The 2017 Red Sox are not currently and never will be a team that wins on the back of its lineup. As nice as it would be and as used to it as we all may be, that’s just not the way this team is built. It’s clear that many are still not used to this, which is fine and understandable, but the pitching is what’s going to make or break this team in October. Of course, none of that makes it any easier to watch when they are in a bad way, and plus there is obviously a certain level of performance to which they need to live in order for the team to win regardless of how well the pitchers are performing. At the moment, they are struggling a bit too much, particularly early in games. They’ve shown an ability to come back, of course, but some early runs would make things much less stressful. There’s no one hitter who is ever going to carry this group, but in Jackie Bradley Jr. they have an important piece who has suddenly gone ice cold, and he couldn’t have picked a worse time for it to happen.
Bradley has been subpar for much of the second half, but things have gotten particularly bad in the month of September. Since the calendar flipped this month, the outfielder is hitting just .167/.235/.295 for a 33 wRC+. In other words, over the 85 plate appearances he has received this month he has been 67 percent worse than the league-average hitter. If you’re looking for a little more context for this number, and I know you are, only five of the 173 qualified hitters in baseball this month have been worse at the plate than Bradley. In short, the outfielder has been awful at the plate and we’re getting into the unacceptable territory. It’s to the point where it’s important for him and the team to figure out what is going on and how to fix it.
Unsurprisingly given just how poor Bradley’s performance has been of late, there is not just one thing that has caused this. The lefty has instead been bad in just about every imaginable way. For example, his plate discipline has been a major issue. On the one hand, his 23.5 percent strikeout rate this month is actually his lowest since June, which is good! On the other hand, he’s not pairing that with walks as his 5.9 percent walk rate is his second-lowest month-long total of the year. Bradley is always going to go through stretches with a lot of swing and miss in his game, but he needs to pair that with patience to get by. As you can see in the picture below — one that shows his O-Swing-Rate from every ten-game stretch of Bradley’s 2017 season — he has been swinging at pitches out of the zone more often this month, particularly early on. Towards the right edge of this graph you’ll see a big spike up, and that is the beginning of September.
The one piece of good news is that this seems to be normalizing a bit now, but it’s been a major issue for him all month.
Another thing you’ll notice about that graph is that there was another spike in the middle of the year, and that was in July. This was another really bad month in Bradley’s season, but it wasn’t quite as bad as this one. His plate discipline was bad in July, but he still managed to hit the ball well when he was able to make contact. That hasn’t been this case in September. Instead, Bradley is pairing that poor plate discipline with a sub-.200 batting average on balls in play and an Isolated Power of just .128. The issue has been....well, everything. He’s not hitting the ball well, he’s not hitting the ball in the air and he’s not using the entire field. His ground ball rate of 62 percent is particularly distressing. At this point, it’s become clear that power is an important part of Bradley’s offensive game, but it’s quite difficult to hit for power when everything is hit on the ground.
Perhaps just as concerning is that he’s pulling the ball over 48 percent of the time, the highest rate of the season for him. He’s always been at his best when he’s using the entire field, and far and away his best production in 2017 has been to the opposite field. If you’re looking for a reason Bradley’s batting average is so low right now, look no further than this. He is a hitter who is shifted quite often, and it goes without saying that it’s a lot easier to play defense against a hitter who is going to use one side of the field half the time.
The catalyst to all of this is not a surprising one and it’s something that has seemed to plague one Red Sox hitter at one point or another this year. Pitchers are increasing their usage of breaking balls against Bradley as the season has gone on, and he simply can’t adjust. This has led to all of the issues discussed above. It leads to the strikeouts because he can’t make contact. It leads to the lack of walks and the swings on pitches out of the zone since he simply can’t lay off these pitches. It also leads to the poor contact, as his ground ball rate against breaking balls is at a whopping 90 percent this month, per Brooks Baseball. It also leads to the constant pulling of the ball. When a hitter, particularly one as streaky as Bradley, is in a bad way we typically see them unable to wait on the breaking ball and let it get deep into the zone. That leads to those weak ground balls that are turned over to first and second base rather than waiting for it to get deep in the zone and hitting it on a line the other way.
We’ve seen these kind of roller coaster rides from Bradley before, and the Red Sox could really use an uptick in performance. He’s an incredibly important hitter at the bottom of the lineup, and him being on base for the top of the lineup (particularly when that group is healthy) is what leads to big chunks of runs. The bad news is that time is running out for him to get on a hot streak with less than a week left in the season. The good news is we’ve seen that it only takes one or two strong swings from Bradley to get on one of those tears. If he can just stay back on a couple breaking balls, he could get hot at the perfect time and render this headline moot. Let’s hope he makes this writer look dumb.