Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Jackie Bradley Jr.
The Season in a Sentence
Jackie Bradley Jr. had another inconsistent year at the plate that, when combined with his all-world defense, still made him an above-average regular that is incredibly fun to watch.
There are two places at which we can begin when talking about positives from Bradley’s 2018 campaign, and I’m going to opt for the postseason run. Really, this was a continuation of a strong second half that we’ll get to in a minute, and it might not have been as great as we remember. He really didn’t get a lot of hits, finishing the postseason with a .200 batting average. When he did get a hit, however, he made it count. Seemingly every time the Red Sox needed a big swing during their run through the postseason, Bradley was at the plate and Bradley came through with an extra-base hit. It won him an ALCS MVP despite tallying only three hits, and it is going to make him a folk hero in this town for a long, long time. Plus, despite the lack of hits, we know better than the judge on average. He was still drawing walks and hitting for power, and his OPS for the postseason was just under .900. He certainly wasn’t bad.
So, if the postseason performance was the 1-A for Bradley’s 2018, the 1-B was the defense. At a certain point it can be easy to take someone like Bradley for granted since we’ve been watching him for parts of six years now. We know he’s an incredible defensive player, but he makes so many plays look so damn easy that we may not realize how lucky we are until he’s gone. Either way, he was incredible once again this year and may have had his best defensive season ever. It’s a hard thing to judge — I’m no fan of single-season defensive metrics, for whatever that’s worth — but he was covering as much range as ever this season and at least anecdotally it seemed he was more consistent with his throws. Whether that’s true or just me still riding high from the World Series, there’s no denying that Bradley was finally rewarded with a Gold Glove. Bradley patrolling center field is always a good thing.
Now, the fact that we’ve gotten this far and haven’t really mentioned his regular season performance at the plate probably doesn’t bode so well, but really it was a tale of two halves for Bradley. In the second half, he was very good. In that stretch the outfielder was above-average at the plate (by wRC+) in each of the year’s final three months and overall he hit .269/.340/.487 for a 118 wRC+. That’s certainly not superstar production, but when you combine that kind of offense with Bradley’s defense, you get a borderline All-Star at the least. The big difference for the center fielder during this stretch was the power. He was hitting the ball hard for a while before he got hot, but at this point he finally started to launch the ball a little bit more, and good things started to happen.
Well, for as fun as the second half was for Bradley, the first half was equally frustrating. Before the All-Star break, he was a mess at the plate hitting just .210/.297/.345 for a 71 wRC+. His wRC+ was also under 70 in each of the first two months of the year. He was swinging and missing at everything and nothing he was putting into play was falling in. There were calls for him to get traded for whatever they could get, and he even found himself on the bench a lot more during this stretch than he typically would. Obviously, he fought his way out of it, and the Red Sox were outstanding even with his struggles. However, Bradley was more of a burden than a help for much of the first half, and that is a part of his 2018 story.
Looking a little more closely at the struggles, there are three main areas at which I think we have to look to get the full story here. For one thing, Bradley’s strikeouts started trending back in the wrong direction. For a large chunk of his career, this is what ended up sinking him before he got on track. Even in 2015, when he had his first big breakout, he was striking out close to 30 percent of the time, and it’s tough to survive like that. For the last two years prior to 2018, however, he got that rate down to a much more manageable 22 percent, and if he could live in that range there was reason to be optimistic. Unfortunately, he struck out 26 percent of the time this year, though oddly enough it actually rose to 27 during the second half. Still, even if he had some success while struggling more with contact, he needs to turn it around in 2019 if he wants consistency. He also needs to turn around his performance against left-handed pitching. He was downright dreadful against southpaws this year, hitting just .185/.260/.303 for a 50 wRC+. Those aren’t the numbers of an everyday player.
Finally, there was some bad luck for Bradley this year. I think this point was a little overblown during the season, but it was certainly a factor. The truth is, even over the last month or so of his struggles you could see that Bradley was making good contact, but he wasn’t getting rewarded for it. Plenty of that is simply bad luck. However, a good chunk of it was also on Bradley himself. He was too predictable with his balls in play, so defenses could shift him pretty well. He also wasn’t launching the ball often enough, and the lower the ball is to the ground the more likely an infielder is to find it. That’s not to say Bradley wasn’t robbed plenty of times, because he was. But at least some luck is self-made, and Bradley wasn’t making much in the first half.
The Big Question
No. I want to believe it’s still in there, and at some point I find it hard to believe he won’t pick a side and stay there for an entire season. I hope it’s the good one, and if I had to bet on one that’s where I’d bet. That being said, at a certain point you are who you are. At this point, I’m going to expect these kinds of peaks and valleys from Bradley until he proves otherwise.
The Year Ahead
Bradley is, barring something unexpected, going to be the regular center fielder for the Red Sox this year. I think, among the expected regulars for 2019, Bradley might have the best chance of getting traded, but it’s still quite small. Bradley will play most nights in center field, and there will be times when everyone wants him to be traded. There will also be times where he looks like an All-Star. Fortunately, through all of it, he’ll play all-world defense and probably end up in the 2-4 win range.