Whenever Jackie Bradley Jr. is talked about the first thing I think about is defense. I don’t think about his slumps, of which there are many, I think about spectacular plays in center field that make me tune into Red Sox games. Many in the Boston media have described JBJ’s play in CF as the best ever in Red Sox history, yet he still is without a Gold Glove Award.
The Gold Glove isn’t like an MVP or a Cy Young, it matters, but just not that much. Fans like their favorite players to earn the award and I’m sure it doesn’t hurt when negotiating a new contract, but it really doesn’t matter that much. There have been many players over the years to win the award despite advanced metrics and the naked eye telling us that someone else deserved it more. Lately, quite the opposite has been true with JBJ. His plays are always spectacular and it’s high time that his Gold Glove level defense earns him the Gold Glove award.
Winning a Gold Glove in the American League at center field is without a doubt the most difficult task this side of winning the National League award at catcher. Yadier Molina is a beast and had won eight straight from 2008-2016. Past award winners at center field have been Byron Buxton-2017, Kevin Kiermaier-2016 and 2015, and Adam Jones-2014, 2013, and 2012. Out of that group Buxton and Kiermaier have both also won the Platinum Glove, an award that goes to the best overall defender among all positions in each league.
With a field of excellent defenders at his position JBJ was going to need a great season and a little luck to ever win the award. Unfortunately for lovers of great defense Kiermaier has played in just 40 games and Buxton just 28—both due to injuries. At the same time Kevin Pillar, another excellent defender, isn’t performing at his normal outstanding defensive rates and the ones that are enjoying excellent defensive seasons are relative new comers.
The new comers to the race are Adam Engel of the Chicago White Sox, Delino DeShields Jr. of the Texas Rangers, and journeyman Leonys Martin of the Detroit Tigers. Engel and DeShields are having even worse offensive seasons than JBJ with the later recently being sent down to the minors. Martin on the other hand is enjoying his best season ever both offensively and defensively at age 30. To decide who should actually win this award I looked at traditional defensive metrics like errors and fielding percentage, DEF-a Fangraphs metric that encompasses UZR and adjusts for position, and Statcast defensive metrics.
By errors committed at the position (min 400 innings) none other than Mike Trout has been the best in baseball. Trout has made zero errors in center field this year and has become a plus defender by using better positioning. JBJ has made just two errors on the year for a .989 fielding percentage. By DEF it’s Martin who leads the way at 8.1 followed by JBJ in second place at 4.9. JBJ outpaces DeShields, Pillar, and Trout in this area and crushes Engel.
The new Statcast data may be the most fun to look at. Statcast measures things like the distance a player needs to cover to catch a ball, time the player has to catch the ball, and the direction the player takes to the ball to determine how difficult the catch was. Statcast then groups the catches into 5 star-1 star buckets with 5 star catches being made on balls with a 0-25% chance of being caught. Statcast can also measure for things like sprint speed and optimal route to the ball. It’s not a perfect measure, but Statcast provides us with insight that traditional measures and the very volatile UZR just can’t. Baseball Savant rolls all of these measures into one stat called OAA (outs above average) to determine the cumulative effect of their defensive plays.
JBJ performs quite well by Statcast rating behind only Engel and DeShields in OAA. He also ranks second in the AL in the number of 4 and 5 star catches behind only DeShields. Statcast also measures a players throwing arm from the outfield and earlier this year JBJ threw a ball 103.4 MPH, which was faster than anyone in the history of Statcast outside of Aaron Hicks and Brett Phillips. Fangraphs also measures throwing arm with ARM in which JBJ is tied with Martin for first in using their throwing arm for run prevention.
Lastly, I don’t think we can fairly compare JBJ to some of his competition because of the park he plays in and who he plays next to. Fenway has a huge right field which happens to be covered by none other than Gold Glover Mookie Betts. JBJ plays not only next to Betts, but also Benintendi, both of whom could play a solid center field. JBJ simply doesn’t play in the type of cavernous outfield with below overage corner outfielders where his range, arm, and ability to make plays would really be on full display.
The bottom line is that this year the Red Sox are dominating, center field competition is down, and JBJ simply grades out excellently in all of these defensive measures. He has more impressive Statcast numbers than Martin, better DEF than DeShields and Engel, and has simply played way more than Kiermaier and Buxton have. Unlike some of the young players JBJ has also had years to develop his defensive reputation which matters for this award. After years of gawking at his defensive wizardry JBJ will finally be given the Gold Glove all us Sox fans know he deserves.