This didn’t come as a surprise to pretty much anyone, but Jackie Bradley Jr. was awarded the ALCS MVP after Thursday’s pennant-clinching victory. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about things in that linked post because, well, I was both exhausted after a couple of long nights and totally wired after a couple of thrilling wins. That’s not a great combination fo articulating thoughts. Anyway, I got a few hours of sleep and now I have some words about Bradley and how happy I am for the Red Sox center fielder.
The only people who were surprised by Bradley winning this award were the ones who didn’t get to actually catch any of these games but just looked at the stat sheet. Really, these MVPs for short series generally go to guys coming off absolutely dominant performances, and that’s not really what Bradley had. The center fielder only had three hits against the Astros! Of course, if you watched you know it was much more than that. First of all, he drew four walks as well, but more importantly all three of those hits were huge moments in Red Sox wins. This was a well-rounded effort for the Red Sox without a lot of guys truly standing out, but the clutch moments for Bradley were as much of a focal point as anything else.
It’s really fitting that Bradley was the one to get the spotlight after this series, because he’s been forced out of it so many times over his Red Sox career. He’s been a valuable player for years now — if you’re into WAR, Fangraphs rates him as the 14th most valuable outfielder in baseball over the last three years — but the majority of the focus around him through his career has been negative. He’s not consistent at the plate. His defense is overrated. He should be traded for a reliever. The intensity of the trade speculation around him was always ridiculous, and while a five-game stretch doesn’t really prove anything, it’s still satisfying.
Really, the story of Bradley’s disrespect goes back to when he made his major-league debut back in 2013. He was a top prospect at the time and set the world on fire in spring training, leading to him making the opening day roster. It was clear that they were too aggressive with him, but the first impression had been made. His bat just wasn’t good enough. It didn’t help that he came back in 2014 and looked even worse. At this point, I was certainly among those doubting the bat.
Then, he turned into Babe Ruth for a stretch in 2015, and came back in 2016 with a five-win season. (For context, a five-win season is roughly that of an All-Star-caliber player.) He hasn’t quite lived up to that standard over the last two years, finishing slightly below-average at the plate in both 2017 and 2018, but that doesn’t tell the story with Bradley. It’s both a strength and a flaw that he is so inconsistent, but he does go through stretches where he’s unstoppable. And, when he’s not, he at least helps make up for the lack of offense with all-world defense in one of the toughest center fielders in the league.
I think a lot of the negative conversation around Bradley has to do with circumstances. I’ve mentioned this a lot over the last few years, but first impressions matter a ton. Our introduction to Bradley was bad, and while it’s been a long time and it doesn’t seem like that still clouds our judgement, it’s hard to let that go. On top of that, he doesn’t quite get the respect he deserves for his glove because he’s unfortunate enough to play in a golden era of center field defense. That should stop this year if/when he finally wins his first Gold Glove.
Most importantly, he’s overshadowed on his own roster. Bradley is the worst outfielder on this roster, which is amazing to think about. Playing with a pair of franchise cornerstones on either side of him makes it tough to be appreciated. Even beyond the outfield, he’s on a team full of young cornerstones on offense. There’s Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi, but there’s also Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts. Among the homegrown talent, Bradley is always brought up as the piece to move before free agency. The sentiment isn’t even wrong — he’s likely the worst of that group — but it says a hell of a lot more about the rest of the group than it says about Bradley. They should feel fortunate if they can keep him for a long time.
Bradley has long been one of my favorite players on the team. Everything we know about him points to him being a tremendous guy, and on the field he’s about as exciting to watch as anyone on the roster not named Mookie Betts. That the coverage of him has always been more negative than positive was always hard to swallow. Really, it’s the perfect example of people looking for more rather than appreciating what they have in front of them. It’d be great if Bradley could harness his hot streaks more consistently, but even when he doesn’t he’s a very good player by the end of the year. I understand the frustration when he’s going bad, but it’s just so satisfying to see him get this honor after such a rollercoaster of a Red Sox career.