June 25, 2014
Painting the Black
Red Sox Playing Badly, Playing Bradley
At 35-42, the Red Sox have not played to expectations. The good news is, for the most part, neither have the other American League East teams. That widespread mediocrity has kept the Red Sox within 7 1/2 games of the Blue Jays—a surmountable, if sizable, gap, given the teams have 13 head-to-head matchups remaining. With seven of those games occurring prior to the trade deadline, July will have added significance for Boston. Not only will Ben Cherington learn a lot about his team's chances to repeat over the next few weeks but, by extension, we'll learn a lot about his evaluation of certain Red Sox players. Like Jackie Bradley Jr., who could find himself on the outs.
Bradley Jr. is the centerpiece of a mess. Collectively, Boston's outfielders have hit .229/.304/.330, giving them the majors' worst OPS by a 15-point margin over the next closest team, the Cubs. Cherington and John Farrell have started the process of remaking the outfield: Grady Sizemore was released earlier in the month, and the Red Sox have auditioned three career infielders—Brock Holt at the big-league level and top prospects Mookie Betts and Garin Cecchini on the farm—on the grass in an attempt to find answers. Change seems inevitable; the mystery is to what degree.
As such, Bradley's short-term future is uncertain. The case for his demotion is easy to make: no center fielder with more than 150 plate appearances this season has a worse True Average. Moreover, Bradley's on-base percentage over the past two years rivals Mark Trumbo and Alfonso Soriano, while his ISO threatens Peter Bourjos and Dee Gordon. He has, in a sense, wed the worst parts of power and singles hitters. There are some under-the-hood reasons to feel optimistic about his chances of improving, yet those signs thus far have not led to improved results.
But there is a counterargument to demoting Bradley, too. As Marc Normandin, editor in chief of Over the Monster, explained: "With the way the Red Sox are playing, you would think demoting Bradley to get more offense in the lineup would make sense. They're trailing eight teams for a wild card, though, and it's nearly July, so leaving some focus on 2015 makes sense in case 2014 continues to be a struggle.
"Keeping Bradley in the lineup gets him at-bats he clearly needs against major-league pitching. Bradley has already handled minor-league pitching with ease, so heading back to Triple-A to face sub-par secondary stuff isn't going to get him to where he needs to be in his development. Throw in that the Red Sox' second-best defensive outfielder at the moment is Brock Holt, who never even played the outfield as a pro until this month, and you can see how it's easy to justify continuing to run Bradley out there in the hopes his slow progress offensively becomes something more."
A casual observer might find himself wondering, just what is it about Bradley's defense that has folks eager to overlook his bat? We reviewed each of his defensive touches during a seven-game stretch (June 8-16). When talent evaluators talk about a player performing without anxiety, they're often alluding to his offense. That description can apply to Bradley's defense as well. He blends the position's instinctive parts—pre-pitch positioning, ability to size up angles and routes—with the athletic demands—quick reactions, speed, and a good arm—and does in a way that is graceful, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing. When Bradley drifts or jerks, the rarity forces you to take note. Of course his serenity doesn't preclude him from making a WOW! play now and again, like so:
What's eye-opening about Bradley's play here—beyond the result—is that he erred at the start. Yes, he was able to recover, make the back-shoulder grab, and javelin the ball to first base for the double play. But watch his initial movement after the ball is hit; he gets a poor jump because he moves in the wrong direction. Bradley atones for his misstep thanks to his good positioning, efficient route, and closing speed, yet this play is proof that he does commit an occasional gaffe—and that he has the tools necessary to overcome it.
Here's another example of Bradley's best qualities overcoming the odds. As the pitch is en route to Michael Brantley, Bradley is shading toward right-center. Brantley inside-outs the ball to left-center, however, and forces Bradley to redirect his momentum. He recovers, again, and almost nails an above-average runner at second base on a play that looked like an automatic double off the bat.
Then there's the sister of the Brantley play, which came during the same series. Bradley Jr. isn't caught shifting his weight at the time of contact against Jason Kipnis, but he still explodes to the ball, fields it, and fires it in before Kipnis has the chance to reach second base.
Bradley's ability to intercept balls before they get to the deeper portion of the alleys is an underrated skill that has myriad rewards. Consider that slower baserunners are less likely to try for a double, while Bradley's quick returns to the infield could be the difference between a runner scoring or being held. That he's doing all this in Fenway Park, crafted with as many outfield eccentricities as any park, is even more impressive. Mickey Mantle once said, "[Center field] there was kinda tough. There were all those angles and the short center field fence. Down here at [Yankee Stadium] you could run for two days in the outfield. There you had to watch it. You'd turn around and smash into the fence." Bradley, though still a youngster, seems to have a finer grasp on the outfield's nuances than the Mick did.
Approval for Bradley Jr.'s defense goes beyond the eye test. Most individual defensive metrics praise him as an above-average fielder, although the sample sizes are too small to take seriously. Analysis from a team perspective still features noise, but echoes the sentiment that Bradley makes the Red Sox a better defensive team than the alternatives: with Bradley in center, Boston has turned 69.9 percent of its balls in play into outs; without, that rate has dropped to 68.2 percent. Whatever the measure, Bradley grades as a legitimate defensive asset.
The problem is at some point defense does not outweigh offense. Bradley has displayed some legitimate offensive skills—drawing walks and taking the extra base, for instance—and has enough potential that he's worth holding onto. The Red Sox just find themselves in an unusual position, in that the easiest spot in the lineup to upgrade offensively might be the toughest to replace defensively.
What then will the Red Sox do? It all depends on how Boston and Bradley play over the next month. Whereas most general managers are shackled by their farm systems, payroll, or both at the deadline, Cherington should be free to proceed as he sees fit. Money is seldom an issue in Boston, and the Red Sox have one of the league's finest and maturest collection of prospects in the league. If Cherington wanted, he could put together a reasonable package for any player available. And while he seems unlikely to approach the deadline in such an aggressive manner, he could justify acquiring a player who, at minimum, could platoon with Bradley in center; thus easing the day-to-day burden on Bradley without exiling him to the minors. Realistically, that might be the best short-term fix for everyone involved, because there's no denying that Bradley's glove is big-league ready.
Thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller for the animations.