Milton Bradley: The Man an Army Couldn’t Save

You know what statheads love to do? Find pet players who’ve been overlooked by teams, and lobby for them to find a real home. Often, we focus on players with strong minor league track records who’ve never gotten a shot because of perceived weaknesses, only to see those perceived weaknesses regurgitated by the big club as their numbers grow gaudier and gaudier. Ten years ago, we wanted to Free Erubiel Durazo. Now, we want to Free Brandon Allen.

We’ll also, on occasion, back a player with supposed attitude problems. Whether or not those problems are real or harmful, we will (sometimes) argue that consistent performance should outweigh a jerky demeanor. If the A’s of the 70s could put up a mini-dynasty with 25 men and 25 cabs, how much harm can one rouser of rabble cause? That was Milton Bradley, and that was us.

Bradley got dumped for the first time in 2001, by the same Montreal Expos organization that raised him. Though he’d had a few dust-ups in the minors, Bradley hadn’t yet run into the kind of high-profile blow-up that would later define his career. Maybe then-Expos GM Jim Beattie had an inkling that the talented young outfielder would run into trouble, and that’s why he flipped Bradley for forgettable right-hander Zach Day. Or maybe this was just the same guy who also once gave Graeme Lloyd a three-year, $9 million contract, and traded three prospects (including Jake Westbrook and Ted Lilly) for Hideki Freaking Irabu.

Bradley started slowly with the Indians, then took off in 2003, hitting .321/.421/.501 with strong defense and a career-high 17 steals. But that year saw Bradley grapple with another defect that would plague his career: a severe lack of durability. He would spend 65 days or more on the disabled list in four of five seasons spanning 2003 through 2007 (hat tip to Corey Dawkins at Baseball Prospectus). Though he played just 101 games in ’03, Bradley 4.6-WAR season would prove to be the high point of his career (matched by his huge 2008 campaign).

Though injuries were becoming a concern, teams don’t trade five-tool outfielders coming off big seasons at age 25 unless there’s a really good reason. But that’s exactly what the Indians did, sending Bradley to the Dodgers after his run-in with Cleveland skipper Eric Wedge during spring training. Bradley lasted two years in L.A. before getting sent to Oakland; more injuries, service time, and the Dodgers liking Andre Ethier (good call there!) played a big role in the decision. But Bradley’s temper did too. In a June 2004 game, Bradley became so frustrated with a third strike call that, upon returning to the dugout, he fired dozens of balls onto the field. Near the end of the season, a fan tossed a plastic bottle onto the field in Bradley’s direction, after Bradley made a big error. Bradley picked up the bottle, started yelling up at the fans, then chucked the bottle into the stands.

He showed flashes of greatness in Oakland, becoming the third player to hit home runs from both sides of the plate in a playoff game. By the next summer, he was designated for assignment, having again succumbed to injuries and managing just 61 games that entire season. He hit a solid .292/.373/.446 with the A’s, though, leaving one to wonder if a well-mannered player with that profile (Nick Johnson?) could have been retained as an ace pinch-hitter instead of getting thrown overboard. Late that season, in a key game against the Padres, Bradley got into it with first-base umpire Mike Winters. San Diego first base coach Bobby Meacham claims Winters was swearing at and baiting Bradley, possibly knowing his reputation and that such actions might set him off. They sure did: Bradley got so incensed that when he lunged at Winters while manager Bud Black tried to restrain him, he tore his ACL, a big blow that contributed to the Padres blowing their late-season lead and missing the playoffs.

There was more: He tried to go after Royals TV announcer Ryan Lefebvre for what Bradley claimed were unfair comments about him. The next year, he got suspended for bumping an ump. Bradley threw a fit after flying out during a game, prompting manager Lou Piniella to order him to go home. That led to a clubhouse altercation, and later that year, a season-ending suspension by the club. Bradley may not have been wrong when he said, “you understand why they [Cubs] haven’t won in 100 years here.” But suspending him for being impossible to deal with wasn’t high on the list of reasons why. Last season, Bradley left the Mariners for two weeks, for undisclosed personal reasons. As Shannon Drayer expertly chronicled in her farewell post on Bradley, the Mariners bent over backwards to accommodate him before finally cutting him loose, probably well after other teams would have given up.

Through it all, Bradley’s supporters frequently backed him as the victim of a bum rap (somewhat true, if you read Drayer’s post and consider that he may have simply been an incredibly competitive player who struggled with his emotions). We wondered if he could flourish in the right environment (probably not true, since the injuries happened many times in many different cities, as did the blow-ups). And we felt his talent was being short-changed (very often true).

When the Mariners traded Carlos Silva for Bradley in December 2009, many of us were ready to throw a ticker-tape parade in honor of Jack Zduriencik. After all, the Mariners GM had converted an apparently useless pitcher into a hitter just a year removed from a monster season who at worst could be a really good part-time bat. Never mind that Silva became a solid, 2-win pitcher last year as a part-time starter, while Bradley languished below replacement level, then did the same early this season.

By the time Bradley ended last year looking like a hollow version of his former self, even the biggest believers were ready to cut the cord. A January felony arrest stemming from a domestic violence allegation ended with no charges being filed. But the mere idea of Bradley’s outbursts turning more serious off the field torpedoed the last of his supporters, and made his release an imminent inevitability.

I was one of those last supporters. Like Vladimir Guerrero, Larry Walker, and other Expos minor league phenoms, I remember Bradley the teenage Vermont Expo, starting to put his game together even as whispers began that he was right on the cusp between competitive and too competitive. I rooted for him to make it in Montreal, then backed him every subsequent step of the way. But eventually, I just felt bad for the guy. It stinks that it had to end this way for him, as a washed-up 33-year-old who’s not even good enough to crack one of baseball’s worst offenses. Worse, as a malcontent whose powder keg personality made people forget the player he once was, and could have been.

I rooted for him as long as I could. Whatever he does now, I hope he finds inner peace. As Drayer said: “Hopefully in the future it doesn’t have to be hard to be Milton Bradley.”

Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

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Dwight Schrooden
12 years ago

Thank you for pointing out that all of the know-it-alls at Fan Graphs don’t actually know everything.

Character, commitment to the team, and a dedication to something bigger than yourself is important – not just OPS, VORP, and WAR.

12 years ago

I imagine this post could have been modified slightly to compliment the article without insulting everyone who reads it.

12 years ago
Reply to  noseeum

I was going to say that Bradley is a classic outlier which Fangraphs readers should be able to understand. There are lots of guys who are jerks or very emotionally labile but it’s not so bad that it affects their performance. Bradley is the outlier who has such big problems it has affected his career. It’s easy to look past it for a while and see big stats and talent, especially when he is playing in a city you don’t live in so you don’t see him making an idiot of himself on a daily basis. Most guys can compensate adequately enough that they will get another chance but some are to far out on the tail of the bell curve.

Random Guy
12 years ago

Of course, if Bradley had even a slightly positive WAR, he’d probably still be employed today. But by all means, keep believing it’s all about character, team-first attitude and, I dunno, grit or something.

12 years ago

Um, if he were hitting .300/.400/.500 every year and playing in 150 games, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Would the Mariners have kept him if he was nicer than Eckstein but hit like he did? Not likely.

12 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Why not? Eckstein could bat 5th in that lineup.

12 years ago