Jackie Bradley Jr. is a better hitter than you think and should not be traded
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Oct. 7, 2017 – Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America)
I have been bombarded with Tweets and articles calling for Jackie Bradley Jr. to be booted off the Boston Red Sox. After all, through his first 46 plate appearances in 2018, he has yet to hit a homerun and currently runs a 67 wRC+ (league-average is 100). Further, he possesses a 0.0 fWAR, adding no discerning value to the 2018 squad thus far.
Considering his relative struggles at the plate last year (90 wRC+ and .726 OPS), his early struggles are being intensified. While seemingly every other Red Sox batter is hitting the cover off the baseball, JBJ remains a non-factor with the stick.
Will this stretch of offensive ineptitude continue? Are the reactions to Bradley Jr.’s scuffles at the plate justified?
To come right out with it: no, the reactions are not rational. Human beings have a tendency to overreact to these things. He literally has been to plate 46 times, which is not remotely close to being enough for important offensive statistics to stabilize.
Before I reveal the stabilization points for key offensive statistics, let’s talk about what it means for stats to “stabilize” briefly. Essentially, you need to get to a certain number of plate appearances before a stat becomes useful, reliable and relatively predictive.
No one is going to chastise Mookie Betts for three-game stretch where he goes 1-12 with three strikeouts. In fact, we should expect at some point that this will happen to Mookie. It’s a 162 game season, with lots of random variance. The more plate appearances you get, the more substance your statistics have. Here’s a hopefully not too complicated blurb from Fangraphs on the subject of sample size stabilization.
The word stabilize got into the baseball lexicon after some work by Russell Carleton (aka Pizza Cutter), who looked to see how many PA you need for a given statistic to reach the point where the correlation between that sample and another sample of the same size is 0.7 (i.e. R^2 of .49). Thatâs the colloquial definition of stabilize and despite Carleton’s constant warnings, most of us picked up the word “stabilize” and ran with it even if it’s not the most useful term.
To sum it up, statistics start to become meaningful where statistical correlations can be found between samples. Randomness can make the best hitters in the world look bad and the worst hitters in the world look good. Sandy Leon literally put up a 125 wRC+ in 283 plate appearances in 2016. I’m sorry to burst your bubble but Leon, while being semi-lovable, is a horrible major league hitter. I hope you knew that. Anyway, his 67 wRC+ in 2017 is a much better indicator of the type of hitter he is (career 75 wRC+).
From the other side of the coin, David Ortiz once batted .222 with an 85 wRC+ in the entire first half of the 2009 season (341 plate appearance). One of the best hitters of all-time struggled over the course of an entire half. It happens. Players have bad days, weeks, months and even years, but it does necessarily mean they will be bad going forward.
Leon had favorable offensive results for 283 trips to the plate and Ortiz had subpar results for 341 trips. JBJ literally has been to plate 46 times this year.
Oh, I suppose you can combine his results from last season and this one to try and make an argument against Bradley. If you do that, I will gleefully point out that Bradley Jr. ranks 47th out of 107 outfielders (minimum 350 plate appearances) in fWAR over the past two years. Meanwhile, Andrew Benintendi is barely ahead of him, placing 45th on the list with his 2.3 fWAR, which isn’t much better than JBJ’s 2.2 fWAR. Just going to leave that there.
Anyway, when do offensive statistics stabilize? Well, it varies but here are some offensive stats that you may be familiar with, via Fangraphs Library.
910 AB: AVG
460 PA: OBP
320 AB: SLG
160 AB: ISO
Truthfully, any offensive stat you look at to attempt to form a meaningful opinion about Bradley Jr. is not reliable. These stats take a while to become telling of a player’s offensive abilities. Sure, we can make general guesses but you have to dig deeper than that. For example, K% stabilizes much quicker than a lot of offensive stats (60 plate appearances) and the center fielder has cut his percentage from 22.9% in 2017 to 15.2% in 2018. That is probably not just noise and is a favorable sign for him.
