Jackie Bradley Jr. has found himself in the news quite a bit over the last few weeks. The center fielder, who is set to hit free agency after the season, was presumed to be a prime trade candidate heading into the August 31 deadline. He, of course, was not traded and is still roaming center field for Boston to close out the season. After the deadline, Chaim Bloom said the Red Sox wanted Bradley to stick around with the franchise for a long time. That didn’t age particularly well as Bradley then came back a day later and revealed he had yet to receive so much as a contract extension offer. Bloom has since reiterated how the team feels about their center fielder. So, yeah, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind! The hope here at the Collins household is that this is just one of those things that sounds worse than it is.
The thing is, as all of this has been going on Bradley has started to heat up like crazy at the plate. And with this latest hot streak, his numbers are as impressive as they’ve been since 2016, which happens to be the only year he made the All-Star team. Now, there are obviously some sample size issues here and a hot streak is clearly going to stand out more in the overall numbers this late in a shortened season compared to a normal, 162-game grind. It wasn’t all that long ago that Bradley’s numbers looked like the early portion of his career. Small sample concerns exist for everyone this season, but they matter even more for a streaky hitter like Bradley. That said, it’s impossible to ignore these numbers, particularly in the context of what has been going on with him and the team since the streak started as well as what is coming once the offseason gets rolling.
Overall, as we sit here on Saturday morning, Bradley is hitting .262/.335/.425 for a wRC+ of 102, meaning he’s been two percent better than the league-average hitter. That doesn’t sound all that impressive, but consider A) it is about 12 points higher than where he’s landed the last three seasons, B) just a few weeks ago he was considerably worse than his career norms, and C) he’s still providing elite defense in center field. And, as I said, this really dates back to when the trade deadline started to heat up. Going back to August 22, the first game after Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree were traded to the Phillies, Bradley is hitting .294/.368/.574. His OPS heading into that game was .593. Today, just 19 games later, it is .761.
Looking at what has been different for Bradley this year compared to years past, you have to start with the plate discipline. The outfielder is currently posting his lowest strikeout rate since 2017 while maintaining his typical above-average walk rate. According to Baseball Savant, he is seeing roughly the same number of strikes as he has throughout his career (right around 50 percent), but he is chasing the ball much less. His 22.4 percent chase rate is the lowest of his career and 3.4 percentage points lower than his career rate. Furthermore, he’s making more contact than ever on these pitches out of the zone, which doesn’t result in great quality of contact but it does help the strikeout rate.
On top of the plate discipline, Bradley is also not falling into his pull-happy traps like he has in the past. This is something we talked about way back at the beginning of the season after exactly one (1) game, but it stands true today. When Bradley goes into his cold streaks, one of the staples is that he pulls everything, and when he pulls everything it is generally on the ground. That makes it very easy to defend with shifts. This year, though, he is hitting the ball the other way at a higher rate than any other point in his career while also pulling the ball far less than any other year. Per Baseball Savant, his 29 percent pull rate is eight percentage points lower than his career rate.
As encouraging as those signs are, it does have to be mentioned that pitchers aren’t exactly challenging Bradley the way they could. The M.O. for him has always been that he will struggle against off speed pitches and breaking balls, and that remains the case this season. In fact, by both wOBA and expected wOBA, he’s been worse against these pitches than ever before. (Small sample size alert is needed here, of course.) However, pitchers are throwing him more fastballs than he’s seen since 2014, and he’s punishing them for it to the tune of a .405 wOBA and a .457 expected wOBA. (wOBA is on the same scale as OBP, so those numbers are very good!) Even considering the pitch mix he’s seeing, though, Bradley is still hitting fastballs better than he ever has.
All of this is happening for Bradley at exactly the right time as he gets set to hit free agency this winter. Nobody really knows what the market is going to look like when free agency opens following a season with fewer games and no fans. The assumption is that less money will be spent, but the degree to which spending will be down is anybody’s guess. Generally speaking, the trend in recent years has been that stars are still getting big money, but players in the tiers below that have been squeezed. That trend could only get worse this winter.
Bradley certainly falls into the tier that’s been squeezed, so he needs to do everything he can to expand his market. For a Red Sox team that may want to keep him but likely only for a short commitment given the presence of Jarren Duran on the depth chart, Bradley getting hot at this time is not ideal. But for the player who is finally getting his chance at the open market, this latest hot streak in a career full of them may just be his most important.