Let’s travel back in time by a month. June was just starting, and everything was wonderful for the Red Sox. The offense was the best we’ve ever seen, and the pitching was good enough to say the least. Above all else, there was a legitimate argument that Jackie Bradley was the best player in baseball at that given moment.
He was doing his typical thing in the outfield (small-sample advanced metrics be damned) and he was looking like prime Barry Bonds at the plate. Obviously, we know that he wasn’t going to keep that up all year, and we knew that his run of looking like the best player in the game would eventually end. Even so, it was encouraging. Bradley had gone on a similar tear last year, and him repeating it made it appear like less of a fluke. After floundering at the plate for a couple years, it was finally reasonable to look at him as having turned a corner.
Fast-forward to present day, and July is just starting. Everything is decidedly not wonderful for the Red Sox. The offense has fallen back to Earth, and the pitching hasn’t been close to good enough. On top of that, Bradley has indeed cooled. Again, this is something we all acknowledged was going to happen, but it doesn’t make it any less upsetting in the moment. In fact, it feels as if the lineup’s problems as a whole are coinciding with Bradley’s recent struggles. This is where it gets a little weird, though. I mentioned above that him going on another tear had many confident that he’s finally taken the next step as a major-league hitter. The way I look at it, this recent cold streak has me more confident than ever that we’re looking at a new Jackie Bradley.
As weird as it sounds, the reasoning is actually pretty straightforward. To put it simply, Bradley just hasn’t been all that bad during this supposedly down month. He came to the plate 102 times in June, and while he didn’t get hits at nearly the same rate we were used to (which, ya know, tends to happen post-hit streak), his overall production was still fine. In those plate appearances, he hit .218/.333/.471, which is good for an above-average 111 wRC+.
That’s right, even in this month that has felt awful for Boston’s center fielder, he’s still been 11 percent better than the league-average hitter. Of course, the month of June qualifies as arbitrary endpoints, and things look different if you change the sample. Instead, let’s look at his last ten games, which appears to be the worst ten-game stretch of the season to this point. In 44 plate appearances over this span, he’s hitting .200/.364/.343. That’s a less encouraging rate of production, but it’s still just 36 points below the league-average OPS.
Diving a little deeper into these recent "cold streaks" is even more encouraging for Bradley. If you remember correctly, the issue for him against major-league pitching has always been his high strikeout rates. When he’s at his worst, he’s flailing at breaking balls and failing to catch up to velocity. That hasn’t been the case at any point this year. Now, we’ll probably never see him do what he did in May again — he struck out just 13 percent of the time in that month — but he looks better even at his worst. To wit, he struck out in just 24.5 percent of his plate appearances in June. Even during that ten-game stretch, he’s struck out just 22 percent of the time. That is a far cry from the near-30 percent rate we’ve gotten used to seeing from him.
On the flip side, he’s been able to keep up the plate discipline that he showed off in May. Again, we’re not going to see that rate near 15 percent again, but it stayed in double digits in June. During the month, he walked just under 11 percent of the time, which helped mask his less-than stellar batting average during that stretch. Again, that didn’t go away during his bad ten-game stretch. In fact, he’s all the way up to 16 percent in that small sample.
Finally, we get to what has inexplicably turned into Bradley’s calling card: the power. We are now halfway through the season, and Bradley has yet to post a month in which he puts up an ISO below .200. For context in how unexpected this is, consider that Bradley never posted an Isolated Power above .194 at any level in the minors, and that high rate came in Triple-A in 2013. The one downside here is that he actually has slipped in this regard during this ten game stretch, as his ISO is just .143 in that stretch. What a bum.
Fangraphs has a cool tool that will visually illustrate all that I’ve said about Bradley to this point. If you read Jeff Sullivan on a regular basis, you are no doubt familiar with their multi-game rolling graphs. If you’re not, it’s relatively straight forward. We’ll start with this one, which shows every ten-game stretch of Bradley’s MLB career in terms of wOBA. As you can see, he’s never quite hit the same lows in 2016 as he had earlier in his career. The same can be said for his power, and can especially be said for his strikeout rate.
Bradley is going to be an All-Star this year, which is incredible to think about considering where he was just a year ago. The biggest reason for this selection is obviously the insane run he went on in May. However, the fact that he’s been able to keep his head above water during his cold streaks has me more encouraged than anything. It’s finally safe to say that we’re watching a new Jackie Bradley.