"Had Immanuel Kant's Teutonic ruminations on aesthetics transpired roughly 250 years later than his mid-18th-century prime, he might have used Jackie Bradley Jr.'s defense to illustrate the distinction between, and perhaps even reconcile, the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, thus effectively wiping out an entire philosophical discipline.
Statistically, Bradley's defense is exceptional. Unimportant." —Alex Speier, to me. Excerpted from a long letter sent from his iPhone.
It does occur to the author at times that he is producing silent movies in the run-up to talkies. Worse. In a year’s time, many of us expect, assessments of defense will not only have audible dialogue, but they will be in color, with surround sound, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, in three dimensions, on demand. In our imaginations, at least, we are preparing for something like the rise of air travel, from a weird, hand-powered flapping contraption to men walking on the friggin' moon, demonstrated in hyperspeed progress over the course of a 90-second time-lapse video—except we expect that succession to happen in real time, a century’s worth of progress in, almost literally, the 90 seconds after Statcast appears.
So what value will these quaint “words” that we write have then? Of what use will it be to describe a defender’s breaks, his speed, his routes, his arm, when truth is a simple number? Do we writers leave the sphere of education and barricade ourselves behind the license of poetry, in which readers will expect to glimpse something of the human condition but not actually, you know, learn anything from us? Or do we just plod along pretending the reader hasn’t left us at all?
One thing I learned this week is that people love to write about Jackie Bradley’s defense. There are countless ways one can indulge his desire to write about Jackie Bradley’s defense, and many of them overlap with the countless ways one can (at present) also educate people about Jackie Bradley’s defense. For example, one might:
- Appeal to authority, as when the journalist Peter Abraham quoted Bradley’s superior: “'His reads off the bat are better than any outfielder I’ve ever seen,' manager John Farrell said. 'Seemingly he’s on the move as the ball’s going through the hitting zone, even before contact is made. There are a lot of other outfielders who are faster than him in the league and yet he has the most range of anybody in the game.'”
- Study Bradley with the precise and disciplined objectivity that one might use to forecast the stock market or a tropical storm, as in Chris Mellen’s prescient scouting report of Bradley in 2013: “A natural center fielder, Bradley displays a high level of grace and fluidity when manning his position. His instincts allow him to move with the crack of the bat, giving him above-average-to-better range despite only average speed. Bradley hunts down balls in the outfield, making difficult plays look easy and hauling in chances that most outfielders don’t. His well-above-average defense is capped off by a plus arm, making him one of the top, if not the top, overall outfield defenders I’ve seen in the last handful of seasons in the minors.”
- Find the right anecdote, as in this Perfect Game report from 2008: “Bradley stole the show in the outfield workout tying the Perfect Game record with a throw of 101 from the outfield.”
- Isolate a facet of his game that produces only a small part of his overall impact yet seems to encompass all the qualities that make him unique: “Bradley’s intelligence again was on display in Saturday’s win, when he baited Kansas City’s Jarrod Dyson, who was stationed at first base, into a double play by initially acting as if he lost Omar Infante’s line drive. Bradley has been involved in six double plays this season, which is the most among all outfielders by a wide margin and the most by a rookie outfielder since J.D. Drew’s six-pack back in 1999.” (Bradley has now started eight double plays.)
- Consider the implications of his defense, as R.J. Anderson did in his survey of Bradley this summer: "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."
- Express one’s personal discombobulation, as when color broadcaster Jerry Remy described Bradley thusly: “I mean, you look up and you’re looking at a totally different player and all of a sudden into the picture comes Jackie Bradley Jr., full speed, takes the base hit away. Bogaerts couldn't get there in time, I'm watching Bogaerts and all of a sudden Bradley Jr.'s coming.”
