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How real is Jackie Bradley's offense?

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Jackie Bradley is hitting well to start the year, but is it for real?

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

I have been quite low on Jackie Bradley’s offensive game for a long time. Like many, I was relatively high on him as he was coming up through the minors, and it’s entirely possible that I’m over-adjusting my expectations based on how wrong I was originally. Either way, coming into the year I was not convinced Bradley was even an everyday major-league player. I’m willing to admit that I was probably wrong once again, and my opinion on Bradley as a major-league hitter is changing. He’s hitting well again this year, and while it’s not quite to the level he reached last summer, he’s still been pretty damn good.

Heading into Tuesday night (all of the numbers from this will not include last night, as this is being written in the past and I do not possess the knowledge of you, the readers from the future), Bradley was hitting .274/.333/.476. That line as good enough for a 121 wRC+, which just so happens to be the exact wRC+ he finished with in 2015. The biggest thing that jumps out to me about this production is how much higher his batting average is compared to his normal range. Yes, he’s being helped by a .349 batting average on balls in play, which is always assuredly going to come down at some point. However, he’s also being helped by a reduced strikeout rate, and that’s a very encouraging sign.

Bradley’s propensity to strike out has always been my biggest issue with his offense. He’s just never been able to make consistent contact with major-league pitching, consistently carrying strikeout rates around 30 percent year after year. Even last August, when he suddenly turned into Barry Bonds Reincarnated, Bradley was still striking out 26 percent of the time. Obviously, he proved during that hot streak that strikeouts don’t tell the whole story, but they are a significant part of it. Early on this year, he’s striking out just 22 percent of the time, a rate that still lands above the league-average, but only slightly so. It is, undeniably, a very manageable rate.

Of course, we’re also dealing with early-season sample sizes, so the question of sustainability is always an important one. Looking at Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, it doesn’t look great for Bradley. To start out with, Bradley’s swinging strike rate is roughly the same as it was last year. This isn’t everything, but it’s the one number that correlates best with strikeout rate. So far in 2016, he’s swung and missed at the 46th highest rate among the 215 players who’ve seen at least 250 pitches. Additionally, he’s swinging a lot more this year, at pitches both in and out of the zone. For what it’s worth, however, he is making more contact on pitches out of the zone. Obviously, the flip side of that is a slight increase in swinging strikes on pitches out of the zone. Overall, Bradley is whiffing on more fastballs and offspeed pitches early on this year than he did last year, although he’s improved against breaking balls.

So, none of that really suggests we’re watching a new Bradley. On the one hand, that’s obviously discouraging. A lower strikeout rate would make him a whole new hitter. On the other hand, there’s no reason to expect a huge increase in strikeouts, so his average would only fall to the .250-range. He can succeed like that, and a big reason is because his power has come back in 2016. This is what really carried him last year, and at the time it seemed unsustainable. It was, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t keep a significant portion of it, as he’s showing so far this year. To date, he’s carrying a .202 Isolated Power, a number that beats out sluggers like Carlos Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Maikel Franco. The best part is, it appears to be more sustainable than it looked to be last year.

First of all, it’s carrying over from last year, which is a great sign in and of itself. On top of that, he’s not producing by relying on home runs. Rather, Bradley is hitting a ton of doubles and triples to go along with his single dinger. A whole lot of hard contact is how he’s been able to rack up the extra-base hits. Now, these batted ball numbers are still something of a mystery, but they are one data point that has thus far been backed up by the eye test. With that caveat out of the way, I will mention that Bradley is 45th in hard hit rate (a measure from Fangraphs) out of 198 qualified hitters. On top of that, his average exit velocity is up from last year against every type of pitch, meaning he’s not just beating up on one kind of pitcher.

Additionally, he’s keeping his pull-and-middle approach that he started to adopt more last year, and it’s done wonders. While he’s shown power to all fields, part of his doubles success to left field could be aided by outfielders shading him a bit to his pull side.

To be clear, I’m not expecting Bradley to be a .200+ ISO player going forward, but he is once again moving his baseline up in my eyes. Whereas he used to be a .130-.150 ISO hitter, it’s very reasonably to expect something close to .175 moving forward.

Overall, I don’t expect Bradley to keep up this offensive trend. The numbers point to his strikeout rate rising again. While the power is nice, it won’t stay quite so highly. He will also, of course, suffer from a BABIP dip at some point. However, there is plenty of reason to believe he can be more than the potential black hole he was not to long ago, especially considering his .256/.334/.492 slash line over the last 365 days.

I’m not sure if this sounds pessimistic or optimistic. It likely depends on your original expectations, I guess. For me, I’m not confident that Bradley can stay within 10 percent of a league average hitter (around 90 OPS+) with stretches playing far above that and the potential to finish seasons with higher marks. Obviously, the defense will remain the calling card, as it always has been. The good news is Bradley’s showing enough with the bat to stop anyone from worrying about the opportunity cost of keeping that glove in the lineup every day.