Jackie Bradley Jr. wasn’t supposed to be the kind of prospect who struggles upon promotion to the big leagues. The MVP of the 2010 College World Series for South Carolina, Bradley was one of the most recognizable and polished college stars of this millennium. He was the prototypical high-floor player — someone who would rush through the minor leagues and be a productive major leaguer from day one, and for the next 15 years thereafter, even if he never developed into a star.
In the 2013 Baseball America Prospect Handbook — just months before Bradley would debut for Boston — BA said, “Bradley has no major adjustments to make.” As anyone who’s followed Bradley’s career since then knows, that could not have been more wrong.
That’s not a shot at the folks of Baseball America, who are among the best in the world at what they do. At the time, there was really no arguing with that statement. It was the consensus of just about anyone who had an opinion that mattered. And yet, Bradley was not only not free of the need to make adjustments, he had to make bigger, more meaningful changes, and to go through greater on-field struggles than almost any prominent prospect in recent memory.
While Bradley’s 2013 debut was a small-sample disaster, that caveat allowed people to remain optimistic heading into 2014. Yet despite some truly stellar defense that season, Bradley quickly became a pariah because of his complete inability to hit. It was quite possibly the worst offensive season we’d seen in a generation, but despite that — and the fact that Bradley’s confidence was clearly in the tank — the Red Sox continued to keep running him out there because the glove was so good.
There was legitimate reason to believe the Red Sox were doing long-term damage to Bradley just so he could save a few extra runs for a last-place team on balls hit to center field. He was ultimately demoted to Triple A that August, long after he probably should have been sent down to sort out whatever was ailing him at the plate.
But to his credit, it was not too late, and he did figure it out — probably sooner than anyone had reason to expect.
He wouldn’t be back in Boston until May of the following season, and wouldn’t regain his spot as the Red Sox regular center fielder until August, but once he did, Bradley looked like a completely different player. In that month, he slashed .354/.429/.734, good for a 207 wRC+, over four times what it was in that disastrous 2014 (46). Ever since, he’s not just been a normal major league hitter — he’s been someone you have to pitch to very carefully for fear of him doing some real damage if you make a mistake.
Jackie Bradley before and after 8/1/2015
For as much of a role as confidence may have played in Bradley’s struggles before that time, it certainly wasn’t the only thing that had gone wrong for him. His mechanics were also a mess, and by the time he got regular playing time again, the adjustments he’d made were quite obvious. Check out these two videos — the first from July 2014, the second from August 2015 — and see if you can spot the changes:
The first thing you’ll notice is the stance. After his demotion to the minors, Bradley went from an open stance to standing with his feet almost parallel. He also brought up his hands, from below his chin to just a bit above eye-level. Here’s what it looks like side-by-side:
The next thing you’ll notice is the leg kick he added. Just look at how much more of a powerful position he’s in in 2015 when the pitcher is about to release the baseball:
The closed stance allowed him to eliminate some excess movement and be shorter to the ball, while the leg kick allowed him to better drive the ball. Some players never figure out the best swing for them, and their career dies tinkering. Bradley found what works best, and he’s been a monster ever since.
A poor August and September 2016 may signal that Bradley is not quite the All-Star level hitter he looked to be from August 2015 to July 2016, but even if he takes a small step back at the plate, it’s hard to see him being anything worse than slightly below-average. After where he was just a couple of years ago, that’s a massive improvement.
And as volatile as Bradley’s career has been in the box, he never allowed his struggles there to extend to the next half-inning. Through all of those ups and downs, Bradley has remained a stellar center fielder. I mean, you saw how awful he was as a hitter in 2014. That should help you understand just how superb his defense has been that the Red Sox would put up with that to have his glove out there every day.
As Bradley’s put himself together back at the plate, he’s continued to shine in the field. Even with could-be center fielders Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi on Boston’s roster, there is no doubt about who will man the middle for the Red Sox going forward. 29 Defensive Runs Saved in the past three years will do that for you.
So while it would shock you in 2014, Bradley has probably exceeded expectations from where they were when he was a top prospect. And that brings us to our larger point: Bradley is the new go-to example for why you don’t give up on a prospect too quickly.
Imagine if, after 2014, Boston either wrote Bradley out of its future plans or traded him away from 25 cents on the dollars. What if, even if he’d gotten things together in the minors the following season, the Red Sox didn’t want to give him another shot at the majors because they’d seen him fail there and convinced themselves he’d never succeed?
The Red Sox, and any other organization in MLB, would never act like that, of course. But fans do it all the time, and Bradley is the best recent example of why they shouldn’t. Progression isn’t linear. It’s great that Mike Trout, Jose Fernandez, and Bryce Harper were spectacular from the jump, but those guys are so exceptional that they’ve spoiled us. Heck, it’s amazing that Nomar Mazara was mediocre in 2016 at 21 years old, and barely anyone talks about him
For most players, it’s a series of stops and starts, adjustments and re-adjustments, forward steps and backward steps. Not everyone is going to hit like Mario Mendoza for a full season like Bradley did, but his story is more typical than we care to admit.
So for those of you convinced that it’s just time to accept that Byron Buxton or Jurickson Profar will never be the player you thought they’d be when they were tearing up the minors, take a deep breath and slow your roll. Buxton has been in the major leagues for, like, 15 minutes, and he just had a great September. Yes, Profar is blocked in Texas and has had some troubling injuries, but he’s the same age right now as Bradley was heading into 2014.
Some of those top prospects will never live up to the hype, no matter how many plate appearances you give them. There is always going to be a next Brandon Wood, because baseball is incredibly hard and success in the majors is never guaranteed. But if you’re not willing to indulge in a few detours along the way, then why come along for the ride in the first place?
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.