Jackie Bradley was a first-round pick. In college he hit great, he fielded great. Then in the minors, he hit great, he fielded great. But once in the pros he couldn’t hit. The fielding was as close to perfect as one can reasonably expect, but over multiple chances and multiple seasons the hitting just never got there. Until about a month ago. A month ago, for the first time in his major league career, he hit great and fielded great. Jackie Bradley was all of a sudden the best hitter in baseball. Then, a bit over a week ago, Bradley stopped hitting almost entirely.
A month ago I wrote about the evolution of Jackie Bradley’s batting stance, how he had altered the way he stood at the plate, altered his pre-swing ritual, all with the goal of improving his ability to get the bat to the ball on time. He had struggled with that, among other things, but mostly that. Bradley would frequently be late on a pitch and being late doesn’t just mean late swinging, it means late recognizing. Bradley was late mentally as well as physically. Everything has to happen a step faster when your body doesn’t show up to the party and against major league pitching you don’t have a split second to lose. You can see how someone might fall apart there. Bradley fell apart.
So then Bradley changed his stance and through a lot of hard work, suddenly became basically Babe Ruth. Or, to put him into a more modern and proper context, Mike Trout. Or maybe more accurately, two Mike Trouts, one standing on top of the other, if standing on top of someone somehow combined your abilities with theirs. Good gosh. Anyway Bradley hit .446/.489/.952 from August 9 through September 7. That’s not an OPS at the end there, by the way. That’s Bradley’s slugging percentage. During that stretch Bradley had 90 plate appearances and he had 24 extra base hits. That’s not total hits, just extra base hits. Bradley was as good as anyone over a stretch of time similarly sized.
Thee neat thing about this is once you see a guy exhibit skills, you know he has those skills in there. Bradley Jr. may not be able to get to them as often as you like, but they are there.
Over the last eight games, however, Bradley has hit .037/.188/.074. As great as slugging .952 is, this is like the opposite. You have to slug .952 to get away with slugging .074. But the odd thing about this is that Bradley has been here before. He’s been here before a lot! Maybe not exactly .037, but how much difference is there between .037 and .113 or whatever? Both will get you sent back down. The surprising thing is that Bradley hit as well as he did for as long as he did. Well, actually, the surprising thing is that Bradley hit as well as he did for a single day, but once he established he could hit at all, the fact that it went on for so long was quite surprising.
But despite that incredible run, Bradley was never a perfect hitter. He’s not Mike Trout, though he was sort of for a bit. He’s not Bryce Harper. He’s less than that, at least at the plate. But he’s so good defensively (I know you’ve read this before) that he doesn’t have to hit like Trout or Harper to be as valuable to the Red Sox as Trout or Harper would be (article idea: the Red Sox should trade for Trout and Harper!). Which should be comforting to the Red Sox and to Red Sox fans who face the reality of Bradley as a regular part of the 2016 Boston outfield.
Bradley’s weak last week is in some ways similar to his strong month prior. He struck out too much, he walked, and he played excellent defense wherever the team saw fit to put him. That’s because both guys were Jackie Bradley, even if the numbers ended up different. There is probably a happy medium here somewhere, something between Bradley’s torrid month and his putrid weak, but the neat thing about this is once you see a guy exhibit skills, you know he has those skills in there. He may not be able to get to them as often as you like, but they are there. Bradley can hit. He can get on base. He has some pop in his bat, maybe more than scouts gave him credit for when he came up and especially more than everyone gave him credit for after he failed against major league pitching time and again. We know he can do these things because he has done them and he has done them against major league pitching.
I wanted to look at Bradley’s stance and see what is different this week rather than last. I wanted to look at how he was pitched, what he did differently between the time he was the hottest hitter on the planet and the time he was the coldest. And I tried. But sometimes we’re just talking about splitting the atom here. The way a guy got pitched over eight games could have very little to do with the guy himself. There are match ups, teams, parks, bullpens, and probably other aspects to consider that play as large a role as the hitter in an eight game sample. So maybe Bradley was seeing more sliders than he had over the last month. It doesn’t appear so, but suppose he did. What would that tell us? Nothing, really. A week ago Bradley was crushing sliders, and now he isn’t. His stance is the same. The same leg lift, arms in the right spot, or as much as I can tell.
Sometimes we do the right thing and get the wrong result. Sometimes you hit a line drive and it’s caught at the wall by the center fielder. Sometimes you completely mess up and hit one off the end of your bat and it falls in for a single, then spins and rolls towards the wall and you find yourself standing on second base. This isn’t about events evening out. This is about the talent being there, but the execution missing for whatever reason. Sometimes you do everything right and you just miss the pitch, I mean juuuuuuust miss it.
Jackie Bradley was never fully the guy he was for his hot month just as he wasn’t fully the guy who couldn’t hit major league pitching before that, just as he isn’t fully the guy who is hitting .037 over the last eight games. He isn’t fully any of those guys because he is all of those guys. What all this shows us is that the talent is in there. We know because we’ve seen it. It’s not Mike Trout talent, but it’s very good. Jackie Bradley can help the Red Sox win baseball games. By now we’ve seen enough to know that.
Photo by Andy Marlin/USA Today Sports Images