Big news out of Cincinnati yesterday: Jackie Bradley Jr. got a hit! Defensive highlight reel though he is, JBJ cannot be an everyday center fielder if his offensive highlight involves snapping a 0 for 35 streak.
At the start of the 2013 season, it was a foregone conclusion that Jackie Bradley was the future of the Red Sox outfield. Originally slated to start the season in Pawtucket, JBJ hit the cover off the ball during spring training, leading all regulars with a .419 average and 12 RBIs, in addition to two homers. As a result, he got the call to start in left field for the Red Sox on Opening Day 2013. In his subsequent 480 at-bats in the past two seasons, Bradley has failed to average even half of .419 (.206). In 107 games in 2014, he is one home run shy of his 2013 spring training home run total of two. Once the heir apparent to Jacoby Ellsbury and Johnny Damon, JBJ is in danger of becoming a footnote even to Coco Crisp.
The old saying, “defense wins championships,” applies more directly to football, but you can’t win in baseball without reliable fielding, especially up the middle. The 2004 Red Sox figured this out and wisely traded for shortstop and defensive wizard Orlando Cabrera. Jackie Bradley covers another essential position in the middle of the field better than anyone in baseball. He is one of two center fielders in the majors with a perfect fielding percentage. He has 13 assists, 6 more than the next closest center fielder, and he has turned eight double plays—no other CF has turned more than three. He’s second amongst center fielders in defensive WAR, and fourth in all of baseball.
Nevertheless, JBJ needs to show more at the plate to survive in this Red Sox lineup amongst a glut of potential starting outfielders: Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, Brock Holt, Shane Victorino, and Mookie Betts. The first three in that list are corner outfielders, and super utility man Brock Holt will probably end up at third (unless there is an unlikely renaissance of Will Middlebrooks). But a healthy Victorino (if he ever gets healthy) could easily cover center field while hitting about 80 points closer to .300. And Mookie Betts is getting bored tearing up minor league pitching, waiting to play everyday in Boston, and he has played 29 errorless games in CF for Pawtucket. He won’t make SportsCenter’s Top 10 as often with diving catches, but he could be a decent fielder, and he will create significantly more runs with his bat and speed.
John Farrell insists that the Red Sox have not considered demotion for JBJ this season. That’s the right move; given the 0.1% chance that the Sox make the playoffs, they can afford to give Bradley a little more time to prove himself. But JBJ cannot afford another 0 for 35 streak. He needs to find a way to recreate the stretch from parts of June and July in which he hit over .300, including .375 in 14 games on either side of the all-star break. He needs to find the confidence and swagger at the plate that he displays with every amazing web gem in the field. And he needs to find it in the last six weeks of this season, because on April 1, 2015, the trial period is over, and the Red Sox will once again be chasing World Series title #9. Show me at least .250, JBJ, or take your magic glove and arm back to Pawtucket next year. Defense helps, but doesn’t win championships alone.