The Red Sox acquired a pair of potential middle of the order corner outfielders at the trade deadline on Thursday. But who will they flank?
Jackie Bradley Jr. is starting to present the Red Sox with a slight variation of the dilemma they faced with Jose Iglesias. He is an absolutely wondrous defender, likely the best seen patrolling his position in a Red Sox uniform in decades, a game-changer on a nightly basis.
On Saturday, he reinforced the notion on a shallow pop-up to center. Derek Jeter -- an elite baserunner, of course -- got trapped in no man's land between first and second, unsure whether a center fielder could reach the flare. Bradley, naturally, could, showing his absurd ability to close on a ball and doing so with ease, making a play look effortless that many center fielders wouldn't have made at all. He grabbed the ball and doubled off Jeter, adding to a year in which he's made the outfield double play a routine occurrence. (Bradley has now been involved in eight of them.)
It doesn't take a genius to figure out the kind of impact that Bradley has had on the Sox' ability to keep runs off the board. But, for the sake of precision, John Dewan's Runs Saved system credits Bradley with having saved 14 runs this year, fourth best among big league center fielders. Fangraphs credits him with having saved 16.1 runs as compared to the average center fielder, the best mark by a center fielder and the fourth best by any position player in the game.
If Bradley could add even a little bit of offense to that off-the-charts defense, he would be an up-the-middle anchor for years. Yet 137 games and 459 plate appearances into his big league career, Bradley has yet to prove he can hold his own against pitching at the highest level. And whereas it appeared that Bradley was on an upward trajectory, making adjustments to shoot the ball the other way from mid-June to mid-July, he's been unable to sustain those improvements.
On Saturday, in the Red Sox' 6-4 loss to the Yankees, Bradley was overmatched. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts (matching a season-high he's now reached six times, though until Saturday, he hadn't endured a three-punchout game since June 8). He's now in an 0-for-20 rut that has seen him punch out 10 times without a walk.
Ominously, the carving has come at the hands of the teams he's faced the most. The three teams against whom Bradley has played 10 or more games this year -- the Blue Jays, Rays and now Yankees -- are the ones that are dissecting him with surgical precision.
Toronto pitchers have held him to a .184/.225/.368 line. Tampa Bay's staff has held Bradley to a .195/.233/.341 performance. And the Yankees now have held Bradley to an .086/.200/.086 line with 14 strikeouts in 40 plate appearances.
Bradley looked like he was making an adjustment to hold his own in the big leagues, opening his stance in a fashion that recalled the approach that had made him successful as both an amateur and throughout his professional career. Yet now, it seems that the league has adjusted back, in a fashion that calls into question whether the progress that Bradley made was sustainable. Red Sox manager John Farrell suggested that Bradley appears to be getting pitches to hit and that he's simply missing them.
“Where he did such a good job leading up to the All-Star break with closing down some of those holes, they’re starting to emerge a little bit,” Farrell said. “There’s a little more swing and miss of late and I know he’s on a little bit of a run here where he’s gone without any base hits. So I can’t say that he’s expanding the strike zone or he’s pressing, but he’s missing his pitch and he’s gotten into some favorable counts along the way as well.”
Unlike Iglesias, Bradley does have a track record of offensive success in professional ball. That, in turn, offers the team some basis for hope with the 24-year-old.
Yet at a time when big league stuff is better than it's ever been, the challenge of translating minor league performance to the highest levels has never been greater. Bradley seems like a noteworthy case study in the phenomenon.
In 100 games this year, he's hitting .221 with a .293 OBP and .303 slugging mark. In his 137 career big league games, he's hitting .214 with a .290 OBP and .311 slugging percentage.
Those marks suggest, for now, a lineup void. For the same reason that the Sox try to avoid players whose value is wrapped entirely in their hitting, if this is representative of who Bradley is, the Sox face a considerable dilemma about how long they can turn to him for elite defense without offensive impact.
But all of that raises an interesting question: Should we expect that this is who Bradley is? Is it reasonable to think that he will improve?
To figure that out, it's worth looking at other player who have experienced comparable struggles at a similar age to start their careers. Bradley has a career OPS+ (OPS relative to the league average) of 68, meaning that he's performed at a level roughly 32 percent worse than league average to this point.
There aren't many who have struggled to quite that depth to start their careers -- to the point where, to figure out a useful sample, it's worth broadening the picture to include players who had an OPS+ of 80 or lower while striking out in at least 25 percent of their plate appearances through their age 24 seasons, with at least 100 games played.
Since 2000, there are 12 such players besides Bradley:
Gose and Villar are still just 23. Hicks, like Bradley, is 24. So, it's worth asking as the Red Sox contemplate whether Bradley should be their center fielder next year, what happened to the rest of this group at age 25?
(Here's the answer.)
Balantien was done as a big leaguer. Hermansen, Paredes and Nix barely spent any time in the big leagues the next year. Repko (.254 average, .345 OBP, .377 slugging) settled into a role as a very talented defender who posted solid OBPs off the bench. Buck remained a .300-ish OBP guy (.306, to be exact) at a position (catcher) where such a mark wasn't as much of a deficiency as it might be at virtually any other position.
But three of the players produced something tantamount to an offensive breakout. Saunders still struggled to get on base but hit for power and speed while making himself valuable by playing all three outfield positions. He hit .247/.306/.432 in 2012, and he has a .248/.316/.419 line and 108 OPS+ over his age 25-27 seasons. Lopez, who had shown some signs of improvement as a 24-year-old (he raised his line to .242/.314/.314), had his best career year in 2005, hitting .291/.352/.486 and emerging as a solid on-base presence for the next several years. Hall hit .291/.342/.495 with 17 homers and 18 steals as a 25-year-old.
So, there's the chance for a turnaround. But it is just that: A chance. If the Red Sox are willing to bet on that possibility with Bradley, they will have to see evidence of expecting that he's capable of doing the same over the final two months, of adjusting back to counter the game plans that are beating him right now.
After all, Bradley retained his role as the center fielder through his difficult early months of the season in part because the Red Sox didn't have a viable alternative. That is no longer the case.
The team has Brock Holt, who has looked competent in center and whose offense has been a revelation. Mookie Betts is looming as a player with the potential to make a fairly far-reaching impact; though a work in progress in center, he's shown some intriguing instincts at the position. While the Sox are having Yoenis Cespedes play the corners for the rest of this year, he has center field experience with the A's. And, looming on the free agent market, Cuban defector Rusney Castillo is viewed as a player who has a chance to make an impact as a hitter, defender and baserunner, even if his game is geared more for line drives into the gaps than prodigious power shows.
In short: The Sox need to see Bradley cover up some of the holes in his swing in the next two months. The need to take a leap of faith with the idea that he will eventually find his way to his minor league track record is no more. The Red Sox are getting to a place where they can make some decisions about next year's lineup based on what they see rather than what they expect, or suspect, or hope to see.
It is Bradley's time to show whether center stage belongs to him. The spotlight is on.