Of all the unexpected outcomes for the Red Sox in 2015, Jackie Bradley turning into a feared hitter during the season's second half is among the most surprising.
Last year, of course, Bradley fell flat on his face when he was handed a starting job in Boston. The extent of Bradley's offensive struggles had little historical precedent, with the young center fielder batting just .198/.265/.266 over 423 plate appearances. The scrutiny surrounding his poor play likely made things even more difficult for Bradley, whose coachability and work ethic even came into question by season's end.
As a result, many observers had written Bradley off within the club's crowded outfield picture to begin the season, and even just two months ago, his long-term future appeared to lie anywhere but in Boston.
What's happened since his return to the majors on July 29 has been nothing short of remarkable. Over 35 games, Bradley has hit .351/.419/.719 with seven home runs and 24 extra-base hits, hardly resembling the player who struggled to make consistent contact a year ago.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Bradley's recent performance has been the power he's shown. During his time in the minors, even the most optimistic of scouting reports pegged Bradley as a contact hitter who would hit more doubles than home runs. After a season of such profound struggle in 2014, that Bradley is not only hitting well, but also hitting for power is probably the biggest surprise. He's slugged over .700 during the past month, and his .313 ISO this season would rank first in all of baseball (above none other than Bryce Harper) if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
Now, expecting Bradley to continue matching Harper's power output over a longer time period is foolish. Bradley hasn't suddenly turned into one of baseball's best power hitters overnight, but there are reasons to believe -- from his mechanical changes to a new plate approach -- that he's made legitimate improvements which bode well for his long-term future.
Earlier in the spring, our own Joon Lee detailed the alterations Bradley made to his swing. In short, the 25-year-old abandoned the mechanical tweaks that led to many of his struggles last season and returned to the swing that brought him previous success in the minors.
Good results have certainly followed. In 2014, major league pitchers exposed Bradley with velocity, repeatedly taking advantage of his poor production against fastballs. According to Brooks Baseball, the outfielder hit just .195 with a .207 slugging percentage versus four-seamers a year ago. Twelve months later, Bradley has completely reserved those numbers and is batting .370 with an .870 slugging percentage against four-seam fastballs.
This newfound success against velocity has enabled Bradley to hit the ball hard to all fields. Indeed, what stands out most about Bradley's increased power is how well he's driving the ball to center and left field. As this spray chart shows, just three of his eight home runs this season have been pulled to right field:
With each passing game, Bradley is showing the ability to hit the ball the other way with authority. The home run he hit against the Mets two weeks ago at Citi Field is exemplary of the power he's displayed since earning another opportunity with the Red Sox.
Despite all this, Bradley's success still comes with plenty of disclaimers. Prior to this six-week sample of excellence, his performance against major league pitching rated as below replacement level, and he wouldn't be the first hitter to get hot over a brief period before his previous struggles returned. Bradley's current .383 BABIP on the season isn't likely to last, after all.
Nevertheless, that he's made noticeable changes to his swing is reason to be optimistic that Bradley is now better prepared to succeed in the majors. And, to be fair, his solid track record on offense down in the minors always provided hope that his immense struggles a season ago wouldn't last. The fact Bradley is capable of performing so well, even in just a small sample, bodes well for his chances in the big leagues.
For his defense remains as spectacular as ever, and his output with the bat simply needs to approach league average levels for Bradley to give the Red Sox good value. When compared with the club's woeful outfield defense at times this year, a full season's worth of Bradley's glove should prove to be a huge benefit to Boston's pitching staff and run prevention.
As it stands, Bradley has been worth just under 2.5 wins through 50 games (according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference) for Boston in 2015. Even if Bradley cools off, his improvements indicate the bat will be good enough for him to earn consistent playing time.
At this point, a Red Sox outfield without Bradley playing an integral role next season is hard to imagine. He looks like the player nearly everyone expected him to be a couple years ago, but for someone who's already been written off, Bradley's rise can be called nothing but a surprise.