You can’t predict baseball, goes the oldish saying. Though if you could, it wouldn’t be much fun. Following the baseball season would be less like following the baseball season and more like going to the grocery store. Fortunately, following baseball is less like going to the grocery store and more unpredictable. An easy example of this, and a fortunate one considering the title of this article, is Jackie Bradley, Jr.
If you were to graph Bradley’s production going back to college and through the minors to his time with the Red Sox, and then turn that graph into a roller coaster, then you were to ride that coaster, you would puke. Just when you think Bradley is good, he’s bad. Then when you think he’s bad, he’s good. Up, down. Down, up, down. Then [barfs].
This is what makes Bradley so interesting. He’s clearly talented, he’s young, he’s got a draft pedigree as a first-round pick, and he’s preternaturally talented in the field. But good gosh the man can’t hit. Except when he does, and when he does, good gosh the man can really hit! And this season has been one long Jackie Bradley hitting clinic. Bradley’s slash line of .338/.390/.607 a bizarrely similar line to David Ortiz’s line of .312/.391/.652. By WARP, Bradley has been 0.3 better than Ortiz, though that can mostly be explained by the fact that Ortiz doesn’t play the field and WARP docks him for that. Still, the idea that there would be less than a thumb’s difference between Bradley and Ortiz offensively speaking a month and a half into the season was ludicrous a month and a half ago. Now it’s fact.
Last August I wrote about Bradley at FanGraphs and how he’d altered his stance and swing mechanics. Those changes, I think, went a long way towards making him a viable hitter. When I wrote that piece, Bradley as in the midst of an August that saw him hit .354/.429/.734. He kept those same swing mechanics into and through September, however, and hit .216/.308 /.431. Those aren’t horrendous numbers from an excellent defensive center fielder, but they’re nowhere near what he’s doing now or what he produced the August immediately prior. The mechanics weren’t the whole picture, in other words. There was or at least is now, something else.
Watching Bradley it seems he’s using the whole field more frequently than he used to, but the numbers don’t back that up. In fact, they say he is pulling almost the same percentage (45) of his balls in play as last season, and going the other way with less frequency. The only change is he’s sending a few more balls up the middle, but the whole package is very similar to last season’s. Further, he’s not swinging at more pitches, nor chasing outside the zone more than before.
He is hitting the ball harder than before. In fact, if you sort the data by hard hit percentage, Bradley is 17th in baseball. That’s 17 out of every qualified batter. He’s hitting the ball about as frequently and to about the same places as he did last season, but he’s doing it much harder. He’s barreling the ball up and the quicker the ball gets to it’s landing spot, the less likely it’ll be caught by an opposing fielder. That means more hits and things like hitting streaks and silly high slash lines.
Bradley’s contact rate is up on pitches in the strike zone and on pitches outside the zone.
One thing that does stand out is Bradley’s approach. He was always a patient hitter coming up through the minor leagues, as evidenced by his high walk rate. Even last season when the hits weren’t coming he was still walking more than 10 percent of the time. This season his walk percentage has fallen to 6.9 percent. His strikeout rate is down too, from 27.1 percent to 20.8 percent. Since we’ve established he’s not swinging much more, it seems he’s just making contact more frequently when he does swing, and that’s true. His contact rate is up on pitches in the strike zone and on pitches outside the zone. He’s swinging marginally more frequently but doing much more damage on those pitches.
Part of it is likely familiarity with his new swing mechanics. Part of it might just be an adjustment to major league pitching. Part of it is a newfound aversion to passivity. The old Bradley would’ve waited for the perfect pitch, perhaps even the second one, before he swung the bat. This Bradley will go get a pitch if he thinks he can hit it, regardless of the count. As an example, last season in 0-1 counts Bradley hit .263/.263/.368. This season he’s hitting .353/.353/.882. He’s much more willing to go after pitches earlier in the count and when he goes after them he’s much less likely to miss.
This is especially true for off-speed pitches, which gave Bradley fits last season. Last season when he swung at a change-up, he missed 45 percent of the time. This season that percentage is down to 21. Same is true of the curve, a pitch he missed 39 percent of the time he swung at it last season. This season he’s missed 25 percent. He’s still got some swing-and-miss in his offensive profile and perhaps that will never go away. But for now he’s making such strong contact that it’s easy to forget any minor shortcomings such as that.
Just like his hot streak last season, good fortune has helped Bradley some. He’s got an unsustainably high rate of fly balls going for home runs, and he’s got a very high BABIP for someone who doesn’t possess elite speed. That said, if he continues to hit the ball with such authority, it’s conceivable he could continue to defy these rules for some time.
Unlike last season when it seemed Bradley was in over his head, just riding a hot streak like a surfer riding a wave, cognizant it was going to crash sometime in the near future, this Jackie Bradley doesn’t have that feeling. No, he’s not this good, or at least I don’t think so, but the guy isn’t doing anything wholly unsustainable. He’s not a BABIP readjustment away from the bench or getting sent back to the minor leagues. He’s a real major league hitter and the possibility that he’s a good one gets less remote each day. Before this season most were just hoping for competence at the plate from Bradley, just enough so the team could justify his continued presence in center field. It seems we’re well past that now. Bradley has been so good that it’s fair to wonder just how good he can remain. The rest of the season will help further the tale, but at least the Red Sox, seemingly at long last, have their starting center fielder of the future here in the present no matter how this story ends.
Photo by Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports Images