Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr. shows encouraging signs hitting to opposite field
By Sean Penney
Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. hitting to the opposite field.
Jackie Bradley Jr. came out strong with a three-hit day as part of a 13-run explosion by the Boston Red Sox on Opening Day. The hit total isn’t quite as interesting as the way Bradley Jr. compiled those hits.
Bradley Jr. laced a double down the left field line to lead off the third inning, drove in a pair with a wall ball double in the sixth and capped the performance by dropping a single into shallow center field. Three hits, none of which were pulled to right field by the left-handed hitter.
It’s only one game but the results are notable considering how rarely Bradley Jr. has used the opposite field to his advantage. According to FanGraphs, Bradley Jr.’s 23.3 Oppo% was the 28th-lowest among qualified American League hitters last year. His career rate of 22.8% is even lower.
JBJ has a tendency to pull the ball, which he did at a 42.2% rate last season. That was the 32nd-highest percentage in the league, topped only by Mookie Betts (43.6%) and Xander Bogaerts (42.6%) among Red Sox hitters last year.
Wait, Mookie and Xander were arguably the best hitters on the team. Wouldn’t that suggest that pulling the ball can be a good thing? That’s true to some extent, although the difference is that Betts and Bogaerts are both right-handed. Pulling the ball meant taking aim at the towering green wall at Fenway park. Most of their home runs went into the Monster seats and putting dents in that wall is why they were among the league-leaders in doubles.
For a left-handed hitter, pulling the ball takes the benefits of the Green Monster out of play. Lefties might occasionally get a cheap home run by firing a shot down the line near the Peskey Pole but the wall in right field quickly moves further from home plate once you get out of that corner. Hitters need to put some serious muscle behind their swing to reach the bullpen in right-center field. Coming up short often results in a routine fly out.
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The habit of pulling the ball also plays into the hands of defenses deploying a shift. Some of the game’s premier left-handed sluggers might refuse to alter their approach to counter the shift if it comes at the expense of their power. We saw this routinely with David Ortiz for years. Bradley Jr. has modest power but he’s no Big Papi. If JBJ isn’t crushing homers on a regular basis then he shouldn’t be trying to hit through the shift. This is part of why he owns a below-average .296 BABIP for his career.
Using the opposite field more would make Bradley Jr. less predictable, partially negating the benefits of the shift for opposing teams. If he proves he can beat the shift by going the other way for easy base hits, teams might be forced to adjust with a more traditional defensive alignment.
While this approach would improve Bradley’s production at Fenway, it’s not necessarily advisable for every environment. Bradley Jr. might be better off pulling the ball at Yankee Stadium where routine fly balls to right field tend to clear the fence fairly easily, whereas it’s much more difficult to hit the ball out of the park in left field in the Bronx. He might be less inclined to hit the other way against a team like the Los Angeles Angels that rarely deploys the shift.
Bradley Jr. isn’t going to completely abandon his pull-happy approach but his Opening Day success proved what he can do when using the opposite field. By using the approach to target the left field wall at Fenway and countering defenses that lean heavily on the shift, Bradley Jr. could be in store for a career year as his first venture into free agency approaches.