- Or put a framing device around a series of GIFs, as in this article:
As we have done, so we continue to do: This is your regular installment of the Best Defensive Game of the Month, the conceit being that valuable-information provider Inside-Edge will help us identify the best individual game that an individual defender produced in a calendar month, whereupon we will hover our cursors over the looping-video wizard to confirm that, yes, excellent defense delights us. Thus far we have had a wide range of victors: An average defensive shortstop who seemed to make improvements since 2013; an above-average second baseman who got an obscene number of chances in one game; and an elite defensive third baseman with an unusual development curve. For August, we finally get to an outfielder, and it’s Jackie Bradley Jr., and there’s nothing surprising about that, except that Bradley didn’t enter the game until the eighth inning.
Bradley came in for defensive purposes against the Angels on August 9th. From April 3rd through July 21st he entered only one game as a defensive replacement, but certain other things in his life changed, and by August 9th that was more or less his role, appearing in more games to that point in August as a sub than as a starter. In this case, he would play 12 innings, as the Angels and Red Sox played for six hours and 32 minutes. Bradley went 0-for-4.
As a fielder, though:
First, the four routine plays.
Right in the glove, just like it’s supposed to be. Sweet, sweet defense.
Perfectly positioned. Barely had to move. Yummy.
Two hands. Love to see the fundamentals. Hot dripping syrup.
Runs straight to it, almost. Slather those pancakes up.
Fine, those plays were routine.
The first play that gets him on here:
The second play that gets him on here:
So what have we seen here? We know that, per Inside Edge's categorization, Bradley made about one and a half more plays than an average outfielder would have. You might say he turned his 0-for-4 into a something like a 1.5-for-4, with most of a double. We know they came in very high-leverage situations, and that Bradley's win expectancy for the game goes from -.229 (as a hitter, exclusively) to something like .099 (as a hitter and fielder). But that's what the outcome was; it doesn't tell us what we have seen here? For that, we turn to the writers. I asked a few who follow the Red Sox an open-ended request: “Tell me about Jackie Bradley’s defense. I want to do some blockquoting.” The first response was succinct, descriptive, and from Matthew Kory:
He has preternatural recognition as to where the ball will travel. He's the best I've ever seen at picking the spot where the ball will land and running to that spot before it does.
He doesn't get wrong reads. He has deceptive speed, as in he doesn't look particularly fast but he gets to balls you wouldn't think he would if you looked 0-60 speed. Also haven't read this anywhere but he seems to get up to full speed very quickly, like in a step or two.
The second response was specific, builds to a flourish, and from Ben Carsley:
He is, without exaggeration, one of the best defensive center fielders I've ever seen. He really only has average speed for a CF, but his positioning and routes are incredible. He almost never needs to dive,
and his diving catches often aren't his most impressive hauls — more than anything else, it's his ability to go back on a ball and perfectly sync with its flight path, like he's a wide receiver or something. Plus, he has a 65/70 arm and a quick transfer once he does make a catch — he doesn't just turn fly balls into outs, but he turns would-be doubles/triples into singles by cutting off ground balls in the outfield at good angles and then firing back in to second base.
You know how Billy Hamilton breaks your internal baseball clock when he runs, like, "how is he already at first base?" Bradley breaks my internal expectations of what will/won't be caught in the outfield.
The third was analytical, put each act in context, and was from Tim Britton:
So for myself and most people who have watched the Red Sox the last few years, the easiest way to understand Bradley as a defender is to contrast him with Jacoby Ellsbury, who was obviously very good and won a Gold Glove and all that. Ellsbury was good in center because of his speed; even when he didn't get very good jumps, which was often, he could compensate for it with his speed. Most of Ellsbury's diving catches seemed like plays he should have made on his feet, but they were also plays other center fielders wouldn’t make if they had gotten that bad a read on it. (At this point, Mookie Betts is kind of similar, but worse.)
Bradley isn't particularly fast, and he certainly doesn’t have Ellsbury's speed. But he gets superior reads off the bat, which he's honed throughout his life by what he calls "power shagging" during batting practice (where he tracks as many balls hit to center as he can during BP to gauge how they travel). That allows him to, at times, take his eye off the ball and run to the spot where he figures the ball will land, thus letting him reach his top speed a little more often than a normal outfielder tracking the ball all the way. That’s why he's got better range than you'd expect for someone who can't really steal bases.
