The Red Sox’ season is over, but the offseason doesn’t really begin in earnest for weeks to come. While most of the months from November to February will be spent focusing on the team-to-come, for now we have a brief period where all there is to do (aside from picking favorites who remain in the fight) is reflect. I thought we’d start that out today with one of the more interesting and perhaps even divisive players of the year: Jackie Bradley Jr.
For Bradley, the season can sort of be divided into three parts: before the hitting streak, the hitting streak, and after the hitting streak.
The first bit matters relatively little for being too short. Bradley hit .222/.271/.315 in his first 59 plate appearances, which is something that happens to lots of players and is forgotten about rather quickly. Over his next 29 games and 121 plate appearances, Jackie Bradley Jr. was perhaps the best player in all of baseball, hitting .415/.488/.783 while, of course, never going hitless.
What’s interesting is the perception of the months that followed vs. the reality. Many viewed the end of his hitting streak as more or less the end of Bradley’s productive days in Boston’s lineup, almost as though he’d gone back to being the Bradley of old. It obviously didn’t happen right away, but over the next month or two, Bradley was labeled a feast-or-famine player.
The reality is that from the end of the hitting streak on May 26 to the end of July, Bradley hit .251/.342/.472. That’s not ridiculous, but it’s damn good. The final stretch was notably worse, with Bradley hitting .216/.303/.387 before an ugly playoff performance, but even then he was not without his stretches of excellence. Great Bradley did not simply disappear into nothingness as the league figured him out.
This is important because it’s the difference between a mediocre player who had a good streak and a good player who is streaky. Bradley now very much appears to be the latter. He’s been good for too long and too often over these past two years—nearly 900 plate appearances now!—to be a fluke. Jackie Bradley Jr. can hit, even if he can’t always hit as well as we might hope.
So where does that leave Bradley and his position on the Red Sox? What does that make the story of his season?
For my money, the story is one of confirmation. Last year we saw Bradley emerge from the rubble of his early attempts at the major leagues. He looked in 2015 like the potential star we had hoped for during his years as a prospect, but the sample size was too small to be sure, particularly given his earlier struggles. That left him included with the likes of Travis Shaw as a major question mark. Perhaps he would help the 2016 team rise, or perhaps he would be a weight that the Sox would have to find a replacement for if they wanted to contend.
Well, Bradley is a star. He’s not as ridiculous as Mookie Betts, but there is no shame in being second-best to an MVP candidate. A well above-average bat (116 OPS+, 118 wRC+) and a glove which, even if it took the defensive metrics a bit to catch up this season, has few equals make a great player. He came in somewhere between 4.5 and 5.5 WAR depending on who you ask, and that leaves him pushing top-5 outfielder territory with room to grow (particulary against changeups, which seem to have been his kryptonite in 2016).
If, indeed, he ends up being as streaky a player as he has seemed thus far, Bradley will be a player who frustrates at time. He can be a serious hindrance to the team’s offense in a playoff series, as we saw this past week. But the flip side of that is that he also has the chance to carry the team almost on his own. You take the bad with the good if, at the end, it leaves you with a strong average result. That’s certainly preferable to a player who is consistently mediocre.
Coming into the season, the Red Sox had one sure thing in the outfield in Mookie Betts. The journey to the season’s end involved some...detours with Brock Holt, Blake Swihart, and Bryce Brentz. But they’ve finished with a more-or-less locked in unit, with Bradley in center. It wasn’t always pretty, and the end was unfortunate, but Bradley did more than enough to show that his 2015 performance was more than just a hot streak. He’s proved he’s for real, and established himself as a cornerstone piece in Boston’s foundation.