I am a notorious Jackie Bradley Jr. sympathizer and I don’t care who knows it, but if you think this life is easy you are sorely mistaken. Even when things are good around here, there’s always that creeping fear of an impending ice cold streak right around the corner. Not that I am wishing that on Bradley, because I most certainly am not. Still, it’s something that I’ve come to expect and that’s really the key to accepting Bradley for who he is. Once you’re able to do that, it makes the unbelievable defensive plays (like this one, this one and this one) even more enjoyable. I swear.
This season has been textbook Bradley to date. A sub-.200 batting average through the first two months, 47 strikeouts over that time frame and a handful of breathtaking catches sprinkled in there just to make us remember how valuable he is in center field. His splits through May were legitimately depressing at .199/.292/.308 and he was putting together significantly more multi-strikeout efforts than multi-hit ones (16 to 4).
Bradley has had significantly more trouble this season on the road and against left-handed pitching. In 83 plate appearances vs. lefties, he has 14 hits and 27 strikeouts, drawing only four walks with splits of .187/.265/.253, compared to .241/.320/.360 for his career. In 190 plate appearances on the road this year, he’s hitting just .169/.263/.283. His career road splits are nothing special, but he has at least managed to hit above the Mendoza Line with an on-base percentage of .298. JBJ was also having trouble hitting even an average fastball for the first few months of the season. Through May 31, he had a whiff/swing rate of 33.76% against four-seam fastballs, according to BrooksBaseball.net. To put that in perspective, Texas Rangers third baseman Joey Gallo, who leads the league with 144 strikeouts, is at 36.01% against fastballs this season. Bradley did turn things around in that regard though and has posted a whiff/swing rate of 17.97% vs. fastballs since June 1.
Despite his persistence, some people still wanted the Sox to trade him, while others just hoped he’d be removed from the lineup until he figured it out. It’s clear that Alex Cora was never in either of those camps and he proved that by continuing to ride his center fielder despite the struggles. Boston has played 108 games so far this season and Bradley has missed just 13 of those. Cora’s confidence in his 28-year-old center fielder is finally paying off, but even saying that makes me nervous given JBJ’s ability to make one instantly eat their words with an 0-for-20 skid. So I’ll knock on wood as I say this ... but it feels like he’s finally turning it around.
It doesn’t even feel entirely fair to say that Bradley is “heating up” — because he has been making solid contact for a while now. According to Baseball Savant, Bradley’s average exit velocity (91.9 mph) is tied for 16th in the league among players with at least 150 batted ball events. J.D. Martinez (93.5 mph) and Mookie Betts (92.7) are the only two Red Sox ranked higher than him in that category. Last season, Baseball Savant had Bradley ranked 127th in average exit velocity at 88.1 mph.
Despite striking out in 35.9% of his plate appearances in May, his plate discipline seems to have actually improved slightly this season. He has swung at only 25.8% of pitches he sees outside the strike zone, down from 30.0% in 2017, according to Fangraphs. Inside the zone, he’s swinging at a career-high 67.0% of pitches, despite seeing slightly fewer pitches in the zone this year compared to last. These numbers tell me he’s seeing the ball better and hitting it harder, and just having exceptionally bad luck.
Bradley has a .268 batting average against balls in play, which I think is more indicative of his 2018 campaign so far than his .214/.301/.362 line. His stats over the last month have been especially encouraging. Over the last 21 games, JBJ has driven in 17 runs on 19 hits and scored 14 times with splits of .257/.333/.459 and a .321 BABIP. He had just 23 RBI, 33 runs scored and 48 hits through the first 74 games he appeared in this season.
Even when he’s starting to figure it out, some people will still shake their heads and relentlessly declare that his bat will never be good enough to justify him playing every day, regardless of how good his glove is and I just can’t agree with those people. It almost feels like that population takes Bradley’s offensive struggles personally and that’s why they always end up disappointed. The second you expect consistency from a notoriously streaky hitter like Bradley, you are bound to be let down. It’s best to embrace his defense, expect him to hit well below .300 and be happy with the hot streaks that you get from him at the plate. Armed with this new outlook, you may actually find yourself enjoying what he does give the Red Sox on a consistent basis. If you can’t enjoy this, this or this, I don’t know what else to tell you.