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Finding an adjustment for Jackie Bradley Jr. is easier said than done

The Red Sox need better offense from their center fielder.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Oakland Athletics Kiel Maddox-USA TODAY Sports

On the whole, the Red Sox offense has been more than fine this year, though there have certainly some peaks and valleys. Breaking down the lineup into sections, it’s not hard to find the haves and have-nots. Specifically, the top half of Boston’s order has been incredibly effective pretty much all the way through. Andrew Benintendi has been a bit underwhelming to be sure, and there’s been some inconsistency with Rafael Devers, but for the most part the big bats are doing their thing. However, the bottom of the order is decidedly not doing their thing. This is something we discussed just a couple of weeks into the season, and things haven’t really improved since then outside of nice stretch from Brock Holt before he got hurt. It’s certainly an issue that comes down to more than one player — it’s been a group effort of ineptitude — but Jackie Bradley Jr.’s struggles stand out among the rest.

It’s not as if the outfielder had huge expectations coming into the year, as he’s been something of an enigma throughout his career. We all knew there would be slumps and hot streaks, but after finishing 2017 by trending in the wrong direction it was natural to be hoping for a hot start, and it’s natural to be worried that it’s been anything but. Through his first 117 plate appearances (through Friday’s action), Bradley is hitting just .183/.265/.279. That gives him a wRC+ of 48, which means that after adjusting his overall offensive production for park effects he has been 52 percent worse than the league-average hitter. For context, that is the fourth worst mark among 174 qualified hitters this year. Not ideal!

As we look for the issues, the first place I always look when it comes to Bradley’s offense is the plate discipline. As I’m sure you’ll recall, strikeouts were a major problem for the lefty when he first came up, and sometimes he falls back into those patterns when he struggles now. That hasn’t been the case in 2018, however, as his plate discipline has been mostly fine. He’s walking a little less than usual, but his strikeout rate is right around league-average. He could be making a little more contact and laying off a few more pitches out of the zone, but generally speaking Bradley can succeed with his current plate discipline tendencies.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, the issue has come when the former first round pick has put the ball in play. Things have been disastrous after making contact, and it’s not looking like it’s all luck ready to reverse itself. Bradley currently has a .221 batting average on balls in play (his career mark is .293) and his Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) is just .096. These are awful numbers that look more like those of a backup, defensive-oriented catcher than an ostensibly everyday center fielder. Any time you post a BABIP that low, you have to think there’s a little bit of luck involved, but it’s clear that the story doesn’t come close to ending there. Bradley and the Red Sox need to find some sort of adjustment to solve this issue.

Looking at Brooks Baseball to examine how pitchers are attacking him and how he’s reacting to it, there’s one culprit that stands out above the rest. Bradley hasn’t really been great against any pitch, of course, but offspeed offerings have truly been his kryptonite. According to Brooks, the lefty is yet to hit a line drive against an offspeed pitch and he’s hitting the ball on the ground 70 percent of the time he makes contact. I think it goes without saying that hitting the ball on the ground a lot and never hitting it on a line is going to be an issue.

Unsurprisingly, it appears that teams are noticing this as time goes on because Bradley is seeing a steadily rising number of offspeed pitches since the start of last year. There’s no reason for pitcher not to challenge him with these offerings until he proves he can do even a little bit of damage with them. Of course, the counter-adjustment one would expect from Bradley would be to find a way to lay off these pitches and making them come at him with a fastball or even a breaking ball, a pitch against which he’s surprisingly had a little success this year. The thing is, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Bradley has cut down on his swings against anything besides fastballs.

So, where’s the issue, you ask? It’s pretty self-explanatory, to be honest: Bradley isn’t taking advantage of these swings against fastballs. Compared to last season — a year that really wasn’t great as he finished as a slightly below-average hitter — he has watched his whiff rate against fastballs increase from 11 percent to 17 percent, and his foul rate has increased to 22 percent from 16 percent. By failing to capitalize on these chances against fastballs, he’s falling behind in counts and being forced into situations where he’s going to get pounded with those offspeed pitches.

Ultimately, there’s not a whole lot in terms of approach that Bradley can try to reverse this slump. Instead, it comes down to execution. One part of his overall batted ball profile that stands out is that he’s pulling the ball more than half the time for the first time in his career. This strikes me as someone trying to do too much, and Bradley would likely benefit from sitting back a bit and settling for base hits the other way. This type of approach often works in getting players back from slumps and getting a little groove going. Bradley is going to be better than this, which is obviously no hot take. Whether or not he can find a way to either take better advantage of early-count fastballs or have success against offspeed pitches is going to determine just how much he recovers, though. As Boston looks for more consistency from the bottom of their order, they have to hope whatever adjustment he decides to make comes sooner rather than later.