(Also, because he runs to a spot and then tries to relocate the ball late, he's used to making last-second adjustments on balls, which he has said helps him make some of his more adventurous catches.)
Knowing that coming into the year, my expectation was that Bradley's defensive talents would slide under the radar — that he'd be the kind of guy who made difficult plays look routine in a subtle way; I mean, you're not really robbing any homers in center at Fenway. But I guess when you see a guy like that enough, you see a lot of spectacular plays: The Jackie Bradley, Jr. highlight reel on MLB.com is pretty long.
Bradley's also got this confidence to the way he plays the position, and it manifests itself in the way he times his routes at times. When he knows he's going to get to a ball, he doesn’t just race there and settle underneath it. He times it to arrive right as the ball does, and that can deke runners on base, which is one of the reasons he's come up with so many double plays. (You can kind of see that here.)
The other reason he turns DPs is because of his arm, which I knew was above-average but didn’t realize was this good. It's jarring to go from Ellsbury's arm to Bradley's in center.
About the only fun part about covering Boston's 19-inning loss in Anaheim this year [Ed: That's our game of the month!] was tracking the fans' reactions to balls hit to center as that game went on, because Bradley (who was being used as a defensive replacement then) had made about four outstanding plays that series in like his first five defensive innings. The gap between that initial cheer that a ball has actually been hit hard and the groaning realization it's going to be caught has never been so short.
And the fourth, and final response, was ornate, the sort of letter a man in the trenches of WWI writes to his sweetheart, and from Alex Speier:
Had Immanuel Kant's Teutonic ruminations on aesthetics transpired roughly 250 years later than his mid-18th-century prime, he might have used Jackie Bradley Jr.'s defense to illustrate the distinction between, and perhaps even reconcile, the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, thus effectively wiping out an entire philosophical discipline.
Statistically, Bradley's defense is exceptional. Unimportant.
It is an act of artistry that is the culmination of more than a decade of carefully plotted refinement. He is Henry Skrimshander transposed into center field. In contrast to Skrimshander's emergent case of the yips, however, Bradley's foundation of defensive confidence is unshakable. (It is in the batter's box, and only in the batter's box, that he reveals vulnerability and uncertainty.)
The defense: He is capable of the superhero plays, scaling walls or soaring through a dive, and yes, he has been known to hurl a baseball from the foul line in right over the fence in center for pregame amusement.
But it is the ability to transform plays beyond the edge of many center fielders' ranges into mundane phenomena that suggests a defensive luminary.
On August 2, Bradley caught a fly ball on the casual run in shallow center (no dive, no leap — the evident embodiment of routine) and found Derek Jeter seemingly napping flat-footed between first and second. Bradley made an easy throw to first to complete a double play. Natural conclusion: A rare blunder by Jeter.
It wasn't. Bradley's effortless range so vastly exceeded that of a normal peer that he got to a ball that should have fallen into a Bermuda Triangle of fielders. Ordinarily, Jeter would have been in position to advance to second, or at least retreat to first safely given the likely need for someone to dive to make the play. Bradley's read had been so exceptional that only ordinary effort was required at the conclusion of the play to secure the catch and lob the throw back to first for two quick outs.
This is what Bradley does. He stuns opposing baserunners,
who do not have a frame of reference to anticipate the plays that he will make. He has initiated eight double plays (in just 108 games, 99 starts) in center this year. No other outfielder has started more than three double plays. He occupies a separate defensive class from his peers.
One of his minor league coaches once noted that Bradley plays with a different rhythm in the field than anyone else, as if he is whistling while engaged in a vocation that he executes with ease. His defense is the visual embodiment of on-field exuberance.
On an everyday basis, I do not believe I have seen a more impactful defender. I certainly have not seen a more routinely dazzling one.
It might also be noted that, statistically, Bradley's defense is exceptional. I wouldn't say that's unimportant. But it's not all that's important.