Amid hitting streak, red-hot Bradley Jr. shows new hitting approach
The Red Sox have the majors' most potent offense this season, thanks in large part to the game's hottest hitter: Jackie Bradley Jr. On Wednesday, the 26-year-old centerfielder collected hits in both ends of a doubleheader with the Royals, extending his hitting streak to 24 games, the longest in the majors this season.
Bradley didn't have the easiest time of keeping his streak alive, not only needing until his fourth and final plate appearance in the opener to collect his hit, but also doing so against the stifling Wade Davis, who came into the game having held batters to a .146 batting average this season and .152 over the previous 365 days. Bradley punched a one-out single into rightfield to put the tying run on base and run his streak to 23 games, but his teammates could advance him no further, and Boston wound up losing 3–2. Bradley then clubbed a solo home run off Edinson Volquez in his first plate appearance of the nightcap, his seventh of the season, keying a 5–2 win that kept the Sox within half a game of the AL East-leading Orioles.
Bradley's 24-game streak is the longest in the majors since the Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnacion ran off a 26-gamer last July and August, and it's the longest by a Red Sox hitter since David Ortiz's 27-gamer in 2012–13, one that was interrupted by his season-ending Achilles injury. With a hit on Friday against the Indians, Bradley would match Dustin Pedroia's 2011 streak as the longest single-season one by a Red Sox hitter since Manny Ramirez's 27-gamer in '06. The last Sox player to reach 30 games was Nomar Garciaparra in 1997.
Here's a look at the single-season streak leaderboard since the start of the 2011 season:
|Edwin Encarnacion||Blue Jays||7/26/15||8/31/15||26||.412/.474/.876|
|Dustin Pedroia||Red Sox||6/29/11||7/28/11||25||.404/.459/.752|
|Jackie Bradley||Red Sox||4/24/16||5/18/16||24||.407/.460/.780|
Bradley's hitting streak, which has encompassed 91 plate appearances, helped him win AL Player of the Week honors last week, and it's driven him to a prominent place on the league leaderboard in several key offensive stats. He's fourth in both batting average (.338) and slugging percentage (.607), fifth in hits (49), sixth in total bases (88) and OPS+ (161) and eighth in on-base percentage (.390). His 1.6 WAR is "only" tied for 14th, weighted down by an out-of-character -3 Defensive Runs Saved that may merely be a product of a small sample size. Via DRS, he was 15 runs above average in 146 games in centerfield prior to his season, building a reputation as one of the game’s top ballhawks.
With just 159 plate appearances under his belt this season, the rest of Bradley's work isn't exactly out of small-sample territory either, but it's bolstered the notion that the 2011 supplemental first-round pick has turned the corner in his major league development. Though Bradley ended last season with a respectable .249/.335/.498 line with 10 home runs and a 119 OPS+ in 255 plate appearances, it took a late-season hot streak to make those numbers respectable, and even then, he closed in a major slump. As I pointed out in my season preview of the Sox, Bradley went on a tear last August (.354/.429/.734 in 91 plate appearances), but outside of that, he had hit just .195/.271/.300 in 694 PA during his major league career, including a .138/.247/.263 slide in 94 PA in September; what's more, he had struck out 197 times in his career, a beefy 28% rate.
One thing that stands out about Bradley's current streak is that he's taken a more aggressive approach at the plate, which is particularly notable given past criticism that he had been too passive. In 785 PA from 2013 to '15, he averaged 3.99 pitches per plate appearance, including 4.18 P/PA last year (during that August tear, he was at 4.52 P/PA). That mark ranked seventh among AL batters with at least 250 PA and was 0.34 P/PA above the league average. This year, he's at just 3.57 P/PA, the 12th-lowest among 97 AL qualifiers and 0.32 P/PA below the league average. Looking at it a couple of other ways, he’s swinging at the first pitch 30.8% of the time, up from 25.6% in the three seasons prior, and he’s already collected more hits when making contact with the first or second pitch of his plate appearance than last year (21 to 19) in 96 fewer PA.
What’s more, Bradley is swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone as well (30.5%, up from 26.5% last year) and making contact with more of those outside pitches (63.6%, up from 59.1%). That's still not exactly free-swinging—he’s 42nd among the 97 qualifiers in swinging at pitches outside the zone—but it is a change, one that appears to have more to do with reaching more low-and-outside fastballs than before rather than chasing more breaking balls in vain. Via the data at Brooks Baseball, he's missing far fewer off-speed pitches: Whereas last year, his whiffs-per-swing rate on changeups, curves and sliders were all in the 35–45% range, this year, they're down in the 21–29% range. Overall, he's cut his strikeout rate down to 21% this year, though he's also walking less (7%, down from 11% last year).
Whether Bradley can sustain his success with this approach remains to be seen, of course. A scout I spoke to for our season preview issue in March expressed concern about his approach, cautioning, "Recognition of pitches gives him trouble. He expands the [strike] zone and chases fastballs out of the zone." For the moment, at least, whatever he’s doing—which has helped the Red Sox pound out an MLB-high 5.85 runs per game—is working like a charm.