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Appreciating the defensive magic of Jackie Bradley Jr.

Jackie Bradley Jr. is an incredible defensive center fielder and for seven years, the Red Sox were lucky enough to have him making plays for them.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Jackie Bradley Jr. is a sorcerer on a baseball field and when it comes to defense, I’m talking a Scarlet Witch-level sorcerer. Bradley has made some of the most incredible catches of the last decade while patrolling center field for the Red Sox, saving more than a few pitchers and games along the way. Defense isn’t the only strength of his game, but it was certainly the most prominent and one that the Red Sox needed (and benefited from the most) throughout his tenure with the team.

Unfortunately, that tenure has come to an end. After a long winter of rumors constantly shifting expectations about the potential of him returning to Boston, Bradley signed a two-year deal with the Milwaukee Brewers last week. Although those who perhaps naively held onto hope (myself included) rode a roller coaster all offseason while waiting to find out about Bradley’s future, someone with a more objective perspective would have seen that the Red Sox were probably never going to bring him back. They had the chance to sign him to an extension before this winter after all, and they never got around to doing that — or at least the two sides never agreed on terms.

Regardless of the reasons behind his departure, Bradley was a vitally important part of the Red Sox for the last seven years for a host of reasons, but his absolutely spectacular defensive work is what stands out the most.

In many ways, defensive metrics are still in their infancy when compared with the statistics we use to evaluate offense and pitching, but that doesn’t mean what we have available doesn’t give a decent approximation of who’s good and who’s bad defensively. By most metrics, Bradley Jr. has been more than good. Since he made his MLB debut on April 1, 2013, Bradley Jr. has accumulated the third-most defensive runs saved among qualified center fielders (48). If we expand that out to center fielders with at least 500 innings played during that time, Bradley Jr. still ranks among the top 10. If we expand out even further and include all outfielders who have played at least 500 innings since 2013, Bradley Jr. sits tied with Byron Buxton for the No. 14 spot.

Defensive runs saved, or DRS, is a catch-all stat of sorts, but where Bradley Jr. has flashed the most stunning ability is in tracking down and catching fly balls. Whenever a batter sent a ball into center field against the Red Sox during the last seven years, if there was even a chance that the ball would be catchable, you could expect Bradley to get there in time. Compared with all qualified center fielders in the last seven years, Bradley is third in ultimate zone rating (30.8). I won’t go into all the levels I just went with DRS, but suffice to say, Bradley Jr. was safely near the top for those comparisons as well. Range runs above average is a bit less kind to him, but his production there in no way paints him as a bad defender or even just an average one.

Going a bit further, over the last seven years, Bradley Jr. has hauled in 17.1 percent of fly balls that were given a remote chance (no more than 10%) of being caught, according to FanGraphs. Only Billy Hamilton has caught a higher percentage of such fly balls since 2013 among qualified outfielders. Now, Bradley ranks lower in total remote catches (82), but he’s still 10th in that category. He is also second-to-last in innings played among that group of 10, meaning he’s likely had fewer chances.

In addition, if we incorporate some of Statcast/Baseball Savant’s metrics, Bradley’s resume gets even better, as he has consistently rated highly in his reaction time and burst to the ball. Plus, just last year, he ranked in the 85th percentile in outfielder jump and in the 98th percentile in outs above average.

While Bradley’s primary defensive super power is covering ground in the outfield, his arm needs to be respected as well. He is tied with Marcell Ozuna for fourth among qualified outfielders in outfield arm runs above average since 2013 (20.8), helping him rack up 58 outfield assists. If you’re wondering, that’s the seventh-most among qualified outfielders during that span.

Surprisingly, despite all those defensive numbers on his side, Bradley has only won a single Gold Glove during his career. He earned that honor in 2018 when he produced one DRS and had a UZR of 8.8. Those are both far from his best marks and while 2018 was still another strong defensive year from him overall, it feels like he built his resume over the preceding years and finally gained the national recognition that season. For my money, Bradley’s best defensive year was either 2014 or 2016. He set career-highs in DRS (16) and UZR (11.7) in 2014 and then posted strong numbers yet again in 2016 (14 and 8.2, respectively) while flashing a bit more consistency with his arm.

Bradley Jr. was great once again last season for the Red Sox, even if it wasn’t his best defensive campaign. Despite that caveat and despite the young outfielders that will or may fill his shoes in the next few years (Alex Verdugo, Jarren Duran, Gilberto Jimenez), the Red Sox are going to miss him out there. Having a Gold Glove caliber defender year in and year out, especially in center field, is a luxury few teams are lucky enough to possess. For seven years, the Red Sox were one of those lucky few. Now, the Brewers (who already have another sensational defensive center fielder in Lorenzo Cain) get the benefit of having multiple such outfielders.

This post isn’t meant to be an argument for why the Red Sox let Bradley go too early (even if I do think that is the case). It is meant, instead, to be an appreciation of his defensive wizardry. Home runs and strikeouts are cool and put people in the seats, but Bradley made watching for defensive highlights just as important, because whenever a ball was hit to center field, you might see something special. I’m going to miss that.