Slowly but surely, the Red Sox are starting to turn things around. Things still aren’t perfect, but they are looking more like the team they were always expected to be and have won five of their last seven games. The rotation is starting to come together, with some issues here and there but mostly solid performances the last couple turns. The bullpen has some issues that need to be worked out and some guys who should probably be rotated out, but largely that unit has been solid enough. The lineup is coming around as well, with Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi providing a presence at the top while Christian Vázquez and Michael Chavis add some much-needed length at the bottom. Again, there is still work to be done, but that’s to be expected at this point of the year. The main point is that players are trending in the right direction.
Well, for the most part. Jackie Bradley Jr. is still struggling mightily, and that’s been a theme of the entire season so far. Back in early April, just ten games into the year, we talked about Bradley looking lost at the plate. Things haven’t gotten a whole hell of a lot better since then, unfortunately. We’re still only talking about 22 games for the Red Sox center fielder and 84 plate appearances, but on the young season he is hitting a putrid .147/.217/.173 for a wRC+ of 2. Two! Among the 186 qualified hitters in baseball, Bradley has been the worst by a fairly significant margin with Ian Desmond behind him with a wRC+ of 10. So, yeah, things are not good.
In the linked post above, the focus was largely on Bradley’s plate discipline. Specifically, it looked at him letting a lot of hittable fastballs go by, falling behind in the count and leading to bad at bats. His plate discipline remains rough, though he’s improving in some areas. He has gotten his walk rate back up to around eight percent, which is about the norm for him. On the other hand, he’s striking out 27 percent of the time, which is higher than you’d like to see. The good news is he is being a bit more aggressive on pitches in the zone. The bad news is he’s also being aggressive on pitches out of it. Overall, the plate discipline is far from perfect, but it’s not the big issue.
No, the big issue is what happens in plate appearances in which Bradley puts the ball in play. These have been, to be frank, an absolute disaster. The Red Sox center fielder has just two doubles and no other extra-base hits so far in 2019, giving him an Isolated Power of .027. Even in a small sample size, that is jarringly bad. Only Ben Zobrist and Brandon Crawford have hit for less power. Those guys are at least getting some singles, though, but Bradley can’t even do that. His batting average on balls in play, which is certainly tied to luck at this point in the year but not entirely tied to it, is just .208. That is 15th in baseball right now, with a healthy chunk of the players doing worse than him being there because early-season BABIP is biased against guys who hit a lot of home runs. Bradley, again, has zero home runs.
So, he’s not hitting for power and he’s not hitting singles, which in other words means he’s just not hitting! Now, Bradley is not hitting the ball as well as he did last year and his early-season hard-hit rate is in the bottom half of the league. That said, it’s also better than it should be for a guy who is having such a little amount of success on balls in play. The reason has been where the balls are being hit and where the defense is playing. Bradley has been hurt by the shift throughout his career, but it seemed to me anecdotally that it had been even worse this year. Specifically, it seems like at least once a game he hits a solid ground ball up through the middle, only to have the opposing shortstop standing right there to get the out.
Sure enough, Bradley is hitting ground balls at a rate higher than ever before and also hitting the ball up through the middle third of the field at a higher rate than ever. As a result, he’s hitting just .132 when he puts the ball in play against “traditional” shifts. For context, he hit .297 in those situations last year and .291 the year before that. This is particularly concerning for a guy who spent the offseason tinkering with his swing to launch the ball more. It’s good that he’s hitting the ball back up the middle, as that generally means he has his timing of the opposing pitcher down. The issue is that he needs to hit it up over the shift.
To make things more frustrating, the pitches that he’s pounding into the ground are the pitches that he should be launching up in the air. According to Brooks Baseball, his ground ball rate remains essentially unchanged on both offspeed pitches and breaking balls. On hard pitches (fastballs and sinkers), however, his rate has increased from 44 percent in 2018 all the way up to almost 64 percent early this year. To take it further, he has put 22 fastballs that were in the strike zone in play and 13 of them have been hit on the ground, as you can see here.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find an easy fix for Bradley other than just saying hit it in the air more. That’s not exactly constructive, but it’s the answer to his problems. The shift is always going to affect Bradley’s game, but the easiest way to beat the shift is to simply hit over it. If he needs to start pulling the ball more, as counterintuitive as it seems, he should do it if it helps get his contact back to where it should be. At that point he can concentrate on hitting away from the shift. Bradley is getting just as frustrated as we are as he tries to implement this new approach and new swing, and he recognizes it’s time to see the results. If you’re looking for some solace, you can find it in the fact that he’s turned things around from seemingly rock bottom before. He can certainly do it again.