Red Sox 50th anniversary throw-down: Jackie Bradley vs Reggie Smith
By Rick McNair
The Boston Red Sox are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Impossible Dream. Now a look at the players of that team with our current team. This edition is Jackie Bradley versus Reggie Smith.
Boston fans know who Jackie Bradley is. Bradley’s ability as an outfielder has been just about unparalleled and then comes an arm that is strong and accurate. Bradley’s ability to close the outfield gaps and come in and go back on the ball is superlative. In my years of watching Red Sox center fielders, I consider Jim Piersall the best, followed by Bradley and Fred Lynn. Bradley would get a slight edge on Lynn based on arm strength and accuracy.
Then comes Reggie Smith. Smith was a gifted outfielder who did win a Gold Glove one season in Boston. Smith could – like Bradley – haul down balls just about anywhere from right center to left center. Smith also had a great arm and first to third on a ball hit to center field was risky. From what I have seen of Bradley and my memories – fading for sure – of Smith I would consider Bradley a “better” outfielder, but it is like comparing a Lear jet to a Gulfstream jet.
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Just who was Reggie Smith? Most Red Sox fans only hear the day or see film clips or read about his rookie season in 1967 when the Red Sox had their Impossible Dream. That year the Red Sox roster was sprinkled with a large dose of youth as the team age was slightly above an average of 25-years-old. Smith – a switch hitter – was just 22-years-old. The oldest starter was Carl Yastrzemski, who was 27-years-old.
Smith was a five-tool player who three times in his seven full seasons in Boston hit over .300. Later traded, Smith had four more .300+ years and finished with a career average of .287 in 1987 games. As a minor league player, Smith won the International League batting title in 1966. What about the rest of the five-tools?
Smith had power from both sides and twice led the American League in doubles while playing with the Red Sox. In 1971 Smith hit 30 home runs for Boston and in 1977 hit 32 home runs for the Dodgers. The last part of the tool box is speed and Smith could run well above average with 84 steals in 137 attempts playing for the Red Sox.
If you idolize WAR then Smith checked in with a 32 fWAR for Boston. From 1967-1973 that is the highest fWAR for any AL center fielder. Smith also exhibited excellent plate discipline and during his Boston years had an 11.6 K% and 10.0 BB%. Smith’s .191 ISO was second best in the AL among center fielders from 1967-1973. Slugging at .473 was also second best and wRC+ was third at 130.
According to defensive metrics from 1967-1973 Smith was ranked second behind Paul Blair and if anyone saw Blair play, you may have seen one of the top five all-time in center field. Put all this together and five-tool is a done deal.
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I would concede Bradley is a slightly superior defensive player, but where the separation happens is with the offense. Bradley simply is not close to the Boston accomplishment of Smith. Bradley’s highest Boston average was .267 in 2016 when he made the All-Star team. Bradley is noted for incredible hot streaks followed by prolonged slumps that seem to continue for months and not weeks.
The power department is also apparent in any comparison, but not a dramatic difference. In 2016, Bradley had 30 doubles and 26 home runs and he may match those figures in 2017. But Bradley’s career .178 ISO is lower and his 24.9 K% is significantly higher. Bradley does have an edge with a .310 BABIP to Smith’s .290.
Where comparison deteriorates is in batting average. Smith hit .282 for Boston and Bradley sits at .240. Bradley may or may not reach a level where the K’s are minimized and the average climbs. In 2016, Bradley was a .296 hitter the first half and faded. The two “C” words – Consistency and Connection – will raise his average, but at 27-years-old what you see may be what you get.
"“He said some people in the bleachers would throw batteries, heated coins, and other projectiles at him. He also told me about a night when some hooligans drove up to his house and emptied the garbage cans he’d placed by the driveway all over his front lawn. That’s when I began to understand that Boston was a different town for him than it was for me.” – SABR Bio"
The battle of center fielders is a simple one with an easy “win” for Smith thanks to his hitting ability. The defense – at least with dated metrics – may place Smith behind Blair and Bradley far lower among his peers. From my observational standpoint that opens up metrics to some questioning.
Why did Reggie get traded?
There is little doubt that – at least from my view – that Smith was traded based on being an African-American. Boston still had a heavy dose of the racial divide in the city. Maybe not the clubhouse but in management. The Tom Yawkey years are well documented in that regard, so I will just leave it at that.
Smith later went on to play in Japan and then returned to the United States where he held several positions in the Dodgers organization. Smith also was batting coach for the 2000 Olympic Team and for the American entry in the World Baseball Classic in 2006.
1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox by Bill Nowlin. SABR.