Even after trading Yoenis Cespedes to Detroit, it is unclear how the Red Sox will make it work with all of their outfielders. This has been one of the most intriguing story lines to watch in the first half of the offseason. Are the starters definitely going to be Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo and Mookie Betts? Or will Shane Victorino going to get his wish and start? Allen Craig and Daniel Nava are somewhat redundant as outfielders/first basemen. Will they both be on the roster by the time the season rolls around? In the midst of all this chaos, it almost seems as if Jackie Bradley Jr. has been forgotten. At this time a year ago, we were ready for him to step into the shoes of Jacoby Ellsbury and hold down the center field spot for years to come. Let’s take a moment to ponder what needs to happen for Bradley to get any significant playing time this year.
As far as his path to time goes, it’s doubtful he even sees the roster without at least one injury at this point, barring a big trade. Obviously, his calling card is his glove, but the Red Sox have three guys - Castillo, Betts and Victorino - who can play center and right field already on the roster. At first, I was thinking that just a trade of the last name in that trio would be enough to give Bradley a spot on the Opening Day roster. The thought was they’d need someone with the defensive chops to fill in with Fenway’s spacious center and right fields. However, even without Victorino, Brock Holt showed an ability to play just about anywhere last season, with much of his time even coming in right field. Daniel Nava and Allen Craig can also both play right field in a pinch. Without an injury to either Castillo or Betts, it seems like Bradley will have plenty of time to work on his game in Pawtucket.
This is not necessarily the worst thing in the world for the soon-to-be 25-year-old. After moving relatively quickly through the minors, it has been abundantly clear that major-league pitchers have found the holes in his offensive game. With 530 plate appearances now under his belt, Bradley is hitting an abysmal .196/.268/.280, resulting in a 54 OPS+. Rather than having to adjust on the fly, playing in AAA against lesser competition not only gives him a better chance of regaining his swing, but also regaining his confidence at the plate. There is a lot for him to work on while he’s down in Pawtucket, but these two things are the ones that most need to be fixed if he wants to get MLB playing time in the latter portion of the 2015 season.
The first major issue for Bradley in his career has simply been the whiffs. In his two partial seasons in the big leagues, he has a swinging strike rate of 11.6 percent, more than two whole percentage points above the league average. That’s even worse than Will Middlebrooks in that same span of time. Here is his strike zone plot for his career, showing how often he whiffs on pitches in each spot on the zone.
Clearly, he has his biggest issue with chasing pitches down and out of the zone. There is a lot of red all over the plot, but it is most startling down in the zone, especially on the outer half of the plate. This signals that pitchers are getting Bradley with breaking balls in this location. Sure enough, that’s exactly where they’ve been putting the majority of their breaking balls.
While he’s down in Pawtucket, he needs to learn how to lay off these pitches down and away and force opposing pitchers to come back up into the zone against him. The talent in AAA will obviously make this a little easier than it will be in the majors, but it’s just breaking the habits of chasing everything breaking away from him that is important.
The other major issue with Bradley since being called up to the majors has been his complete inability to turn on a ball. While he’s obviously never going to be a middle-of-the-order power hitter, he needs to be a lot better in this department if he wants to become a major-league regular. Check out yet another zone plot, this time showing his Isolated Power at each spot in the zone.
That .000 ISO in his career on pitches middle-in is more than a little disturbing, as is the entire inner portion of the strike zone. His numbers when he pulls the ball back up this shortcoming as well. He’s actually been an above-average hitter when he hits the ball to center or left, posting a 106 and 104 wRC+ to those two fields, respectively. However, when he has pulled the ball to right field, that number has plummeted to 59. The main issue has been that Bradley has rolled over on too many pitches he is trying to drive to right field. An astounding 72 percent of the balls he has pulled in his career have been hit on the ground. Over the last two years, just nine qualified hitters have a ground ball rate that eclipses that mark when he pull the ball.
Bradley’s career is obviously not over. He’s only had limited experience in the majors, and we’ve seen countless prospects get killed by major-league pitching in their first taste of it, only to bounce back after making major adjustments. With that being said, he’s going to have to overcome a lot to make that happen for the Red Sox in 2015. Not only does he have to become more disciplined against breaking balls down and away, as well as learn to pull the ball with some authority. Bradley must also wait for an injury to at least one, and possibly two of the outfielders currently on the roster. It is probably for the best, though, for both the player and the team. The Red Sox don’t want to sell so low on a player they’ve been so high on, and Bradley is going to have an easier time working on his game when the spotlight isn’t on him. He has a long way to go, but Jackie Bradley still has a chance to contribute in 2015 if he works on the right things.
All zone plots found at Jackie Bradley's player page at Baseball Prospectus.