Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Jackie Bradley Jr.
The Question: Can Jackie Bradley Jr. stabilize his performance against left-handed pitching?
When you think about Jackie Bradley Jr., chances are there are two things that immediately come to mind. One of them is his defense, as he is one of the best and most electric defensive outfielders in the game. He finally won a Gold Glove to commemorate this fact, too. Fenway’s center field is not an easy area to navigate, but Bradley does it with ease and has a certain flair that is hard to escape. There are few things more fun to watch on a day-to-day basis as a Red Sox fan.
The other thing is his inconsistency at the plate. As we know, there are stretches when he looks like not only a good hitter, but a legitimate MVP candidate. He goes on these tears where that are almost impossible to believe. Then, there are cold stretches where he looks like he wouldn’t be able to handle Triple-A pitching. It changes on a dime, and it can be hard to believe while you’re watching it with your own eyes.
Maybe we can add that ALCS MVP in as a third thing now, but among the first two it probably wouldn’t be unfair to wonder if we focus too much on the latter over the former. He’s good enough defensively at an up-the-middle position that he has a legitimately high floor. On the other hand, we take things for granted, and it’s really hard to ignore how ugly those bad stretches at the plate can get. It’s probably not fair we focus so much more on that stuff but, well, life ain’t fair.
There are a lot of things that change during Bradley’s inconsistent stretches at the plate. In fact, he essentially changes into a new hitter with each change in performance. His strikeouts go way up during his rough stretches, he stops launching the ball with authority, and he can’t lay off waste pitches from his opponent. He just falls into these patterns where he can’t help himself, and all of the negatives start to snowball and things get out of control. It’s rough. You don’t even need to know the numbers to be able to tell where Bradley is at any given moment; his at bats speak for themselves.
Typically, these inconsistencies are discussed as month-to-month or even week-to-week peaks and valleys. It’s not uncommon to see two or three versions of Bradley in one season. Today, I want to look at a yearly inconsistency with the Red Sox center fielder: His platoon splits. He’s alternated the kind of splits he’s shown at the plate over the last four years. In 2018 and 2016, he was significantly better against right-handed pitching, as one would expect. However, in 2017 and 2015, he showed reverse splits and in 2017 in particular he was significantly better against left-handed pitching.
The narrative around Bradley this year, beyond the defense of course, was that he was disappointing at the plate. It’s not an unfair characterization as he finished the year hitting .234/.314/.403 with a 90 wRC+, meaning he was ten percent worse than league-average. Most of the year was spent being much worse than this. Still, his numbers were almost entirely dragged down by his performance against left-handed pitching. With southpaws on the mound, he hit just .185/.260/.303 for a 50 wRC+. Among the 247 batters with at least 100 plate appearances against lefties, only 14 had a lower OPS against lefties and only 13 had a worse OPS relative to their overall batting line.
As far as what happens with Bradley in his good and bad moments against lefties, this year in particular had everything going wrong with southpaws on the mound. Of course, that’s not a huge surprise since he was 50 percent worse than the league-average hitter against them. In 2018, Bradley’s control of the strike zone against lefties compared to righties was seemingly the driving force behind his lack of success. Against righties he was solid, striking out 22 percent of the time and walking just under ten percent of the time. Against lefties, he was an absolute disaster, striking out a whopping 36 percent of the time and walking just five percent of the time. Some disparity is to be expected here, but this is a good way to have wRC+’s that are separated by over 50 points in your platoon splits.
This hasn’t been a consistent issue for Bradley, however, as his plate discipline was actually better against lefties in 2017. Over his career, he has a 27 percent K-rate and 7.6 percent BB-rate against lefties compared to rates of 24 percent and 9.5 percent against righties. That’s not nothing, but clearly 2018 was an outlier here. The big difference was with breaking balls, as lefties peppered him with sliders and curveballs in every count and Bradley whiffed on about every other swing against them.
Beyond the plate discipline, the batted ball profile really stands out here and is worse than his .286 batting average on balls in play against lefties may suggest. Bradley watched his ground ball rate rise from 39 percent against righties to 59 percent against lefties (per Fangraphs), and he also pulled the ball more against lefties. More ground balls and more pulled balls, obviously, makes it much easier to play defense. When you throw in the fact that his hard-hit rate fell from 43 percent to 35 percent, it’s actually a surprise his BABIP wasn’t lower.
Interestingly, this is sort of a common theme across all of his seasons in the majors, even the ones in which he has had success. Take 2017 for example, when Bradley put up a 104 wRC+ against lefties and an 83 wRC+ against righties. Even then, he saw a massive increase in ground ball rate, this time climbing to 63 percent from 44 percent against lefties. To be fair, he didn’t shift to pulling the ball so much in that year, but it’s still strange how disparate the overall results were. Over his career, Bradley has a 44 percent ground ball rate against righties and a 55 percent ground ball rate against lefties. It’s more nuanced than this, but simple luck seems to play a big role in whether or not he has success against lefties in any given season.
There are a lot of ways Bradley has to change to be a more consistent hitter, and chances are he’s never going to be the guy we want him to be. The good news is he has made comments about getting help from J.D. Martinez and discovering new methods for hitting that he believes will help him be a new hitter. He may very well be right about that. To me, though, stabilizing his performance against lefties is most important. He doesn’t have to post the reverse splits he has in the past, but he has to be better than he was in 2018. If he can lay off the breaking balls and start to launch balls against hitters of either handedness, we should see a steadier Jackie Bradley Jr. moving forward. If not, well, at least the defense will still be there.