It's become something of an annual tradition this time of year, and it's not specific to Boston. Pretty much every season during spring training, and at just about every camp, there is one young player who captures the excitement of a fan base. Because we, referring generally to sports fans, are an impatient bunch, public outcries begin to pour out from all directions clamoring for Player X to start the year in the big leagues. While youth is exciting and typically, the potential upside is enormous, the front office tends to stay rational and keeps the player on a consistent track for their development.
This year in Fort Myers, Player X is obviously Jackie Bradley, who is a consensus top-three prospect in this system and has been phenomenal at the plate thus far this spring. With the news coming out that both David Ortiz and Stephen Drew are in real danger of being on the disabled list for the start of the season, the fans who want Bradley on the Opening Day roster are only getting louder. The point of this article isn't to take one side or the other in this debate. There have already been about a billion of those articles already (including takes here) and there will probably be a trillion more before April 1. However, with all the talk about how great he's been with the bat in the Grapefruit League, I thought I would delve further into just who Bradley has seen on the mound this spring.
To start, I will say that it's important to remember that Bradley hasn't seen any action above AA, and he only got 61 plate appearances at that level a year ago. This spring is the first opportunity we've seen him have against any true MLB-caliber pitching. He clearly hasn't disappointed, posting a .439/.549/.561 slash-line in 51 plate appearances this spring. In an attempt to quantify the level of opposition in Spring Training, Baseball-Reference has created a new stat called OppQual. Jackie Bradley received an 8.2 in this new stat, which they say means he's faced roughly the equivalent of AAA-quality pitching. Looking at all of his individual matchups, he has gone up against a nice mix of MLB players, prospects and fringe-MLBers/non-prospects.
Of his 51 plate appearances in the past month, roughly half of them have come against MLB pitchers, as he's stepped to the plate 25 times against a guy who spent at least some time in the majors a season ago. Of course, the level of this competition varies a bit, as the range of talent he's faced runs from R.A. Dickey all the way down to Dane De La Rosa. (If you find yourself asking, "Who?" then you've gotten the point.) However, this is the first time Bradley has faced any level of competition this high, and he did not falter against it. Those MLB pitchers combined to throw 1398-1/3 innings last year, and put up a combined 4.34 ERA, which is about a third of a run higher than the league average last season. Bradley did well in his first experience against this caliber of pitching, though, putting up a .454/.520/.681 slash-line.
As if that 25 plate appearance sample wasn't small enough (it was), we can separate Bradley's major-league opponents even more. Of the 21 pitchers that he faced, seven of them only got a cup of coffee in the bigs last year, and probably can't be considered true MLB-caliber pitchers. With that in mind, we'll set the 40 innings pitched as the minimum for true major-league talent. Under those qualifications, Bradley had only 16 plate appearances against such competition. The quality of the opposition improved slightly in this group, with their combined ERA falling to 4.16 in 1286 innings. He still hit well though, with a .428/.500/.714 slash-line in the limited sample.
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In Spring Training, major-league pitchers aren't the only talented arms being trotted out to the mound. In addition to them, there are also countless prospects -- many of whom are in positions similar to that of Bradley -- who are getting the call. Over the past month, he has gotten at bats against eleven minor-leaguers who were placed in their teams' top prospect lists. Among them were two pitchers who appeared on every major top-100 list: consensus number-one pitcher Dylan Bundy, as well as Jameson Taillon. In total, Bradley had eight plate appearances against fellow legitimate prospects, and showed the same ability to get on base (.200/.500/.200 slash-line). The prospects that he went up against all figure to be at least in the high-minors at some point this season.
If we define a "talented" pitcher as someone who either pitched in the majors last season, or is included as a top prospect in any given organization, then Jackie Bradley has gotten 33 of his 51 plate appearances this spring against true talent. Generally speaking, he has had real success against these arms, posting an on-base percentage of at least .500 when facing anyone who falls under this category. However, the sample is obviously very small, and these pitchers are in Spring Training too. At this point in the year, pitchers aren't completely in game shape yet, and they aren't throwing their best stuff.
Jackie Bradley's spring has been impressive, and it's tough not to catch yourself dreaming of the possibilities of him plugged into this lineup. His prospect-status, combined with his preseason performance has created a perfect storm of anticipation among anyone close to this team. However, looking at how far he progressed through the farm system last year, he hadn't faced much top-level competition coming into 2013. As great as his stats have been, the competition he's faced thus far has been lacking in consistent quality, with barely half of his plate appearances coming against major-league ready talent. Whether or not you feel he deserves to be on the Opening Day roster, his spring stats probably shouldn't be a part of your argument. He may be ready to face this level of competition, and he may not be. What we do know is that this spring hasn't seen enough quality opposing pitching to make that call.