During spring training, Jackie Bradley Jr. emerged as a popular sleeper/bounceback candidate as the fantasy baseball industry geared up for draft season. We were on board here at Pitcher List, and other outlets also predicted the Boston Red Sox center fielder would fully tap into his offensive power-speed potential in 2019. The reasoning may be familiar to you: His outstanding defense (and lack of depth options behind him) in center would keep him out on the field. Accounting for his primary No. 8 batting spot, many still thought Bradley would have plenty of prime RBI, runs and stolen base opportunities in a deep, mostly intact batting order.
In addition, as our own Ben Palmer chronicled on March 1, Bradley underwent a swing revamp, carrying over a 2018 project with hitting guru Craig Wallenbrock (more on that here). Even last fall, there were reasons for optimism as Bradley was the ALCS MVP.
With the March/April schedule now over, Bradley and the Red Sox were in Chicago on Thursday, and a cold, rainy day matched the start of both the team and the player. Entering a weekend road series vs. the Chicago White Sox, Bradley’s “back of the baseball card” stat line looked like this: .156 batting average, zero home runs, five RBI and three stolen bases. His WAR was -1.1, and Bradley was slugging just .189. Is there still time for a turnaround 31 games into Boston’s schedule?
By the Book
In Palmer’s preseason profile, he wrote: “So what did Wallenbrock tell Bradley to start doing this past season? Get the ball off the ground and in the air—and hit it hard.”
But that hasn’t happened in 2019. In fact, Bradley has moved firmly in the other direction with a ground-ball rate that has spiked to 60.3%. That rate is up substantially from last year’s 43.1% and near his career worst rate set in his rookie season of 2013 (62.5%).
Bradley’s launch angle-charts for last year and this year are listed below. As Palmer wrote, JBJ hit .269 in the second half of last year as he started to work with Wallenbrock.
2018 (12-Degree Avg. Launch Angle)
In 2019, the high ground-ball rate plays out in the image below, with batted balls diving downward into negative territory and just a small sample of hits on elevated balls.
2019 (8-Degree Avg. Launch Angle)
The search for more details led to Bradley’s Baseball Savant page.
Nothing there said “fluke.” There aren’t any underlying hard-luck factors in his .156 batting average, and Bradley’s expected batting average (xBA) is just .207. As we’ve seen, he is not hitting the ball with authority, and Bradley is also striking out frequently.
Related to the ground ball rate, Bradley has barreled just one ball all year in 419 pitches seen, explaining the absence of home runs (2018: Career Best 10.3% Barrel Rate). His strikeout rate sits at a career high of 29.1%. Put another way, a startling one-third of his at-bats have resulted in a strikeout—30 whiffs in 90 at-bats. Brooks Baseball tells us Bradley simply isn’t giving himself a chance to use his speed on the bases by missing more than half of the breaking balls thrown to him and also coming up empty on a steady diet of fastballs.
While Bradley’s overall hard-hit rate has inched above average (41.9), the high frequency of ground balls has erased that advantage. The accompanying chart, courtesy of Baseball Savant, illustrates his xBA. It also gives you a look at an expected slugging percentage (xSLG) of .293 that sits squarely at the poor end of the sliding line (MLB Average xSLG: .415).
Bright Lights, Big City
The Red Sox, in a normal year, are under an intense glare, both in the Boston media market and in the national media. But the team’s slow start, 14-17 entering Thursday, and the high expectations placed on a defending world champion that returned most of its key players, multiplies the pressure and makes it more difficult to stay with a struggling player. However, Boston manager Alex Cora indicated earlier this week that that’s what he plans to do. Cora’s assessment of Bradley is no doubt influenced by moments like this.
JBJ’s highlight-reel defense makes him an interesting player, regardless of whether he is hitting, and, as noted above, keeps him in the lineup. But his glove helps very few fantasy teams, and many have moved on from the hopes pinned to Bradley in spring training. His Yahoo fantasy ownership stands at 24%, and 30% at CBS (starting in just 14% of CBS leagues). Bradley carries a 50% ownership rate in Fantrax leagues, but his starting percentage sits at just 30% (all ownership percentages as of May 2).
Palmer wrote, “we’ll likely know pretty quickly if these changes are working for him.” In the first few days of May, that answer falls in the “No” column. The attempted changes have not taken hold. And as Bradley plays his age-29 season with a lifetime batting average of .235 in his seventh year, it seems as if he what he is. That big season in 2016 seems to be fading further into the past, with little sign of a return to the 26-homer, 87-RBI level posted that year.
Perhaps these metrics will reverse and the offseason work with Wallenbrock will start to bear fruit in the next few weeks. If not, it is fair to wonder how patient the Red Sox can be with Bradley as they try to gain ground on the New York Yankees and the AL East-leading Tampa Bay Rays. While his defense will continue to keep him on the field, Boston could be forced to shift Mookie Betts over to center more often, which would probably require J.D. Martinez to play in right field.
Fantasy owners could still hope to turn to the waiver wire for some stolen-base help from Bradley. He is off to a 3-for-3 start there this season, which is in line with last year’s pace. Bradley’s 17-for-18 performance on the basepaths in 2018 turned heads and helped mitigate the effect of a .234 batting average.
(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)