Given how poorly the Red Sox have started this season, particularly within the context of the team’s massive expectations, you can’t pin anything down on just one or two guys. The failure has been top-to-bottom, as we talked about on Saturday. The rotation obviously stands out above the rest, but the offense has been terrible at times, and even in the games in which they’ve ostensibly done fine they have often left runs on the table early in games. If they came through in some of these big spots, it would have changed these games and perhaps the eventual outcomes. There have been some guys off to good starts, to be fair. J.D. Martinez is a machine, Xander Bogaerts and Mitch Moreland have had some big hits and Blake Swihart has done well in limited chances. Still, the bad is overshadowing the good right now. In particular, Eduardo Núñez and Jackie Bradley Jr. have stood out as guys off to particularly cold starts.
Today, as you know already, I want to talk about the last guy listed above. Bradley was a major topic of conversation this spring. A lot of the winter was filled with talk of his changing swing and philosophy at the plate as he had worked to make adjustments with Martinez’s swing coach. Then, he got off to a red-hot start in spring and the hype train was officially rolling. He was probably the most popular pick to break out in 2019. It did feel to like things were moving a little too quickly and expectations were getting a bit out of whack, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least starting to get caught up in it as well.
Through the first ten games of the year, of which he’s started nine, things are not going according to that plan. This is obviously too small of a sample to say anything super meaningfully about what to expect moving forward, but we can say with some confidence that the Red Sox center fielder looks lost at the plate to start the year. Thus far he has reached base six times in 36 plate appearances with five singles, one double and one walk. That’s a .171/.194/.200 line, for those keeping track at home. It’s been ugly to watch even without access to the numbers.
Obviously there’s bound to be a healthy amount of noise in any numbers on April 7, but what really stands out is how Bradley’s approach at the plate has looked. The outfielder has been totally overmatched almost every time he’s been to the plate. Through those first 36 plate appearances he has eleven strikeouts without yet drawing a walk. The symptoms here have been something that has plagued the lineup as a whole. Bradley is falling behind early in just about every count, with 21 of of his first 31 plate appearances (68 percent) starting with an 0-1 count. According to Brooks Baseball, he has seen 18 first pitches in the strike zone and has swung at ten of them. More concerning, though, is that of those 18 pitches 12 have been in the upper two-thirds of the zone and he has swung at only four of those.
It’s not secret that starting this many at bats immediately falling behind is going to lead to issues. Since the start of last season, the average major-leaguer hitter has a wRC+ of about 66 after getting to an 0-1 count. In other words, they have been slightly more productive than Blake Swihart was in 2018, Frankly, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why this would happen. When you fall behind in a count, you are suddenly left in a defensive position and the pitcher takes control of the situation. It leads to more movement coming from the mound and, in turn, worse swings. Case in point: Bradley has swung at a whopping 40 percent of pitches he’s seen out of the zone this year. This almost certainly is not going to continue all year, of course, but that is ten percentage points higher than his career-high.
If you’re looking for some solace in Bradley’s start or just some reason for optimism, you can look at who he’s faced to start the year. In Boston’s first four games they have seen an even split of righties and lefties starting for their opponents, and Bradley specifically has 17 plate appearances against southpaws versus 14 against righties. We know he’s had some platoon issues most years in his career, and starting against an inordinate number of lefties hasn’t made things easy on him. That’s not to say he hasn’t been costly at the plate, but as the competition starts to normalize things should get better.
If you were high on Bradley’s chances for a breakout coming into the year, eight games shouldn’t be enough to change your mind. The center fielder has always been a rollercoaster at the plate, and a week-long slump happens to everyone. That said, it’s all we have seen from him in 2019, and the early returns are rough. He needs to be more aggressive on hittable pitches early in counts and avoid falling behind so often. Bradley is one of the best defensive players in all of baseball, but if he continues to play defense with the bat in his hand things are going to continue to be rough.
Note: Most numbers above don’t include Saturday’s game.