Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Jackie Bradley.
The Question: Is Jackie Bradley a legitimate power hitter?
Regardless of what Jackie Bradley does for the rest of his career, he’s the type of player that I’ll remember forever. I’ve had such a weird history with him, as I’m sure most Red Sox fans have. As a prospect, there was little not to like. The defense was plus, he was known as a smart hitter and had a bit of a hit tool. That’s a solid major leaguer, at least. Then, he came up and looked like literally the worst hitter in baseball for a couple of years. At that point, I was ready to give up. Best case, I thought, was that he’d be a light-hitting, glove-only center fielder for a second-division team. Then, over the last couple of years, he’s turned into an above-average hitter while keeping the glove and I’m back to being all in. This isn’t just about me being a flip flop. For the rest of time, Bradley will be who I look to when I need a reminder to be patient with prospects and young players in general.
So, here I am heading into the 2017 season and I’m high on Bradley. It’s a different kind of optimism, though. It’s cautious optimism. Part of it is that I’ve seen him be as bad as he was in 2014, when he put up a 46 wRC+ in 423 plate appearances. The last couple of years have been legitimately awesome, albeit with some streakiness involved. That counts. What really has me confused, though, is that he’s not succeeding in the way we expected him to in his prospect days. Instead of that smart player with a solid hit tool, he’s overcome some mild strikeout problems (which were more extreme than mild before last season) by turning into a legitimately feared power hitter.
Just look his numbers over the last two years. In 2015, he hit 10 home runs, 17 doubles and 4 triples in 255 plate appearances. That’s 24 home runs, 40 doubles and 9 triples over a full season of 600 plate appearances. Last year, when he got 636 trips to the plate, he hit 26 homers, 30 doubles and seven triples. To put a simpler rate on it, he has a .227 Isolated Power since the start of 2015. That’s the 29th best mark among the 200 hitters with at least 800 plate appearances in that span, sandwiched between Manny Machado and Joey Votto. That is not the company Bradley was supposed to be keeping.
The projections, for what’s it’s worth, don’t think he’s that guy. PECOTA foresees a .175 ISO in 2017 for Bradley. Steamer pegs him at .178 while ZiPS has it at .188. Projections certainly aren’t gospel, but they are worth considering. However, it’s also worth considering that they are factoring in the bad start to his major-league career and his minor-league career in which he was not a power hitter.
Another factor that the projection systems are likely considering is Bradley’s home run to fly ball ratios. Traditionally, this is thought of as something of a luck stat. If too many of your fly balls go over the fence, you’re probably getting lucky. While there’s some truth to that, it’s much more flexible for hitters. Some guys simply have more power, so obviously more of their fly balls will leave the yard. Bradley, for what it’s worth, has an 18 percent HR/FB over the last two years, while the league average is around 12 percent. He’s tied with Robinson Cano and David Freese. Although both of them may have a bit more raw power (Cano in particular), they also play in tougher parks in which to hit home runs. With everything factored in, that seems like a reasonable place for Bradley. It’s also worth mentioning that Bradley finished in the top half of the league in average fly ball distance last year and was in the same area of the leaderboard as guys like Yoenis Cespedes and Nelson Cruz. That is legit company.
The biggest reason that I’m a (cautious) believer in Bradley’s power is that he’s changed his approach as a hitter since coming to the majors. As a prospect, one of his biggest issues was generating power on pitches anywhere but the inner part of the plate. Although he’s still a pull-happy hitter, he has power to all fields now. In 2016, he posted a .319 ISO on balls he pulled, a .275 mark on balls up the middle and .268 on balls to the opposite field. Fenway park is built to hurt power-hitting lefties, but Bradley makes it work by using the entire field. Plus, he can use his ability to hit the ball hard and deep to go with his athleticism and pile up the doubles and triples.
The last issue I wanted to look at was how pitchers were approaching him. The most obvious worry about a guy who shows a sudden power surge is that pitchers are merely throwing a ton of fastballs and he’s jumping all over them. This is also known as the Sandy Leon Effect. However, Bradley hasn’t just been killing fastballs. While that is part of the success, he’s been able to crush breaking balls as well. Pitchers will surely make an adjustment on him this year, but it won’t be as simple as not throwing fastballs.
In the back of my mind, there will always be a little doubt about Jackie Bradley. One can’t simply block out what he did in 2014. However, there’s little reason to believe his power has simply been a fluke. He’s not just pulling the ball well, and he’s not just beating up on one pitch. Bradley hasn’t turned into the hitter we thought he’d be, but if he keeps hitting like this he’ll be the star we all hoped he’d be.