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2019 in Review: Jackie Bradley Jr.

A look back at another up and down year with great defense.

San Francisco Giants v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day (minus a week in October where I’ll be mostly off) we’ll deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Jackie Bradley Jr.

2019 in one sentence

Jackie Bradley Jr. continued to be the very definition of consistently inconsistent in 2019, finishing his third straight season with a wRC+ of either 89 or 90 to go with his typically great defense.

The Positives

There’s no suspense about where we’re starting here, right? Jackie Bradley Jr. is the very definition of a “he is who he is” guy at this point, and for all of the legitimate criticisms part of who he is is an all-world defensive player. Bradley is the rare defensive player who not only makes circus catch after circus catch, but also makes difficult plays look easy. He’s got the flash as well as the technical abilities to just catch everything out there. Perhaps my favorite thing to watch of any player on defense is the way Bradley can look at a ball off the bat, put his head down and run to the spot to make the catch. I don’t understand how it’s done without tracking it the whole way, but Bradley is a magician. I’ll get into this a little later, but if that was the last year of watching Bradley patrol center field for the Red Sox it was an absolute pleasure. I should also mention that the defensive metrics were bizarrely down on Bradley, which I am going to choose to ignore because he was in no way a negative on defense. That’s just absurd.

Positives become more difficult to find when you get beyond the obvious one out in center field. There is another part of the “he is who he is” profile for Bradley, and that is the inconsistency at the plate. That is mostly viewed as a negative, but the flip side of it is that period of the year where he is an absolute machine. This year, that was a stretch from the end of April through the first couple days of July. Bradley got 214 plate appearances during this streak and he hit .280/.382/.516 for a 131 wRC+. That put him in the company of guys like Mike Moustakas, Michael Brantley, Yasmani Grandal, Max Kepler and Corey Seager. Bradley was particularly hot in the month of June, when his 153 wRC+ tied him with J.D. Martinez as the 23rd best hitter in baseball for the month. We would all love a more consistent Jackie Bradley Jr., but these hot stretches are legitimately productive.

We’re stretching a little more for positives here, admittedly, but Bradley was a better power hitter in 2019. When the center fielder was having the best years of his career in 2015 and 2016, he was a real power threat in this Red Sox lineup, but that fell off in the next two years. He wasn’t back on that level this past year, but his .196 Isolated Power was a nearly 30-point increase over the previous season. Furthermore, when he was able to lift the ball he did damage as (according to Fangraphs) 18.4 percent of his fly balls left the yard. That was a career-high rate (not counting his 107 plate appearances in 2013) and similar to guys like Alex Bregman, Moustakas and Nolan Arenado.

The Negatives

So, we’ll pick up here where we left off in the positives. With a strong home run to fly ball ratio, one would think he’d be able to put up more consistent power numbers. Of course, that ratio is only effective when you’re hitting a lot of fly balls, which Bradley did not. Instead, the outfielder watched his batted ball profile regress significantly this year, including a career-high (again, not including 2013) ground ball rate. At 49.6 percent (per Fangraphs), he hit grounders at a higher rate than all but 16 of the 135 qualified batters in 2019. It’s not just the grounders, though, because there are successful hitters ahead of him on that list. For one thing, he combined it with a weak 36 percent hard-hit rate.

Even worse was that he pulled 61 percent of his ground balls with only seven percent going the other way, all while being one of the more shifted players in baseball. Clearly, that is not a recipe for success. The shift absolutely destroyed Bradley this year. That was clear anecdotally when it seemed like every other at bat saw a ground ball up towards the second base bag was routinely fielded for an out. The numbers show it to be true, too, as he finished the year with a 61 wRC+ against the shift. The league-average was 78.

Beyond that, there was his inability to hit anything besides fastballs. Bradley has always been a strong fastball hitter, but he’s been inconsistent at best against everything else. This year, according to Baseball Savant, he had an xWOBA under .300 against both offspeed and breaking pitches while also whiffing on both a whopping 39 percent of the time. You simply can’t be a good, consistently major-league hitter if you can only hit fastballs. For what it’s worth, those numbers were almost the exact same (and actually a bit worse) in 2018, so it’s not like this was a one-year blip.

Then, there’s the flip side of that hot streak in the middle of the year. Bradley always has that one run where he looks like Mike Trout lite, but he also always has that stretch where he looks like, well, me. Unfortunately, this season that stretch was at the very start of the season when seemingly everyone was in a funk. Over his first 22 games, Bradley hit just .147/.217/.173 for a wRC+ of 1. One! There were 266 players with at least 50 plate appearances in that stretch. Only three got off to worse starts at the plate than Bradley.

Finally, there was the simple issue of contact. Many probably recall the start of Bradley’s career when he was just totally and utterly overmatched against major-league pitching. At that point, he was consistently striking out almost 30 percent of the time before finally cutting that rate down as he got more experience. He’d settled in for a couple years in the 22 percent range, and that was more than manageable. That number has now crept up for a couple years in a row, though, and this year he struck out 27 percent of the time while whiffing a career-high 15 percent of the time. Bradley’s not good enough in the other areas to survive with a strikeout rate this high, even in an era with so many Ks.

The Big Question

Can Jackie Bradley Jr. stabilize his performance against left-handed pitching?

So, here we have another one that can go into the negative column. Bradley was actually a bit improved against lefties in 2019 compared to the previous season, but that was mostly because he started so low. He still finished this past year with a wRC+ of 67 against southpaws. The one good thing here was the impact being lessened a bit because Andrew Benintendi turned it around. When both are unable to hit lefties, this lineup — and especially defense — is in big trouble.

2020 Vision

As I alluded to near the top, Bradley could very well be in a different uniform next year. There’s certainly a starting spot for him somewhere in this league as a consistent average overall player whose defense gives him a high floor. That said, he is projected to make $11 million in arbitration this winter by MLB Trade Rumors, and for a Red Sox team that is looking to cut payroll that could be a bit too much for an average player. I don’t think he’ll be non-tendered, and ultimately I’d guess he’ll be back. Mostly, though, that’s because it’s pretty much always the safer bet. There will certainly be plenty of rumors around the center fielder all winter.