There was a time when people couldn't have enough of Jackie Bradley Jr. It was just a couple of years ago when Bradley was the hotter than the surface of the sun as the latest sensation in Red Sox spring training. The story was not if Bradley was going to be an All-Star centerfielder, it was when. The debate that dominated sports talk radio was whether or not Bradley should make the club out of camp meaning the Red Sox would have to give up a year of team control, which it could save by sending the outfielder to the minor leaguers.
That was 2013. Just two seasons later, the 24-year-old appears to be a long shot to make the Red Sox out of camp and is sits behind an abundance of outfielders, seemingly out of spot on the major league squad. It appears as if Bradley could spend the year building back his value at Triple-A while coming back to Boston in case of injury. Bradley, like many prospects before him, could become an afterthought trade chip. It's happened to former top Red Sox prospects before: Will Middlebrooks, Michael Bowden and Lars Anderson.
Bradley is trying to evade that fate. Coming into spring training this year, it appears as if Bradley is making an effort to make sure that he doesn't become an afterthought, a footnote in the encyclopedia of top prospect busts.
"I’m just trying to focus on making good habits," Bradley told reporters in Fort Myers. "It’s a work in progress. I’m not trying to focus on results right now, but as long as I’m taking good swings at balls and swing at good pitches. That’s my main focus right now."
Like his performance, Bradley's mechanics have undergone a significant amount of change in a short period of time. This was Bradley's swing during March 2013, when he lit the world on fire.
We're going to establish this as the base for Bradley's mechanics. Before the pitcher delivers, Bradley sets up squared to the pitcher and takes a small step before swinging the back.
Fast forward a couple of months later to July 2013.
Bradley's swing remains relatively unchanged with one exception. Instead of a short step, Bradley introduced a relatively small leg kick. This doesn't appear to have affected Bradley's bat speed or swing length. He remains squared to the pitcher. This, however, marks the beginning of Bradley's issues.
Flash forward to Bradley in June 2014.
Bradley begins to open his stance up with a minor leg kick. This point on the mechanics timeline is when Bradley's swing starts to get longer and, thus, begins to give him issues.
The point of issue with the swing here is that Bradley begins to open his hips up too early which, subsequently, leads to him dragging his bat behind through the zone. Compare Bradley's hip here to his swing in the first GIF.
Here, Bradley's hips are much more squared to the pitcher, which allows him to get his bat quicker through the zone. Astutely, assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez noticed this issue and tried to alleviate the issue by opening up Bradley's stance more.
"What it created was his first move was to open with the front side," assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez said to the Providence Journal. "That probably didn’t allow him to see the ball that good and didn’t allow him to stay through the ball."
Here is what Bradley and Rodriguez came up with.
Bradley introduced a very pronounced leg kick and set up open to the pitcher which was meant to keep him squared towards the pitcher as the pitch came towards the plate. When he was squared towards the pitcher, Rodriguez said that Bradley would step out instead of towards the pitcher.
While the problem temporarily dissipated in the first couple of games after the kick's inception, the problem reappeared and Bradley began to open up his hips again too early, making his swing drag behind through the strike zone.
Ultimately, Bradley went back to his closed stance to finish the season, but the struggles persisted.
Bradley's ineffectiveness at the plate was way too much for the team to support in the lineup, despite his Gold Globe-worthy defense. Bradley ended the season with a.198/.265/.266 with one home run, 30 RBIs, 19 doubles and 0.6 WAR in 127 games. This comes from a player who hit .290/.394/.456 throughout his time in the minor leagues and demonstrated a lightning-quick bat and the ability to hit the balls to all fields.
This offseason, Bradley ultimately had to make a change to his mechanics at the plate. John Tomase of WEEI.com talked to Rodriguez about how they were getting Bradley to get back to the basics.
A rope stretches across a screen in the right-handed batter’s box at roughly eye level, and Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez believes it holds the key to Bradley regaining the form that made him a top-flight prospect before a disastrous 2014 cast his future into doubt.
The purpose is simple — Bradley shouldn’t swing at anything over the line. By forcing him to consciously swing down on the ball, Rodriguez hopes Bradley can rediscover the approach he utilized throughout the minors, when he looked like a potential leadoff hitter.
"Staying under the line means staying on top of the ball," Rodriguez said by phone on Friday. "You’ve got to stay short and through the ball. It’s a target that you visualize, and it forces you to stay on top."
But that isn't the only person Bradley's "new" set up at the plate looks like. Bradley looks to have gone back to the basics and broken down his swing to the point where he looks like himself at the plate circa spring 2013.
At each checkpoint in his swing, Bradley looks closer to his early 2013 mechanics than he has in the last year. By going back to his roots, Bradley has essentially removed the extra superfluous movements that he had integrated over the last season and a half. It's an encouraging sign that Bradley, who has been stubborn in the past about tinkering with his mechanics, broke down his swing and went back to the basics that made him the spring sensation in 2013.
While mechanical adjustments are no guarantee that Bradley finds the success he had in his minor league career, it's a beginning, and right now, that's all that Bradley needs.