveland’s half-assed approach to building an outfield, as the team inevitably pops up on the midsummer Replacement Level Killers lists (three for three during my tenure at FanGraphs). Oscar Mercado looked like the solution in 2019, but last year he was so bad that he was sent to the alternate site after 93 PA, carrying a -11 wRC+. He and projected backup Billy Hamilton may provide adequate defense for the middle pasture, but their projected .287 wOBA is the lowest of any of the 30 teams at the position. Cleveland was reportedly interested in Bradley as a trade target last August, but that’s the one team here I haven’t seen connected to him this winter, which figures, given that this is a team being outspent by the Royals by $37 million.

Giants (22nd, 0.9 WAR)

They’re the furthest from contention of any team here, projected for just 76.1 wins, but they’ve shown interest in Bradley this winter and haven’t made a move that would preclude adding him. Converted shortstop Mauricio Dubón is the projected starter, coming off a rookie season in which he hit for a 100 wRC+ and held his own in center according to the metrics (-1.7 UZR, 1 DRS, 4 OAA), but the projection systems don’t think he can sustain that level of offense. Signing Bradley could push Dubón into a multiposition role while propping up a rotation that projects to rank among the majors’ bottom third.

Astros (20th, 1.5 WAR)

Even with the surprising last-minute return of Brantley, the loss of Springer has left a gaping hole in Houston’s outfield, and right now the team is tasking 26-year-old superutilityman Myles Straw with filling his big shoes. After some initial success in 2019, Straw hit for just a 40 wRC+ in 86 PA last year and projects to produce a meager 84 wRC+, including a .327 slugging percentage, in ’21. Plan B appears to be Chas McCormick, who last year ranked 31st on the team’s prospect list; he’s a good defender with a modicum of power but, like Straw, is probably fourth outfielder material. Given how wobbly Houston’s rotation is on the back end, this team could clearly use a better center fielder, though with a payroll of $201.3 million for CBT purposes, the Astros might need to maneuver a bit to fit Bradley — or just spend money and pay what would be a minimal tax.

Brewers (15th, 2.0 WAR)

I wouldn’t have added the Brewers here based simply on their projections and ranking, as Lorenzo Cain is back from his opt-out and can presumably still play. However, Robert Murray reported last week that the team is in the mix for Bradley, which suggests that they envision a configuration that would push Cain to right field at least part of the time at the expense of Avisaíl García, who hit for just an 82 wRC+ last year and has been below 100 in two years out of the last three.

Red Sox (9th, 2.4 WAR)

Since taking over as the Red Sox’s chief baseball officer, Chaim Bloom has traded two-thirds of the team’s version of the “Killer B’s,” namely Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi, but during Bradley’s free agency, the team has remained in contact, interested if the price is right. On the face of it, Alex Verdugo projects quite well in this spot (2.4 WAR in 483 PA), but the Sox look to be particularly weak in both outfield corners, ranking 23rd in left field (1.0 WAR total, with Franchy Cordero as the regular) and 19th in right field (1.3 WAR total, with Hunter Renfroe as the regular).

It’s a mix that would become even more lefty-heavy with the addition of Bradley, but Verdugo has hit well against same-side pitching (career 110 wRC+), so an alignment with him in center and the righty-swinging Renfroe (career 137 wRC+ against lefties) in right when a lefty is on the mound would make sense, with either Hernández or Marwin Gonzalez available to cover for Cordero in left while the other player mans second base. The problem for the Red Sox is that while their actual payroll is at only $189 million, for CBT purposes they’re at $207.5 million, and their recent history suggests that they’ll prioritize not paying the tax over adding an extra win beyond their 84.3-win projection.





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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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One year (or two years with an opt out) in Colorado so he can hit some dingers, play some D in that Grand Canyon of a CF, and try his luck again next year? I imagine he wants to avoid being a FA next off-season like the plague, given the CBA complications. But a good year in a friendly park might convince him.