Just a couple years ago, the hot debate (EMBRACE DEBATE) among Red Sox fans was the Mookie Betts versus Xander Bogaerts debate. They were both among the most talented young players in the game, but as of that point neither had jumped ahead as the preferable player. It was a contentious debate with people on both sides passionately defending their opinion. I am willing to admit to you today that I was very clearly wrong about my feeling that Bogaerts was the preferable piece. It is obvious at this point that Betts is not only the best player on the Red Sox but also one of the most complete players in all of baseball.
Perhaps it’s just me, but since that debate has ended I’ve always kind of defaulted to the idea of Bogaerts being the second best position player on the Red Sox. I suppose it’s not something I’ve devoted a ton of time to think about, but I’m certain if someone were to ask me that question at any point more than 24 hours ago I would have blurted out “Xander Bogaerts” without giving it a second thought. Now that I am thinking about it, though, I am more and more willing to entertain the idea that this meaningless title actually belongs to Jackie Bradley.
Now, this post is not one that is meant to disparage Bogaerts at all. The Red Sox shortstop is a phenomenal player already and has a ton of room to grow. He already is one of the better players in the league and will continue to be one for a long time. Whether he’s the second or third best player on his team doesn’t really matter. He’s going to be in the conversation for one of the best shortstops in the league for the foreseeable future, and that’s exciting on its own.
No, this is about appreciating Jackie Bradley, something I know I haven’t been doing at an appropriate rate. Since I am neither special nor unique, I suspect some of you could also use a little more JBJ appreciating in your life. We all know what Bradley can do with the glove. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the best defensive outfielder in the game (though there’s also an argument to be made that he’s not the best defensive outfielder in his outfield), and even if he’s not he’s among the elite. The bat has always been more of a question mark, but as this year goes on it’s becoming clear that he belongs in that most complete ballplayer discussion as well.
The most common description you’ll hear of Bradley as a hitter is that he’s very streaky at the plate. He has gained this reputation for good reason, and it’s hard to dispute. We’ve seen him, just over the last three years, go through periods in which he looks totally lost at the plate and others where he looks like one of the best hitters in the game. It’s kind been kind of a bizarre stretch, but it’s worked for Bradley. Despite all the extreme peaks and valleys, Bradley has been essentially the same guy at the end of each of the last three seasons. By wRC+ — which measures a player’s overall offensive game relative to the rest of the league — he’s finished with marks of 121 and 118 in the last two seasons and is currently at 121 at the end of the first half this year. That is remarkably consistent for such a streaky hitter and good enough to make him the 17th best hitting outfielder since the start of 2015 and the 44th best hitter regardless of position.
The past isn’t the only reason to be excited about Bradley, either. While he’s finished with similar production year after year, he’s also been steadily improving as a hitter as he’s gotten older. That is no different this year, and there is reason to believe his final line could be his best ever with his latest improvements. The most noticeable improvement comes with his strikeout rate. If you recall, this appeared to be his achilles heel early in his career when he hit his way back to the minors. Last year, he managed to get that rate back down to a manageable level. This year, he’s taking the next step and working to get the rate to a better-than-average level.
While the league-average hitter is striking out over 21 percent of the time in 2017, Bradley has cut his rate down below 20 percent for the first time in his career. This is no accident, as his approach at the plate has improved in a key way this season. While he’s not being any less aggressive overall than he has been in the past, he is laying off many more pitches out of the zone and jumping on strikes more often than he had earlier in his career. Not only is this leading to improved strikeout rates, but it’s also leading to more hard contact, less soft contact, more line drives and fewer popups.
Along with the decrease in strikeouts and improved contact, Bradley is also using the opposite field more than ever. When the outfielder has been on his hot streaks, he has always been someone who has used the whole field. In fact, if you look over the course of his career, he’s always had the most success by wRC+ when he goes the other way. The issue is that he just hasn’t done it enough. This season, while not increasing it by a huge margin, his 26 percent rate of using the opposite field is a career-high. This has been a key adjustment for someone who was shifted quite a bit in 2016.
Jackie Bradley has been roughly 20 percent better than the league-average hitter in each of the last three years, has an elite glove and is improving steadily at the plate in multiple areas. However, due to his streakiness at the plate, we’ve slacked on giving him the proper appreciation. It might not be clear that he is a better player than Bogaerts — the offensive expectations at their respective positions are drastically different — but it is clear that Bradley is a better hitter than many of us give him credit for. He deserves to be discussed as an all-around player rather than an elite defensive player who sometimes hits.
Ed. Note: This is strictly talking about position players. Chris Sale is better than Bogaerts and Bradley.