Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Jackie Bradley Jr.
The Question: Can Jackie Bradley finally get more consistent at the plate, specifically with respect to his power numbers?
The entirety of the Red Sox roster is interesting and exciting, but perhaps the most exciting part of the upcoming season is going to be watching this outfield in action. They are, as always, going to be electric in the field when the three regulars are in the lineup. Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. can go up against trio when it comes to defensive prowess. The offense doesn’t quite match the defense, but that doesn’t mean there’s big potential here. Betts and Benintendi are both really strong and mostly reliable bats, but the difference maker will be Bradley. We’ve seen over various points of his major-league career that he can be a force at the plate and even has the talent to carry the lineup on his back at times. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to show the consistency you’d like to see over any given year. The hope, of course, is that 2018 is when Bradley can be a steady presence with the bat in his hand, and specifically one that is a power threat every time he comes to the plate.
Overall, Bradley was still an average-at-worst all-around player in the 2017 season, though things were disappointing if you only look at his offensive performance. The center fielder came to the plate 541 times over the course of the season and he ended up hitting .245/.323/.402 for a below-average 90 wRC+. This was a significant drop from the last two seasons when he posted wRC+’s of 123 and 119, respectively. Bradley’s drop in power was particularly disconcerting as he posted an Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) of .158 last year in a season in which the league-average hitter posted a .171 ISO. Again, this was a steep dropoff from earlier in his career as he was coming off a pair of seasons in which he posted ISOs of .249 and .219. The Red Sox need to figure out what happened overall with a special focus on his power.
What’s particularly frustrating, but also perhaps a reason for optimism, is that these numbers are not entirely reflective of Bradley’s season. Really, it was a tale of two halves for the outfielder’s 2017, as he looked a lot like his old self over the first half before falling off a cliff after the All-Star break. In the first half of the season he posted a 122 wRC+ with an ISO of .210, marks that looked an awful lot like his 2016 season in which he finished the season being worth five fWAR. His second half, though, was a disaster as it finished with a 51 wRC+ and an ISO of .098. To put it simply, he fell apart at the end of the year, particularly with respect to power.
Unsurprisingly, his batted ball data had a major shift when the struggles started to hit in the second half. After hitting the ball on the ground just under 45 percent of the time in the first half — a solid rate that comes in essentially right at the league average — his rate skyrocketed by just about ten percentage points in the second half. Additionally, according to Fangraphs’ metrics, the rate at which he made hard contact fell from 37 percent in the first half (the league average rate in 2017 was 32 percent) to just 28 percent in the second half. These were issues that only got worse as the second half went on, which you can see visually from this graph below that shows every ten-game stretch in Bradley’s season, again via Fangraphs. There was a brief spike in hard-hit rate, for what that’s worth.
Looking a little bit deeper, it becomes clear that pitchers started to approach Bradley differently as the year went on, to great success. In the first part of the year, the lefty saw a lot of fastballs and he was able to do a ton of damage against them with strong plate discipline numbers (11 percent walk rate and 20 percent strikeout rate.) In the second half, pitchers adjusted and started peppering Bradley with breaking balls, leading to the aforementioned power outage and poor plate discipline numbers (7 percent walk rate and 27 percent strikeout rate). You can see pitchers’ usage rates against Bradley below, via Brooks Baseball.
Bradley simply couldn’t square up the breaking balls and failed to get into hitter’s counts that would have forced his opponents to get back to throwing him fastballs. As time went on, it appears he started developing some bad habits against the fastballs as well, as his ground ball rate against fourseamers climbed from 33 percent in the first half to 48 percent in the second half.
If you’ve been watching the Red Sox for the last few years, you know that this is nothing new for Bradley, although the extent of his peaks and valleys may be a little extra exaggerated this time around. It’s entirely possible — maybe even likely? — that this is just who Bradley is. We and the team may just have to live with him being a plus defensive player who will be inconsistent at the plate. That can still work, and it’s hard to believe it’ll always or even often be as bad as it got in 2017, but you have to think the new Red Sox coaching staff is trying everything it can think of to try and get a more stable and consistently productive Jackie Bradley in the coming season. If they get it, maybe Boston’s Killer Bs outfield can match its defensive production at the plate.