The first half of the Red Sox season didn’t have many standout performances by hitters. One player that did stand out — at least in my eyes — was Jackie Bradley Jr. In fact, I wrote a couple pieces praising him endlessly. One in which I wanted him to be moved up the lineup and another in which I called him the second-best position player on the Red Sox roster. The outfielder got off to a hot start of the year, and while he’s always been a streaky player it was hard not to be impressed with the season he was putting together at the plate. With his glove, Bradley is a key player on this roster whether he’s hitting or not, but obviously he is a bigger piece when the bat is going. Unfortunately, things have been pretty awful of late. It only gets more discouraging, too, when you dig a little deeper into the numbers.
First, the basic numbers. When Bradley was going well, it was really well. Through the end of June, the lefty had accrued 255 plate appearances and had put up an impressive .279/.369/.491 line at the plate and looked to be cruising towards his best and most consistent season of his career. Then, things changed. Since the start of July, he has been miserable with a .224/.261/.328 line in 142 plate appearances. Things have gotten particularly bad since the All-Star break as he’s hitting .202/.238/.273 for a 28 wRC+. In other words, since the break he has been 72 percent worse than the league-average hitter and has been the third-worst qualified hitter since the break. (In more happy news, Xander Bogaerts is one of the two hitters who have been worse.)
It’s not just the overall production that is concerning, though. This is still a relatively small sample, and when we’re dealing with small samples there’s always the chance that it’s simply noise that is causing the bad performance. In this case, there may be a little bit of noise involved, but Bradley is pretty clearly to blame for most of his struggles right now. These are particularly scary for Red Sox fans since the outfielder is falling into some traps that hurt him early in his career. Specifically, the issue has been with his plate discipline rather than the balls he is putting into play. There have been some subtle changes in his batted ball data, including a slight decrease in hard contact, but it isn’t anywhere close to enough to explain his decline in performance. Instead, it all lies in the plate discipline numbers.
If you recall, Bradley’s early major-league career was marred by astronomical strikeout rates. He’s gotten those under control over the last few years, but they seem to be creeping back during this stretch. Since the All-Star break, the 27-year-old is striking out a whopping 32 percent of the time, the eleventh-highest rate in baseball. In August, it has crept up over 35 percent. To make matters worse, he’s not pairing that with walks, either, as he’s drawn a free pass in under four percent of his plate appearances since the All-Star break. He has the eighth-worst BB/K ratio in all of baseball since the break.
Based on these numbers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the biggest issue for Bradley during this stretch is that he’s chasing too many balls out of the plate. Whether this is because he’s pressing or just failing to recognize pitches is up for debate, but even just watching the games you have surely noticed some bad swings. The graph below (via Fangraphs) shows all of his ten-game samples from the season — so, games 1-10, games 2-11, etc. — and compares his wRC+ in those stretches with his O_Swing rate. (O_Swing rate measures how often a batter swings at pitches out of the strike zone.) The correlation is remarkably clear.
If you want more visual proof of this trend, here is a side-by-side comparison of the pitchers at which Bradley has swung, via Brooks Baseball. The picture on the left (or on top on mobile) shows his zone plot through June 30. The other shows his plot starting on July 1.
As you can see, there isn’t really one specific part of the zone that Bradley is extending. Really, the only place is a small placement up and in on his hands. Other than that, Bradley is having trouble laying off everything.
The final piece of information I want to look at is how pitchers are attacking him in this stretch compared to the start of the season, and it really isn’t much of a surprise. Early on in 2017, opponents were peppering him with fastballs and he was taking advantage of that approach. Since the start of July, he is seeing fewer and fewer fastballs and more and more offspeed and breaking pitches. Clearly, he is having trouble picking up these pitches and laying off them.
I don’t really have a mechanical adjustment to offer or anything like that. My theory would simply be that Bradley is pressing, and we’re seeing the numbers get worse as the year goes on, which could mean he’s pressing even more. The only solution I have is to give him the Andrew Benintendi treatment. In other words, give him a few days off. It would mean that Brock Holt and/or Chris Young would have to slide into left field for a few days and the defense would be downgraded, but they can survive that. Plus, the long term gains would surely outweigh the short term losses. Boston’s lineup is so much deeper when Bradley is hitting well, and they need him to get back to his patient approach at the plate. If that means he needs a couple days to clear his head, than they need to find a way to make it work.