Jackie Bradley Jr. and His Glove Are Milwaukee-Bound

Jackie Bradley Jr. may or may not be the best defensive centerfielder in the game. Metrics have never loved him quite as much as the eye test suggests they should — accordingly, he’s never been honored with a Fielding Bible award — but there are those who believe he’s without peer among his contemporaries. At worst, the soon-to-turn-31-year-old “JBJ” is on the short list of top defenders at his position.

Those talents will now be display in Milwaukee. According to The Boston Globe’s Julian McWilliams, Bradley, who ranked as the 18th best free agent this offseason per FanGraphs, has agreed to a two-year, $24 million deal with the Brewers that includes an opt-out after the first year, thus ending an eight-season tenure with the Red Sox that included a Gold Glove, an All-Star berth, and a World Series championship. Along the way, Bradley logged a cumulative 93 wRC+ that comprised both peaks and valleys. Notoriously streaky, the personable left-handed-hitter is anything but a sure bet to match last year’s 120 wRC+, .283/.364/.450 line, which came over 55 games.

The Brewers would likely consider it gravy if he did match that level of production. This acquisition was largely about making an already improved defense better — Kolten Wong at second base being another key acquisition — and it unquestionably will. Bradley will be joining an outfield alignment that includes not just Christian Yelich, but also Lorenzo Cain, who is back after opting out last season due to COVID concerns. Cain, who turns 35 next month, is a two-time Fielding Bible winner as a center fielder, and has rated well by the various defensive metrics both over his career and in 2019, when he posted a 7.0 UZR, 22 DRS, and 16.0 Outs Above Average, with BP’s FRAA of -1.6 the exception.

Both have experience in right field. Cain has more — 157 games to Bradley’s 64 games — and by all accounts that will be his new primary position. Such a configuration would seem to make sense. While the metrics have favored Cain, he’s four years older than Bradley and not markedly better (if at all). It’s by no means unreasonable to question whether the metrics have treated the latter fairly.

Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch is among those who believes that might be the case.

“He’s a good example of a guy who gets to a lot of balls,” Hinch said recently. “It’s about getting outs. He probably deserves more respect than the numbers give him. Clearly, by the eye-test he’s remarkable as an outfielder. I know that the numbers beat on him a little bit.”

Jay Jaffe cited some of Bradley’s defensive metrics in a column earlier this week, noting:

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.

But Jay later acknowledges that Bradley’s defense doesn’t consistently grade out as well as it used to:

Statcast holds Bradley in high esteem [7 OAA], 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.

As for the calendar, Bradley’s reportedly-ambitious contract demands, while not in George Springer territory, undoubtably played in a role in his being in limbo prior to today. (His ultimate deal is fairly close to what both Craig Edwards and the crowd predicted as part of the Top 50 Free Agents exercise.) Not that the free-agent market wasn’t dormant for much of the offseason, but at the same time, a pricey long-term deal for a player with his resume would have been be relatively high-risk. Again, while it’s his glove that the Brewers are banking on, Bradley’s bat has been inconsistent. Moreover, it’s never quite lived up to expectations. He has a career average wRC+ of 93, but he’s ranged from a 46 wRC+ in 2014 to a mark of 118 in 2016; in the latter season, the combination of his exceptional defense with a potent bat was enough to notch 5.3 WAR.

Bradley was coming off a disappointing junior year at the University of South Carolina — a wrist injury contributed to a lackluster .778 OPS — when the Red Sox snagged him with the 40th overall pick of the 2011 draft. More telling in the eyes of Boston scouts were Bradley’s stellar freshman and sophomore seasons, the latter of which included College World Series Most-Outstanding-Player honors. Knowing that they were getting an elite defender, the Red Sox trusted that his bat would rebound in pro ball.

By and large it’s ended up bouncing back and forth, frequently within the same season. Bradley goes through stretches where he looks like the 1999 version of Andruw Jones, and others where he hits like the 2009 iteration of that same player. The constant remains his glove, which, it should be noted, is augmented by an elite arm.

Ultimately, while the defensive metrics may no longer embrace Bradley as the best of the best, he’s nonetheless elite. Longtime Fenway Park press box denizens have opined that he might be the best defensive center fielder in Red Sox history, and barring an unexpectedly-sudden decline in skills, he’ll likely assume similar territory in Brewers lore. Considering the likes of Cain, and the mercurial Carlos Gómez, that’s something fans in Milwaukee will surely enjoy seeing for at least the upcoming season.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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3 years ago

Cain has yet to play an inning of Spring Training, as he returns from the 2020 opt-out. This gives the Brewers early flexibility to rest Cain as needed in April while he gets his legs under him (legs that have been slowing down in recent years).

3 years ago
Reply to  jerpink

Like a lot of my initial thoughts on this deal, this is one of the many small pieces that add up to a picture that makes more sense in aggregate than on surface. Cain insurance, sure. But also Garcia insurance, in a way. on +wRC, both Garcia and Bradley have positive platoon splits, and appear to be even more decidedly so in their “off” years. Regardless, this assures that the Crew will trot out a pretty handy defensive outfield every day, and with other moves makes them much improved defensively. Important to a developing, younger staff, especially if Lindblom’s MLB adjustment from the second half of 2020 sticks.