Jackie Bradley Jr. is a much better hitter than a lot of people think
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (June 10, 2018 – Source: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America)
As of this writing, Jackie Bradley Jr. features an abysmal .182 AVG/.276 OBP/.286 SLG slash line in 232 plate appearances this year. His ensuing 55 wRC+ places 155 of 159 qualified batters, ahead of only the quartet of: Billy Hamilton (53), Alcides Escobar (48), Lewis Brinson (46) and Chris Davis (24). That is decidedly not the sort of company you want to be associated with as an MLB hitter. While some may, without hesitation, group JBJ with those guys in terms of offensive acumen, they would be very wrong. Bradley Jr. has gotten extremely unlucky in 2018.
Yes, there have been the maddening ice cold streaks that have plagued his season. Right when he seems to have figured something out, he rips off an 0-17 streak. Then, there are those at-bats where he looks so uncompetitive and lost at the plate that one begins to revisit their own qualifications to be a major-league hitter. His strikeout rate has risen from 22.9% last year to 27.2% this year, which is genuinely concerning. However, in spite of all this, when he makes contact, he has the victim of egregious batted ball misfortune.
Most of you have probably heard of the term BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Essentially, the stat measures what percentage of the time a player’s balls in play goes for a hit. A batter’s BABIP fluctuates based on what type of hitter you are and, quite frankly, can measure if you are getting lucky or unlucky. It does this because we can look at what his career BABIP is and, if there is significant deviation from it, then he obviously has had some batted ball misfortunate, most likely.
In 2018, the league-average BABIP has been .292, while JBJ’s career BABIP is also .292. Last season, the heralded defensive outfielder ran a .294 BABIP, which is obviously close to his career mark. This year, however, Bradley Jr. has been crippled by an unsustainable .245 BABIP. If we bump his BABIP to closer to his career-norm, he is adding lots of points to his batting clip because .245 is very far from .292.
Now, while this indicates some bad luck for 28-year-old, it does not take into account a batter’s quality of contact for the year. What if Bradley Jr. truly experienced negative regression for his batted-ball skills? Well, he did not. I cannot remember a player going from a close to true .300 BABIP hitter to a true .250 BABIP hitter. These things tend to be finicky, involving copious amounts of luck. Still, it is worth exploring what JBJ should actually producing this season based on how hard he has hit the ball.
StatCast has a statistic featured on Baseball Savant called xwOBA that shows what a hitter should be producing based on their amount and quality of contact (exit velocity, launch angle, etc.). xwOBA tends to be more reliable in a given year over regular wOBA because it strips out pesky batted ball randomness, which we already know Bradley Jr. has seen quite a bit of. In other words, xwOBA does not fluctuate nearly as much year-to-year compared to wOBA.
Anyway, Bradley Jr.’s ..259 wOBA in 2018 is the 30th-lowest among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. Meanwhile, based on how he has hit the ball with neutral park and defensive factors, his xwOBA is .327. That is a -.068 difference between his wOBA and xwOBA, ranking 14th of 321 qualified hitters. The average hitter has -.017 discrepancy between their wOBA and xwOBA, meaning Jackie Bradley Jr. should irrefutably be hitting much better than he has this season. In fact, a league-average xwOBA is .330 and his xwOBA is .327. With how he has been hitting the ball, one should anticipate he would be roughly an average hitter, not one in Billy Hamilton territory.
JBJ is hitting more balls in the air this season and less on the ground. His hard-hit rate (33.8%) is actually higher than last year’s (33.3%) and his soft-hit rate is also considerably lower. Like most Boston Red Sox hitters, he is swinging at less balls not in the strike zone (O-Swing%) and considerably more at balls within the strike zone (Z-Swing%). With that said, he is also pulling more balls, rendering him a more pronounced shift candidate, which may be a factor in why his BABIP is as low as it is.
Regardless, he has a refined approach at the plate, an arguably better one, and he does not have the numbers to back it up. Moreover, he is hitting the ball harder than he did in 2017, when he was near league-average in hitting.
Jackie Bradley Jr. has been a much better hitter than what the surface-level numbers have shown, even if his streakiness will never go away. He is not as bad of a hitter as the growing perception has stipulated and is much closer to a true average hitter than a horrible one. If these numbers were to be neutralized in a perfect world, we would be talking about another solid year for him. Keep in mind this kind of misfortunate tends not to last for a prolonged period of time and sooner or later these balls should drop for hits, instead of outs. When they do, everyone will want Bradley Jr. as their center fielder.