BOSTON (CBS) — For all the struggles of the Red Sox offense to start the 2017 season, no one has embodied those struggles more strikingly than Jackie Bradley Jr.
Bradley’s season started off promising enough, batting .333 with a home run, a triple, and four RBIs in his first six games. He missed 12 games due to a knee injury that required a stint on the 10-day DL, but he came back on April 22 and launched a two-run home run. JBJ looked fine at that point.
But since then, Bradley completely went in the tank. From April 23 through May 9, he batted an abysmal .081 with no extra-base hits and a .231 OPS. His struggles at the plate were so alarming that he spent three games on the bench before pinch-hitting at the end of the Red Sox’s 11-7 loss on Tuesday.
Hopefully, Bradley is finally ready to turn things around after riding the pine. He went 2-for-4 with a solo home run in the Red Sox’s 7-4 loss on Wednesday, showing signs that his long-absent pop may be ready to return.
Bradley’s early-season slump has been stunningly bad, but he’s also been unlucky. He has a .222 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) on the season, which indicates that opposing defenses are making plays against him at a higher rate than usual; a normal BABIP is in the .290-.300 range.
The outfielder has had his share of bad luck, but he’s mostly just been bad. It’s hard to explain, because his strikeout rate is only slightly up (23.2 percent in 2017, up from 22.5 percent in 2016) while his walk rate (8.7 percent, down from 9.9 percent in 2016) is only slightly down.
Based on Bradley’s advanced stats, there have been two striking changes in his hitting so far in 2017. One is his contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone (O-contact%), which has dropped from 62.7 percent in 2016 to 53.5 percent this season, according to Fangraphs. But he’s also swinging at pitches outside the strike zone at roughly the same rate; for whatever reason, Bradley is missing markedly more pitches off the plate than usual.
Another striking difference in Bradley’s numbers is in what Fangraphs calls his “soft percentage,” or the rate of balls he has put in play that were hit with soft contact. He’s hitting 25.5 percent of pitches softly, compared to just 16 percent last season.
Bradley’s relative lack of pop could be attributed to his knee injury and whether he’s playing hurt, but he also hit the aforementioned home run in his first game back from the DL. Despite his strong hitting performance on Wednesday, his average is still just .194 and his OPS is just .593. (As of this writing, he is 0-for-3 with a strikeout on Thursday in Milwaukee.)
JBJ has a long way to go to even come close to the production he put forward in 2016. He may never reach those numbers (26 homers, 87 RBIs, .835 OPS) again. But he’s certainly better than he’s shown, and Wednesday’s performance was at least a step in the right direction.