Opinion

You were probably wrong about Jackie Bradley Jr.

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (July 21, 2018 – Source: Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

Baseball is a funny and weird game. Sometimes you can hit the absolute crap out of the baseball in 10 straight plate appearances but have no hits to show for it. Other times, you can go 2-4 with a bloop single to shallow left and an infield single that ricocheted off the pitcher’s foot.  It is a lovely, random sport that we invest a copious amount of our time to.

As a baseball player, whose profession it is to record as many hits as possible, this can be incredibly frustrating. For most of 2018, Jackie Bradley Jr. has had an incredibly frustrating season.

On April 14th, I wrote a piece calling for the masses to leave Jackie Bradley Jr. alone, which essentially just talked about small samples and batted ball misfortune. 

Then, on June 17th, I wrote another piece titled Jackie Bradley Jr. has been one of the unluckiest players in baseball, which talked a lot about batted ball misfortune.

The message was sort of the same in both articles, which basically attempted to voice these frustrations. Instead of crucifying the player, it was more honest to crucify the randomness of the game. We all want to put a face to a player’s struggles (example: JBJ) and never try to diagnose the problem. With the wealth of information the public has access to, it is much easier to identify than people think. Sustainable performances (good or bad) can be discerned from unsustainable performances (good or bad) pretty accurately.

Anyway, on June 17th, which was when the most recent article about JBJ was composed, the Red Sox center fielder posted an ugly .182 AVG/.276 OBP/.283 SLG slash line through 232 plate appearances. His accompanying 55 wRC+ ranked 155 of 159 plate appearances, which is horrific. While his surface numbers were awful, the underlying stuff suggested it was not sustainable. JBJ was most likely going to do significantly better going forward.

Consider: on June 17th, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .245 while his career BABIP was .292 and the league average was .292.

Since then, his BABIP has crept up to .263 and should still be expected to inch closer to his career .292 mark as the season progresses.

Also, consider: on June 17th, his xwOBA (expected wOBA) was .327, which factors in how hard he has actually hit the ball and his strikeout and walk numbers, while his actual wOBA was .259. For reference, the league average xwOBA is .330, so he was close to a “true” league-average hitter.

Since that point, his wOBA has increased to .279, which remains in the bottom 10 percent of the league, but his xwOBA has also increased to .354. That number is considerably better than the average and he should hit closer to the latter than the former going forward.

From June 17th forward, Bradley Jr. has hit for a .279 average and an .855 OPS in 96 plate appearances. His season slash line now sits at a much more respectable .211 AVG/.296 OBP/.353 SLG and a 74 wRC+. There is obviously still a lot to improve and there are many positive indicators, such as the ones above, that he will improve.

With that said, there are never any guarantees with this kind of thing. Just because a player has dealt with a bunch of bad luck for one part of the season does not mean he will automatically get a bunch of good luck to negate the bad luck. That is called the gambler’s fallacy.

Instead, he probably will hit like the .354 xwOBA hitter he has been, so his numbers should go up considerably. That is not good fortune, rather, it is his true talent playing.

Even if he does not, there is a lot to like about the season he is having. His fWAR is up to 1.1, which has been bolstered by great defense and baserunning. Over at Baseball Savant, his Hard Hit% of 49.3 percent is among the top four percent of qualified MLB hitters, while his average exit velocity (92.0 mph) is in the top seven percent. It is impressively unlucky to have those borderline elite StatCast numbers and still be in the bottom seven percent of wOBA. That is baseball for you.

His plate selection has virtually been unchanged, but he is swinging at slightly better pitches. His Z-Swing% (percent of pitches swung at in the strike zone) is up a tick and his O-Swing% (percent of pitches swung at outside the strike zone) is down by even more than a tick this year. Swinging at better pitches to hit is certainly a better strategy than not swinging at better pitches. That much is clear.

Anyway, he has lowered his GB% (groundball percent) to a career low, so it is not as if he is just hitting a bunch of hard baseballs on the ground (*cough Hanley Ramirez). His launch angle is at a career high of 11.4, which is a good thing. The left-handed hitter is also belting more line drives than ever before. Meanwhile, he is barreling (ideal mixture of launch angle and exit velocity) 9.6 percent of baseballs, which is middle of the pack.

In review, JBJ currently has a career best xwOBA, launch angle, line drive percentage, hard hit percentage, barrel percentage and zone-swing percentage. He is hitting the ball better and harder than he ever has in his career, even his 2016 All-Star campaign. Regardless, his slash line is worse than it has ever been and, you know, that does not really correlate with the numerous career bests he is setting.

If he was not so damn unlucky, he might be having a breakout offensive year, opposed to the mediocre one we are currently witnessing. There is still plenty of time to right the ship, though, and one has to expect his surface stats will be getting better as the season progresses.

There was never an argument that JBJ was a tremendous hitter. He has been (and probably will be) an incredibly streaky hitter, alternating flashes of brilliance and ineptitude at the plate. However, with his other skills, the ones that are in the peripheral and are not as sexy, he is a very valuable player.

The lofty expectations for Bradley Jr. at the plate are unreasonable and have distorted one’s perception to perceive underperformance on his end. The 28-year-old owns a career 90 wRC+, which is good (not great), and is probably more reflective of what he really is. He certainly was never the sub-50 wRC+, .500 OPS guy we watched for the first few months of the season. He also is not the 74 wRC+ hitter we have seen thus far.

While most everybody was calling for him to be traded, released or sent down to Pawtucket in the beginning of the year, Alex Cora and Dave Dombrowski showed tremendous patience and foresight by staying course. Even when he was in the midst of a debilitating slump, they kept him in the lineup, subtly expressing faith which has paid off in a big way of late.

Not to split hairs, but JBJ’s 2018 1.1 fWAR is extremely close to All-Star first baseman Mitch Moreland‘s 1.3. This is product of the position and respective defense and baserunning value, but it still is meaningful. Red Sox fans have been singing the praises of Moreland all year long (rightfully so), which is very different from how many have felt about JBJ this year.

It is a wonderful thing when a player starts to come back to their true talent level. Jackie Bradley Jr. has been the recipient of egregiously bad luck for a good portion of the season but is now starting to see results that match how he has hit the baseball. Baseball is not a fair game and it has been especially unfair to JBJ in 2018.

Let this be a lesson for the next time a player is very obviously straying from their career norms. It just takes a bit of research, patience and understanding that baseball is not always equitable to find the truth in this child’s game.

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