Red Sox: Is Jackie Bradley Jr. still a major league-caliber hitter?

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

Bradley has looked lost at the plate in 2018. Are his struggles destined to continue or should we expect the 28-year-old to bust out of this slump?

If Stephen Hawking were alive today he might be taking notes on Jackie Bradley Jr. “Why?” you might ask. Because the 28-year-old center fielder has been a black hole at the plate for the Boston Red Sox all year.

This is not the first time the Red Sox have had to question whether Bradley is a big league quality hitter. In 2013 and 2014, Bradley came to the plate 530 times and hit .196/.268/.280 with four homers and a 50 wRC+. He also struck out 28.7% of the time while walking just 7.7% of the time.

It wasn’t until August 2015 that Bradley started to look like he could handle major league pitching when he began a hot streak that resulted in a 138 wRC+ in the second half of the season.

Streakiness soon became a hallmark of Bradley as a hitter. In all of 2015, 2016, and 2017, Bradley has had at least one month with a wRC+ at least 29% below league average and one month with a wRC+ more than 67% above league average. We sat back through the cold spells knowing at some point JBJ would rattle off a sizzling hot streak.

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Last year he was cold more often than he was hot and this resulted in a slightly below league average performance at the plate. However, considering that Bradley is one of the best center fielders around, he was still a very serviceable regular posting 2.2 fWAR in 133 games. But this season we find ourselves in mid-June still waiting on that hot streak.

Through 63 games this season, JBJ has slashed a horrific .182/.276/.286; good for a wRC+ of 55. His strikeout rate has jumped from 22.7% through 2016 and 2017 to 27.2% this season. Even his power has completely dissipated with an ISO that currently sits at .103; well below his career mark of .162. As good as the Red Sox offense has been they have had a pretty weak bottom third of the lineup and could use an at least mildly productive Bradley. So the question is “will he catch fire or are we approaching the end of the line with Bradley?”

So there’s some good news and there’s some bad news. Let’s rip the band-aid off and start with the bad news so maybe we can end on a more positive note. Maybe.

Bad News

Let’s start with Bradley’s plate discipline. On the surface, things seem to be in normal order. He has swung at 27.8% of pitches outside the zone which is actually down from 30.0% a year ago. He’s swung at more pitches in the zone, but his contact rate has held steady around his career rate.

But this isn’t the whole story. Bradley has swung at a similar spread of pitches, but the results have not followed. Take a look at where Bradley swung in the last two seasons and what the results have been.

Bradley has done a fairly good job this year laying off pitches away and that has deflated his swing rate outside the zone. But on pitches off the plate low or inside, Bradley has swung around 40-50 percent of the time both years. In 2017, Bradley punished pitches in and wasn’t completely lost below the dish. This made his approach sustainable. This year, however, he has been abysmal on these offerings. It’s hard to be a successful big league hitter when you consistently swing at pitches that aren’t strikes and that you can’t hit. In fact, he’s looked bad on the entire inner half; the place he normally does most of his damage. But the bad news doesn’t end there.

Bradley has also been trending in the wrong direction as the seasons gone on. In April, Bradley only mustered a .600 OPS but his K% was just 19% and he walked 9% of the time. In May, his walk rate held steady, but his K% soared to 35.9%.  And in June his strikeout rate has fallen to a still very high 29.6% and his walk rate has plummeted to just 5.6%. His plate discipline seems to be eroding and he’s shown no signs of life as the season has dragged on.

With that depressing picture firmly burned into our minds let’s move on to the good news.

Good News

The good news is pretty simple. The quality of contact JBJ has made this season has not dropped off at all. In fact, Bradley has a line drive percentage over 20% for the first time in his career, his average exit velocity jumped from 88.1 mph in 2017 to 91.5 mph this year, he has barreled the ball up at a higher rate and hit the ball farther on average than last season. Despite this, his BABIP has fallen to .245, well below his .292 career mark.

So basically the good news is that Bradley seems to have been exceptionally unlucky thus far. Per Statcast, based on the quality of his contact alone we would expect Bradley to have a .239 batting average, a .323 wOBA and a .409 slugging percentage. Combined with his stellar defense, those numbers would make Bradley a first division starting player again.

It’s rare for a player’s wOBA to be 67 points below their expected wOBA. In fact, that gap is the 15th largest negative differential in baseball this season. We should expect this number to regress towards the mean and hopefully soon.

The Bottom Line

Jackie Bradley Jr. has not been a good player this season. To date, he has accumulated just .1 fWAR and holds the 5th worst wRC+ among qualifying hitters. He has seemingly had problems with pitch selection and his discipline has gotten worse as the season has progressed.

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But it seems like JBJ has been squaring up the ball as good as he ever has. Who’s to say why more of his hits are finding gloves, but it doesn’t seem to be an eroding in contact quality. This leads me to believe that eventually Bradley will catch fire, or at the very least not post an OPS under .600. We just need to be patient.