It’s difficult to figure out where to start with Jackie Bradley Jr. You could start with his incredible defense, and actually that’s probably the right place to begin. You could look at this play, or this play, or this play, or if you have four minutes and 31 seconds you can watch some defensive highlights from 2014. Or just use Google. I’m sure you’ll come up with something good. That’s because Bradley is an exceptional outfielder. Someone with his defensive skills shouldn’t have to hit much to play regularly. “Not much” is still more than “none,” though, and it’s the difference between these two that has held Bradley back.
Bradley was called up four times in 2013, including at the beginning of the season to serve as the club’s starting left fielder. He hit .097/.263/.129 and was sent down as soon as the team got healthy enough to do so. He was called up three other times with varying degrees of failure, but the end result was a .617 OPS on the season. Even so, Bradley had hit at every level of the minors, including posting an .842 OPS for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2013 in between trips to Boston. The team decided he would be their starting center fielder in 2014. And he was. And his defense was close to perfect. His hitting was also perfect — though only on opposite day. Now, though, he’s hitting on all the regular kinds of days, too.
There’s that story of Ted Williams standing out in left field practicing his swing with his glove during the game. That’s what Bradley’s results suggested he was doing, but in reverse. Picture a guy standing in the batter’s box and practicing jumping up to make a catch at the wall. That’s how badly Bradley hit. He hit like he couldn’t hit. By the time the Red Sox gave up and sent him down he had compiled a slash line of .198/.265/.266. That’s a .531 OPS and a wRC+ of 46. Bradley didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title in 2014, but if you drop the required number to 400, Bradley jumps to the bottom of the list as the worst hitter in baseball, a good (bad!) nine points of wRC+ ahead (behind!) of Zack Cozart. Bad (bad!)!
Then Bradley went down to Pawtucket and hit .212/.246/.273. Shortly afterwards the Red Sox signed Rusney Castillo to a six-plus-year contract. Mookie Betts also asserted himself and, as Boston already had a second baseman signed until forever, they dropped him in the outfield as well. This past offseason they added Hanley Ramirez, ostensibly an outfielder, on a four-year contract. That’s sending a message that the Red Sox had seen enough. There wasn’t any more room for Jackie Bradley.
This season, Bradley has been back to his old self at Triple-A, putting up an .853 OPS for Pawtucket. Bradley was even called up occasionally, and got some at-bats with the parent club. They went about as well as they had ever gone. He got into six games in mid-May and in 13 plate appearances he had zero hits. Then he was called back at the end of June and got into six games. This time he had a hit! He even hit a home run, and the end result was better, but you still wouldn’t call a slash line of .211/.273/.368 “good” because it’s not. He was sent back down, but he returned again at the end of July. He had 24 plate appearances in nine games and hit .053/.208/.053. Again. Yuck.
With the exception of the almost five months where he was the starter in Boston, most of these chances involve incredibly small samples. Six games here, nine games there, not enough to tell you anything about a player from an analytical standpoint. But while that’s true, so is this: they confirmed every fear Bradley had already created about his play. He struck out in close to 30% of his plate appearances and hit for almost no power and he did it repeatedly.
On August 9, Bradley was hitting .121/.254/.172 on the season. So… yeah. That day, though, he had two hits, a triple and a home run. The next day he had two more hits including another triple. The next day he had another hit, then three more, then Saturday he hit three doubles and two more homers. Yesterday he doubled and walked in five plate appearances. He’s now hitting .247/.340/.494. This more than qualifies as the “not much” mentioned earlier.
Major-league hitters can hit a pitch in the center of the strike zone hard more often than not. Here you can see what Bradley did against pitches in the center of the strike zone in 2014.
Not much at all. Now here’s what he’s slugging on pitches in the zone this season.
We can even break it down further to all the games since August 9.
It’s difficult to say why a player all of a sudden gets it, but in Bradley’s case there are some obvious mechanical adjustments that he made to his stance and swing this past off-season. If you watch Bradley in 2014 two things stand out. The first is before the pitch. He starts with an open stance and he moves the bat around quite a bit. These images are from Bradley’s at-bat against David Robertson in the ninth inning of the Red Sox game against the Yankees at Fenway Park on August 2, 2014.
The second is during the pitch, where he closes his stance then re-lifts that same front foot before placing it down again.
Here you can see Bradley’s has his front foot up on his toes. What you can’t see is that the foot is actually coming back up. He’s already picked it up, put it back down, and now he’s lifting it up again. Look where the pitch is. There’s no way Bradley will be able to swing at that pitch with anything remotely resembling power. And indeed he doesn’t, swinging and missing on it for strike three.
There’s one more image from this at-bat I want to show you.
Bradley’s bat is right on the pitch but he’s so late to it that the ball is actually behind his bat yet not quite in the catcher’s glove yet. It takes a special kind of lateness on a pitch to achieve artwork like that.
Here’s video footage from earlier in that game that provides a side view of Bradley’s 2014 swing:
Players make all sorts of strange ticks and mechanical oddities work for them, but with all the movement and timing involved, Bradley often had to rush to get himself in position to swing. Rushing often means lateness.
This season Bradley has ditched much of the pre-pitch movement and closed up his stance.
This helps keep things simple and keep him balanced. The less movement the less there is that can go wrong, and the less chance there is that the hitter will be late in his swing. Bradley’s toe-tap has also been replaced with a leg lift that helps him start his momentum going forward. Effectively Bradley cut out the first part of his swing where he repositions himself at the plate (goes from open stance to closed) and then took his toe-tap to its logical leg-lift conclusion.
The strange part is that all of this didn’t work. Bradley was still hitting .121 with a .426 OPS just a bit over a week ago. But then, poof, it did work! I’ve watched video of Bradley early this season and he has made in-season adjustments. Over the course of the season he’s dropped his hands a bit, and increasingly added to his leg lift. Here he is on May 16
…and on August 9…
The toe-tap is still sort of there in the earlier image, but by early August, it was gone.
Here’s the most recent version of the swing, from yesterday’s game at Fenway:
Perhaps it was as simple as getting his foot down and getting his weight moving in the right direction. Like most of Bradley’s major-league career, we’re forced to draw conclusions from an incredibly small sample size. But like the previous small samples that confirmed every fear about Bradley, this small sample has confirmed what it was hoped he could do and what he had actually done for much of his career in the minor leagues.
Just like any hot streak, good fortune has played a role here. For example, during Saturday’s game when Bradley hit three doubles and two homers, two of those doubles probably should have been caught, both landing on the warning track while helpless Mariners outfielders did their best impressions of the Twitter shrugging emoticon. But the other three hits weren’t flukes. Each of his two homers traveled over 400 feet and have been classified by ESPN’s Hit Tracker as “plenty.” In other words, they weren’t cheap.
None of this is to say Bradley has turned a corner and is now the player the Red Sox thought they had when they made him the starting center fielder back in March of 2014. Bradley could very well hit .121/.230/.121 over the next month. He’s done it before. This looks different though and that’s why it’s so promising. The player looks good, the mechanics look good, and for once where Jackie Bradley and big league pitching are concerned, the results look good too.