Red Sox: Time is ticking for Jackie Bradley Jr.

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 09: Jackie Bradley Jr.
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 09: Jackie Bradley Jr. /

The center fielder must get going at the plate or he risks losing at-bats.

Jackie Bradley Jr. is arguably the best defensive center fielder in baseball.

But his struggles at the plate are becoming a concern. So much so, that his time as an every day starter is running on borrowed time.

Bradley, 28, is batting .188 with two home runs and nine RBI on the season. This comes after last season’s subpar year of hitting .245 with 17 HR and 63 RBI. Bradley’s power is fine, 15-plus HR for a CF is plenty. But at some point, the lack of hitting is going to haunt the Red Sox lineup.

To complicate matters, JBJ is below the strikeout rate for MLB hitters. According to FanGraphs, Bradley is striking out a tick over 20 percent of the time, where the average is about 23 percent. While striking out has been problematic for Bradley, it clearly isn’t problematic enough to hinder his success at the plate.

However, Bradley does struggle to get on base. His slugging percentage is at .292 while the average is at .400, and his on-base percentage is .275 while the average is about .320. Combine those stats, and you get ab OPS of .567 while the average is well over .700.

Bradley’s issue stems from a lack of making good contact. Any player can put the bat on the ball, close their eyes and hope it lands somewhere that’s outside the reach of a defender. However, driving the ball with emphasis on the sweet spot of the bat, using launch angle, quick hands and hips all plays an important part. Without diving into a full scouting report, Bradley’s mechanics are pretty simplistic. But his major flaws are holding him back.

One issue with Bradley is his inability to use all sides of the field. His pull rate is at 50 percent while the average is at 40. JBJ has always struggled to use both sides of the field — especially against lefties — but he must rekindle the magic he had in 2016, when he was rocketing opposite field doubles and home runs.

But what does Bradley struggle with the most? Lefty-on-lefty matchups. JBJ is hitting .100 against left-handed pitchers this year. Against righties, he’s only hitting the ball on the ground about 47 percent of the time. That’s not terrible if you can poke the ball past infielders, although Bradley hasn’t had much success doing so this season. Yet, against lefties he’s smashing the ball into the dirt about 75 percent of the time. A ground ball rate that high would handicap Tony Gwynn let alone JBJ.

As the analytics against lefties carry on, the numbers get worse for Bradley. His line drive rate is at five percent, while his fly ball rate is a smidge above 20 percent. In fact, whether it’s righties or lefties, JBJ his hitting the ball in the air below 30 percent of the time, which is his worst percentage since 2013.

Is JBJ simply not hitting the ball hard enough? Signs point to no. Bradley is only hitting the ball softly 10 percent of the time. What FanGraphs considers softly hit balls may differentiate from what the average fan considers, but that’s a never ending debate. Oddly enough, JBJ isn’t hitting the ball as hard this season (31 percent) as last season (33 percent), but he’s making medium contact this season (58 percent) which is the most since 2013.

Medium contact is usually good enough contact that leads to hits. He’s unlikely to go 4-4 in any game, but even 2-4 shouldn’t be out of the question as the season grows older. His medium contact rate shows he’s capable of getting the bat on the ball, but it seems like he’s stuck in between the notions of “Should I launch this into the bleachers” or “Should I just focus on making good contact.” This problem has also plagued Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts in their young careers.

However, Betts is an early MVP candidate and Bogaerts isn’t too far behind him. Bradley has only produced a batting average of .250 or better once in his career — his magical 2016 run. Where the young Betts and Bogey have both seemingly turned the corner in their development — for now — the 28-year-old Bradley hasn’t.

Additionally, not to pour gasoline on a fire, but JBJ’s defense isn’t enough to justify his spot in the lineup every day. JBJ’s WAR is at -0.2 thus far, and his defensive runs saved in center field is at -2.

Surely those numbers will increase as the season progresses, but the argument against trading JBJ for Jose Abreu is asinine. Of course, neither team is in a position to do that now since the Red Sox already have to jockey around J.D. Martinez, Hanley Ramirez and Mitch Moreland, but if the Red Sox are ever able to receive value like that for JBJ, they must pull the trigger.

JBJ’s elite defense would be missed, but it would be easy to forget once his replacement is producing in the lineup. After all, defense can only get a team so far in today’s MLB. A player’s catastrophic error that allows runs could cost a team a game — especially when said player is struggling to hit.

If JBJ is capable of producing a .260 batting average with 15-plus HR, then his job in center field will be permanent. Everyone has bad months, and Bradley has proven to be a very streaky hitter.

Next: Red Sox: Can Mitch Moreland maintain his red hot start?

But with Boston’s recent offensive struggles, and the New York Yankees’ star-studded lineup producing at a high level, at-bats are becoming slim for JBJ. His time in Boston may be ticking as the AL East battle wages on.