The Boston Red Sox started this season loaded with outfield talent. However, poor performance and injuries led to a disastrous season for all the outfielders not named Mookie Betts. There is hope though, and Ian York takes a look at the Jackie Bradley Jr renaissance to find out whether or not he is for real.
Has Jackie Bradley Jr turned a corner at the plate lately? Based on his minor-league numbers, no one expected him to be a complete failure in the majors, but in 2014 that’s what he was: His OPS of .531 was the lowest in baseball for batters with 400 plate appearances or more. His first 24 games of 2015 were even worse (OPS of .426). But in the two weeks since August 9, he has been nothing short of spectacular, OPSing 1.513, with four home runs, three triples and seven doubles in 47 plate appearances.
Just as no one expected him to OPS .531, hopefully, no one expects him to continue performing at this level for a full season. However, with his outstanding defense, even half of that 1.513 OPS would make him a very valuable player. The question is whether he can perform at a reasonable level, or whether his last two weeks have been purely driven by luck and chance. One observation suggesting that there may be a real difference is that his breakout has coincided with a significant change in his batting mechanics. Has that improved his ability to hit certain pitches?
We can see where and how he got his hits, before and after his hot streak. At the simplest level, here are the locations of each of his hits this year. (These charts are all from the umpire’s viewpoint, and since Bradley is a left-handed batter he would be standing to the right side of each of these plots. The grey polygon shows the de facto strike zone as umpires call it.)
One thing that jumps out (aside from the obvious differences in the number and power of the hits) is that before August 9, four of his seven hits, and his only extra-base hit, came on the outside half of the plate. Afterward, though, most of his hits have come on the inside half.
It is also obvious that almost all of his hits, pre- and post-breakout, are in the upper two-thirds of the strike zone; only one is toward the bottom of the zone.
We can break the hits down further, though as we do need to plant a “Tiny Sample Size” flag and be cautious about making predictions from the following charts. However, we can use them as guides on what to look for in future at-bats.
In these plots, pitches are split into families (fastballs, breaking pitches and offspeed pitches), and further split by pitcher handedness. In the background of each plot is a contour map, showing the distribution of all the pitches in each category. The strike zone and surrounding area is divided into a grid, and the number of pitches in each section that are either strikes (called, swinging or fouled off) or hits is represented by the size of the white circle in it. The number of hits in each section is represented by the size of the inner circle, and the color of the circle indicated the average number of bases achieved per hit (red is better than average; blue is worse). Very roughly, a decent level of performance would be around 1.5 bases per 10 strikes.
The first set of charts, before August 9, shows varying levels of futility:
While Bradley was able to occasionally make contact with fastballs and breaking pitches from left-handed pitchers, he was almost completely baffled by right-handed pitchers, with the exception of off-speed pitches, where he managed to hit a couple outside pitches. The size of the open circles below the strike zone shows that he frequently chased breaking pitches outside the zone.
The contour maps show that left-handed pitchers were aware of his vulnerability inside, and threw most of their fastballs to the inside third of the zone. Right-handed pitchers didn’t even bother doing that, since he was completely unable to catch up to any of their fastballs.
After his breakout, Bradley’s hit profile has changed; he can now catch up with the inside fastball:
Although the numbers of other pitch types Bradley has seen in that period are really too small to draw conclusions from, it seems that he has mainly hit mistakes in those categories, hammering middle/middle pitches with power. He continues to chase breaking and offspeed pitches outside the zone. However, he has made contact on one (a double off a curve from Edinson Volquez, right at the bottom of the zone, on August 23), suggesting that this may not be a true dead zone for him.
A key point is that pitchers have not yet changed their approach to him: Lefties are still giving him fastballs inside, treating him like the futile Bradley from the first half of the season. Now that he has shown that he can handle those pitches, that is not going to continue much longer. Over the next few games, expect to see fewer fastballs inside, and perhaps more pitches in the bottom third of the strike zone. Bradley’s ability to adapt to the new scouting reports will determine his major-league utility.