Bradley Jr. has hit better than Edwin Encarnacion, Corey Seager and Joey Votto in terms of wRC+ this season. Make no mistake about it: all those guys are better hitters than him but it shows my point. It is way too freaking early to make sweeping declarations about Jackie Bradley Jr., the 2018 hitter.
Further, the left-handed hitter has compiled an extremely low .242 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) this year. He owns a career .296 BABIP. BABIP, for those unaware, can highlight if a player is getting lucky or unlucky when they put the ball in the field. It is especially revealing when you compared it to a player’s past BABIP history (again, .296 BABIP) and to the league average (.290 BABIP in 2018).
In other words, Jackie Bradley Jr. has been the recipient of bad luck when he has put balls in play. If his 2018 BABIP were to increase closer to the league average or his career number, he would have much better offensive results and we would not be having this conversation. Expect positive regression in that regard.
What I have for below is a big table with stats from his ’17 and ’18. There are good and bad signs but I’ll let you check that out yourself.
Starting from where it all begins, Bradley Jr., like most Red Sox hitters, is swinging at more pitches in the zone and making more contact on strikes this year. That is obviously a good thing because strikes tend to be better pitches to swing at. On the flip side, he is swinging at less balls outside the strike zone (O-Swing%). That is also a good thing.
When he makes contact, he is hitting less balls that are classified as “soft,” although his 30.0% IFFB (infield fly ball %) is weird and perhaps concerning. With that said, less balls are also being labeled as “hard,” so he is hitting less of those screaming line drives or flyballs, which fall for hits a majority of the time (at least relative to “soft” or “medium” contact baseballs). These batted ball results are a mixed-bag but we should expect some of these to start landing for more hits.
JBJ has not been following the “flyball revolution” in 2018, hitting more balls on the ground. Ideally, I would like to see him increase his launch angle a tad to tap into some of the raw power he has. His flyball and groundball tendencies have not shifted too drastically, and it is early of course, but it is something I am hopeful he can turn around.
Meanwhile, his plate discipline has actually been much improved. I already mentioned that with his outside and zone swing percentages, but he is striking out significantly less and walking at essentially the same rate.
I mean, his early, underlying 2018 results are neither extremely positive or negative. There are things to like and things to dislike, but he certainly has been the recipient of some batted ball luck. That .242 BABIP is simply not sustainable.
With a better approach at the plate, there is hope Bradley Jr. cannot only be a better hitter than he has been in the early going, but close to the hitter he was in ’15 and ’16. He is swinging at better pitches and making more contact on them too! Good stuff. The quality of contact just needs to improve.
The point remains, though: it is too early to determine, with any degree of certainty, how valuable Jackie Bradley Jr. will be in 2018. We know the potential is there and, if we are being honest, a 2+ win season is likely for the 27-year-old. ZIPS projection sees him as a 2.2 fWAR player while Steamer forecasts a 2.4 fWAR player.
That is an above-average player, one who plays quality center field and runs the bases very well. The inconsistent offensive production has been maddening to some but it should not render him expendable. You do not want to lose him and see J.D. Martinez as an everyday outfielder.
In the scenario the Red Sox do trade Bradley, let’s presume Mitch Moreland takes over as Boston’s everyday first basemen and he is the guy to replace JBJ in the lineup. ZIPS sees Moreland as 0.7 fWAR player over 454 plate appearances. You add him and subtract Bradley, and your position player expected WAR drops about 1.5 wins.
Even if you are able to net a high-quality reliever for Bradley Jr.’s services, the value will not nearly match what he brings to the table. He has two years left after this season and they are relatively cheap arbitration years to boot. Relievers are not only more volatile than position players, but their on-the-field impact is considerably lesser. Then again, it is all about who you are replacing.
If Boston were to attain a quality alternative in the outfield, then perhaps it makes sense to deal Bradley Jr. At this point, though, I do not think you have it. With such tantalizing potential, it would behoove the Red Sox to hold onto Jackie Bradley Jr. It would also behoove people to stop overreacting to 46 plate appearances because JBJ should be a much better hitter in the coming months.