Red Sox CF Jackie Bradley says 2018 was his worst defensive season

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 03: Jackie Bradley Jr. #19 of the Boston Red Sox makes a diving catch during the second inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on April 3, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - APRIL 03: Jackie Bradley Jr. #19 of the Boston Red Sox makes a diving catch during the second inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on April 3, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. won a Gold Glove Award in 2018 yet he believes it was the worst defensive performance of his career.

Jackie Bradley Jr. is clearly a perfectionist. Even when those around him want to praise him for being the best, the Boston Red Sox center fielder isn’t satisfied. He wants to be better.

Red Sox fans have been enamored with the defensive prowess of Bradley since he debuted in the majors in 2013. His uncanny instincts allow him to get a jump on routes so that he can glide under fly balls seemingly effortlessly. His fearlessness enables him to make breathtaking diving catches on balls that would be well out of reach for most mere mortals. Bradley also possesses a cannon of an arm that must be respected by opposing base runners.

Bradley’s defensive skills were finally recognized with his first Gold Glove award in 2018. As honored as he is to receive this prestigious award, Bradley told reporters in Fort Myers on Tuesday that he feels last season was the worst year of his career in the field.

How can a player recognized as the best defensive center fielder in the American League believe that his performance wasn’t exceptional? In a season in which he made amazing catches like this one!

Well, we should note that Bradley isn’t saying he was a poor defensive outfielder last season, but rather his performance wasn’t up to his usual standards. Does he have a point? Analyzing his defensive metrics suggests he may be right.

Bradley committed a career-high six errors last season while producing a career-low .982 fielding percentage. That still puts him among the elite – only four AL center fielders boasted a higher fielding percentage (minimum 81 games played at the position). Yet it’s still the worst season Bradley has ever had by those metrics. If we’re basing his evaluation on avoiding errors, he’s right about this being his worst season.

As we’ve come to learn in recent years, there’s a lot more that goes into evaluating defense beyond fielding percentage.

Defensive Runs Saved rated Bradley as league average. His 0 DRS marked the first time since his abbreviated debut season that he failed to produce a positive number in this category. Bradley was actually below-average with -2 DRS in 135 games in center field but salvaged his overall total with a fluky 2 DRS in a small sample of 15 games in right field. Once again, Bradley was at his worst according to this metric.

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Ultimate Zone Rating tells a different story. Bradley’s 8.8 UZR ranked fifth among AL outfielders. It’s well below his peak of 11.7 UZR in 2014 but still stands as the second-highest UZR Bradley has produced in his career. Even if we only count how he rated in center field, he’s still the best in the league at his position at 7.4 UZR. It was his third best season as a center fielder, behind only 2014 and 2016 (8.2 UZR). It may not have been his best season but it clearly wasn’t his worst in terms of UZR and he remained among the league’s elite.

Inside Edge Fielding data provided by FanGraphs shows Bradley’s flair for the dramatic. This metric measures the percentage of plays a defender makes within a range of expectations. A Remote rating is a play that only between 1-10% of players would make. Bradley led all major league outfielders by making 37.5% of plays considered to be in the Remote range. While he fell out of the elite tier in making Unlikely (28.6%), Even (75%), and Likely (91.7%) plays, Bradley proved to be the best there is at making spectacular plays while converting all of his Routine chances.

Bradley had a down season according to some of these metrics but other stats view him more favorably. He’s an elite defender by almost any measure and these numbers can’t always fully capture what he brings to the field.

The voters for the Gold Glove award may have favored some of these metrics over others – if they paid much attention to them at all. Perhaps they felt JBJ was overdue for an award he should be considered for every year. It certainly helped that the last two AL winners at his position – Byron Buxton and Kevin Kiermaier – missed the majority of the season. With fewer elite center fielders to compete with, Bradley could see a slight decline and still be the best.

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Bradley was more than deserving of the award. His own skepticism of his performance speaks to the high standards he holds himself to. That Bradley is using this as motivation to be even better next season can only mean good things for the Red Sox.