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2020 in Review: Jackie Bradley Jr.

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If this ends up being Bradley Jr.’s last season in Boston, it was a pretty great one to end on.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2020 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 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. 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 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we are exploring how 2020 was for Jackie Bradley Jr.

2020 in a sentence

In what increasingly looks like his final year in Boston, Jackie Bradley Jr. dodged trade rumors and questions about his future while putting together an exceptionally strong campaign.

The Positives

Even before the 2020 season began, both the originally planned 162-game version and the eventual 60-game variety, Jackie Bradley Jr.’s future with the Red Sox was up in the air, making his performance during the campaign exceptionally important for him as a player. After all, Bradley had one more season to show what he could do for any team that might come calling this offseason. Whether it was fueled by that motivation or not, Bradley made a very strong case for himself by posting one of his best seasons in Boston, albeit a much shorter one than usual.

While his long history of streaky offensive performance could mean that his production in the 55 games he played this year was just a symptom of one of his hotter streaks taking up a larger share of the season than normal, there’s no denying that Bradley was a better hitter this year. He boosted his wRC+ to 119, making him 19 percent above league-average as a batter and putting him above 90 by that measure for the first time since 2016.

This shift in success at the plate was built on some drastic changes to his approach. To begin with, Bradley was much more selective this season than he had been in recent years. He swung at 27.3 percent of pitches outside of the zone compared with 30 percent in 2019. While that 2020 mark is still relatively high, it is quite an improvement from the previous season. However, Bradley Jr. didn’t just chase fewer offerings; he was also more selective with pitches in the zone, showing a willingness to wait for what he wanted. He swung at 69.4 percent of pitches in the zone, which was his lowest mark since 2017. Meanwhile, his overall swing rate (45.1 percent) was at its lowest mark since 2016, while his swinging strike rate (10.6 percent) came in at a career-low.

Boston Red Sox v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

This improvement in selectivity helped Bradley cut down on his strikeouts while boosting his ability to draw walks. After his strikeout rate rose every year between 2016 (22.5 percent) and 2019 (27.3 percent), it plummeted down to 22.1 percent in 2020. At the same time, his walk rate eclipsed 10 percent for the first time since 2015.

In addition to a change in approach, Bradley also had different results when he made contact than previous seasons. Whether by design or not, the usually pull-happy center fielder went back up the middle at a career-high rate (42.4 percent) in 2020. Meanwhile, he pulled or went to the opposite field under 30 percent of the time.

Bradley excellent work at the plate was coupled with his regular brilliance in the field. He tied for ninth among MLB outfielders and fifth among MLB center fielders in defensive runs saved (five) and was even better by some metrics.

When you add it all together (including solid work on the base paths), Bradley Jr. was above average in just about every phase of the game and that yielded him 1.4 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, which is notable as it matched his entire output from the 2019 season.

The Negatives

This section will be notably shorter than the positives portion, but there were still a few things that didn’t exactly go Bradley way. To begin with, while his batting average went up to a career-high of .283 and his overall offensive performance improved, he did not do so by scorching baseballs at an accelerated rate. In fact, Bradley Jr.’s hard-hit rate fell to a less-than-stellar 27.1 percent, marking the second-straight season this metric has taken a significant plunge. He compensated for it with his best medium-hit rate since 2013 (54.2 percent), when he made his MLB debut and played in 37 games, but his soft-hit rate (18.8 percent) also rose, which points to some underlying issues.

Those issues were reflected a bit in the type of hits Bradley had this season, as his isolated power went down to a mark of .168 while his ground ball rate surpassed 50 percent for the first time since 2013. In addition, Bradley Jr. did have a lot more luck on his side in 2020, as his batting average on balls in play (.343) was a career-high by quite a large margin.

Lastly, in returning to Bradley Jr.’s streaky nature, he even displayed that in this shortened season, hitting .235 in the first half and .318 in the second.

The Big Question

Why is Jackie Bradley Jr. striking out so much again?

As we discussed earlier, Bradley drastically reduced his strikeout rate in 2020. Before the season, Matt Collins, managing editor of Over the Monster, identified more strikeouts on fastballs as a culprit for Bradley Jr.’s normal problems with swinging and missing. Bradley Jr. significantly improved in that area this year, whiffing on 20.4 percent of fastballs compared with a rate of 27.4 percent in 2019. His whiff rates on breaking and offspeed pitches also fell, ultimately helping Bradley put more balls in play.

Looking ahead to 2021

All we have are guesses as to what 2021 will hold for Bradley. Those guesses can be a bit educated, as it seems unlikely that he will be back in Boston given his desire to test free agency and, as far as we know, the Red Sox’s unwillingness to commit to a long-term extension. Whether or not Bradley does come back to Boston, if he can carry over some, if not all, of his success from 2020 while maintaining his defensive acumen, any team that signs him will be getting a very good outfielder. Now we’ll just have to wait to see if that team is the Red Sox.