Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Jackie Bradley Jr.
The Question: Can Jackie Bradley Jr. use the whole field?
As most reading this likely know, one of the last moves before the lockout not only by the team but for the entire league was when the Boston Red Sox sent 2021 starting outfielder Hunter Renfroe to the Milwaukee Brewers for Jackie Bradley Jr. and a pair of prospects in David Hamilton and Alex Binelas. The instant reaction to that trade was understandably negative, not because it was a bad trade (I think it was probably neutral-ish, skewing more heavily towards good for Boston depending on what comes next in the outfield) but because they traded one of their more important players for an old friend, but one who was polarizing at times and coming off a dreadful season. Finishing 2021 as one of the worst hitters in all of baseball, Bradley hit just .163/.236/.261 for a 35 wRC+ with the Brewers, meaning he was 65 percent worse than the league-average by that measure.
The reason why the trade is probably not as bad as some think is because while Bradley would currently be pegged as a starter, another move is almost certainly coming which will push him to the bench. So in that sense, he should be a situational player who can provide value off the bench just with his glove work. Of course, we know what happens to even the best laid plans in baseball, so whether by injury or whatever other reason there is a good chance Bradley will have to play a lot for at least a stretch or two in the coming season (assuming that the coming season exists). If and when that scenario comes to pass, the Red Sox are going to need much better production at the plate.
This is something that we have talked about before, to be fair, as shortly after the trade went down we wondered what exactly happened to the former Red Sox first round pick in 2021. In that post, we outlined some issues Bradley had making contact and laying off bad pitches, in particular highlighting his performance against breaking pitches and fastballs.
The points in that post remain some of the most important factors to think about with Bradley when he gets back into action at Fenway this coming season, but for today I want to focus a bit more on when he puts the ball into play and his approach in that sense. Specifically, I noticed when looking through some his numbers last season that Bradley was not effective at using the entire field. In fairness, it’s never really been a true calling card of his, but per Baseball Savant the rate at which he went the other way was the lowest of his career last season.
Now, the possibility should at least be mentioned that Bradley was consciously thinking about this in some way, as lefties at Fenway get a big advantage relative to other parks if they go the other way by virtue of that big green wall out in left field. Obviously being back at Fenway for half of his games in 2022 means that comes into play again. But with Bradley, we also know that he just tends to use the opposite field more when he’s going well. As discussed in the linked post above, when he slumps he struggles against breaking balls peppered down and away against him. Well, the flip side of that is when he is going well and he stays back on the ball, driving pitches on the outer half the other way.
This goes back to part of the reason Bradley can be such a frustrating hitter, too. He has one of the easiest profiles in baseball to shift against, as he not only pulls the ball at a higher than average rate but also almost always hits the ball on the ground when he pulls it (66 percent of the time, per FanGraphs). On the flip side, when he goes the other way he almost always drives the ball in the air, with a ground ball rate below 21 percent in those instances. As a result, over his career Bradley actually has a higher Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) when he goes the other way than when he pulls the ball.
We know Bradley well enough to know that it’s a fool’s errand to ever try and predict what he is going to be at any given moment. The Red Sox, though, need him to be the guy he was in 2018 and 2019, when he was a below-average hitter but not outlier-bad and with excellent defense. That profile fits even better off the bench. Hopefully Alex Cora will be able to find some situations to get Bradley into a groove. Once that happens, we’ll see him be willing to stay back in the zone and drive some of those pitches on the outer half, which is when good things start to happen for him.
Statistics from this post are courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.