Look, let’s just get the obvious out of the way immediately. The 2020 Red Sox have played one (1) game that matters. It doesn’t take a baseball mastermind to know that you really can’t provide much analysis off of just one game, and that is particularly true when it comes to hitters. You need more data to decide if anything is at all useful and not just weird small sample size noise. I recognize all of that. Except, well, I’ve been using the same data and the same numbers since September. I’m dying for more. I finally have some new data with which to work, and dammit I’m going to use it.
Specifically, I am going to look at the Opening Night performance from Jackie Bradley Jr., which I found to be the most encouraging of everyone who participated in the 13-2 rout. We all know Bradley’s MO at this point, of course. He is among the streakiest players in baseball, and while he’s sort of settled in to a baseline year-long performance over the last few years, over any given stretch he can look otherworldly or like a Quad-A player. That kind of streakiness makes him particularly interesting and particularly confounding in a 60-game season, when that normal stabilization time goes out the window. And with a player like him who is both so hard to predict and so streaky, the start to his season is particularly noteworthy, I would think.
And it was a hell of a start for the Red Sox center fielder. Bradley was right at the center of the offensive explosion from the entire lineup, finishing the game as one of four Red Sox hitters with at least three hits. His three hits were: A double on a line drive into the left field corner, a double on a fly ball that scraped the Monster, and a single on a line drive into center field. Five total bases is a hell of a thing, but looking even closer, you see a more encouraging sign. None of Bradley’s three hits were to the pull side, and none of his three hits were on the ground. And that is a huge trend to watch for Bradley.
I already noted how streaky Bradley can be and how wide the range in performance can be, but it’s really hard to overstate how jarring it is seeing him at both his best and his worst. It’s not just evident in the numbers. It’s evident in the good ol’ eye test too. When he is in a bad way, not only is he struggling to make contact but when he does make contact he starts to yank everything to the pull side. Look at his past couple of seasons and note the differences in performance with this graph, courtesy of FanGraphs, that charts his wOBA (blue) alongside his pull rate (red).
The trend is pretty obvious. It’s not perfectly consistent across these couple of seasons, but much more often than not when he is pulling the ball a lot, his performance at the plate sufferes. On the other side of the coin, when he’s using the whole field and that pull rate drops, the wOBA rises well above the league average (which is denoted by the blue dotted line).
The same kind of trend can be seen with his ground ball rate, with a similar chart, also from FanGraphs.
To be fair, a lot of this is fairly intuitive. It’s long been believed (and likely true) that good hitters use the entire field. Look at the best “pure hitters” going all the way back through baseball history, and you’ll see batters who will take whatever pitch is given to them and put it anywhere on the diamond to do damage. Furthermore, the last few years has seen a revolution of sorts with respect to launch angle and hitters better recognizing the benefits of putting the ball in the air. Combine those two known truths and you have this trend from Bradley.
The point, though, is that it’s easier said than done and it is particularly important for Bradley. There are hitters who can succeed when they are pulling the ball, but he is just not one of them and it’s because these two trends are extra connected for him. When Bradley pulls the ball, he is very often rolling over his wrists and putting it on the ground. Last season, for example, 345 batters pulled the ball at least 60 times. Only 32 put those balls on the ground more often than him. That, in turn, makes him overly susceptible to the shift and destroys his on-base ability.
I’ll reiterate again that this was just one game, and it came against the Orioles who legitimately are up there with the worst baseball teams ever assembled. We should absolutely not be extrapolating anything that happened on Friday much at all, and certainly shouldn’t be overly excited. Even after a big Opening Night, we have no idea what Bradley is going to produce the rest of the season. That being said, we do know from past experience that when he is going well it involves a lot of balls being hit to left and center field. That was where all the damage was on Friday, and while it may or may not be a trend point, it’s certainly a better sign than if he pulled everything on the ground.