Red Sox Mirror Image: Center fielder Jackie Bradley to Jimmy Piersall
By Rick McNair
A second installment mirroring Boston Red Sox players of the present with one from my memories of the past. This is the center fielders – Jackie Bradley and Jimmy Piersall.
The Boston Red Sox have had their more than fair share of defensive excellence in center field. In some instances, the player was an amazing five-tool addition such as Fred Lynn or a home run machine like Tony Armas, but the occasional one would surface that simply had an exceptional defensive ability. That is Jackie Bradley Jr.
Bradley will not be remembered for his bat unless it was the performance in the ALCS since his career average is just .238. And he did hit just .200 in that ALCS with nine precious RBI! Bradley is known for hot and cold streaks with the bat, but the one consistency is his glove work.
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Bradley has finally won a Gold Glove and that can be added to his highlight reel of great catches and spectacular throws. Bradley is the best defensive center fielder I have seen in Boston with just one exception – Jim Piersall.
Bradley and Piersall are very similar with Piersall being a bit more impressive with the bat. Piersall in his eight Boston seasons had 338 walks to just 317 strikeouts – a very disciplined hitter versus the more free-swinging style of JBJ. Then comes the trademark for both – defense and not any defense, but the kind that builds legends.
I will not cover the emotional trauma that by today’s standards would be described as bipolar. Piersall’s breakdown is covered extensively in the book and movie “Fear Strikes Out.” The Piersall I remember started in 1955 when he was moved to center field and became the best defensive outfielder I have ever seen – an assessment shared by many.
"“When one of our men hits the ball to center field, Piersall is off before you can turn your head to look at him. I’ve never seen anybody as quick as he is.” – Casey Stengel (Mike Armour SABR)"
Piersall always had an “edge” to him and could be both amusing and infuriating with his behaviors. The fun one I remember reading about was Piersall running the bases backward after hitting his 100th career home run. Piersall the bizarre or the comic depending upon point of view.
In 1956, Piersall had his best career year becoming an All-Star and hitting .293 while leading the American League in doubles (40). Piersall also hit 14 home runs and had a career-high 87 RBI. For his Boston career, Piersall hit .273 and that was one point above his MLB career average. Piersall was an underrated hitter and an excellent bunter who once led the AL in sacrifice bunts and once in sacrifice flies.
After a horrendous 1958 season in which Piersall hit just .237, he was traded to the Indians for Gary Geiger – a light hitting, but good defensive center fielder – and hard-hitting Vic Wertz. With the Indians, Piersall had one season (.322) where he shined, but the reality was Piersall’s best days remained in Boston.
Bradley is a spectacular center fielder with a strong arm and an unerring sense of positioning himself and covering the outfield gaps. Bradley finally won a long-anticipated Gold Glove and should match Piersall’s two next season, but Piersall was simply a notch above Bradley defensively.
In 1956, Piersall had a TZ (Total Zone) of 31 – the next closest was Jim Busby with a TZ 9. In the pre-advanced fielding metrics days, you would find Piersall among the leaders or on top. I would love to see how his Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) totals would be with today’s metrics?
The post-career of Piersall – who died in 2017 at age 87 – could best be described as “checkered” with run-ins with players and management either in a baseball or broadcast capacity – nothing new for the volatile Piersall.