But will Jackie Bradley Jr. ever hit? And what if he doesn't?

Rob Neyer

Rob Neyer

This fall, longtime Boston columnist Bob Ryan’s got a new book coming out. A friend of mine read it and says it’s good, especially if you’ve been around for a while and remember all those years of Boston sports. As Ryan does, in great detail ...


Which made this all the more intriguing yesterday:

First, are those really the leading lights here? Are those guys really Jackie Bradley Jr.'s competition?

A dozen or so years ago, I spent probably a few hours researching this question, and settled upon Tris Speaker as the franchise’s greatest defensive center fielder. As I wrote in a long-ago book (still in print, though!), “Nobody played shallower than Speaker, the Willie Mays of his time; DiMaggio, Piersall, and Lynn also great.”

At the time, all I had for research was a few thousand books and Bill James’ Win Shares; he was kind enough to send me the defensive values split from the rest. Oh, and I had Bill’s Win Shares book, which actually assigned letter grades for every player with a significantly long career. Speaker, DiMaggio, and Piersall all garnered A+ grades, while Lynn earned a B+. But that was for his whole career. Players generally peak as defenders in their early or middle 20s, and Lynn was just 28 in his last season with the Red Sox.

You want anecdotal evidence that Bradley’s a great center fielder? Here are dozens of anecdotes. You want statistical evidence that Bradley’s a great center fielder?

If you believe FanGraphs’ primary metric, it’s Piersall and not Speaker who’s off the charts, with 83 Defensive Runs Above Replacement in only 931 games; Ellsbury’s second on the franchise’s all-time list, with 48 runs in 715 games, while Speaker and DiMaggio are both well behind. Darren Lewis, Coco Crisp, Darren Bragg, and Reggie Smith all have better runs/games ratios than Speaker and DiMaggio, too.

Oh, and Fred Lynn? I’m surprised to find Lynn faring quite poorly, just a replacement-level fielder whether you look at FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference.com’s defensive numbers.

As for Bradley, he’s got a better ratio – 16 defensive runs in only 145 games – than any of the aforementioned gardeners. In fact, he’s got the best ratio among all the Red Sox center fielders, ever. Only Piersall is close.

But Bob Ryan didn’t see Piersall. Considering only the guys Ryan mentioned in his tweet, Johnny Damon’s numbers are terrible, Otis Nixon's aren't good, and we’ve already discussed Lynn. While Ryan’s credibility might be a little higher at the moment if he’d mentioned Coco Crisp, it’s hardly outlandish for Ryan to suggest he’s never seen anyone as good as Bradley. Because it’s highly possible that he hasn’t. Not in a Red Sox uniform, anyway. And maybe not in any uniform. Well, except for Andruw Jones in his prime. Because Jones probably was as good as anyone’s ever been. With the possible exception of Willie Mays in his prime. But Ryan wouldn’t have seen that, either.

Does all this mean that Red Sox Nation should root for JBJ to start hitting? It’s an odd suggestion, actually, because you’d want JBJ to start hitting whether he played center field like Jimmy Piersall or Tony Armas. You want everybody to hit. But I suppose Ryan’s point is that Bradley doesn’t start hitting, he might lose his job. Which would deprive Sox fans of all those highlight plays.

Will he hit, though? It’s sort of a funny question if you can remember spring training of 2013. Remember? Bradley got really hot for a few weeks, and the pundits were falling all over themselves ... Of course Bradley deserves the Opening Day nod in center field. Just look at what he’s doing in March!

Bradley got the nod, but was sent back to Pawtucket after starting the season with three hits in 31 at-bats. He wound up with four stints in the majors, batting .189 in just 37 games. Small sample size, yada yada. Way too early to give up on him.

Somehow, though, he got beat out this spring by Grady Sizemore. That didn’t work out, and so Bradley’s gotten most of the action in center field this season … and he’s batted .211/.281/.289. And this time the sample size isn’t so small at all, as he’s now started 98 games.

In toto, he’s got only 474 plate appearances in the majors, so it’s appropriate to look at his minor-league record ... which is good, if not great. And we’re actually talking about a lot of small sample sizes. Those 474 plate appearances in the majors aren’t a lot. Bradley’s 141 games in the minors above Class A aren’t a lot. And his 123 career major-league starts in the outfield aren’t a lot, either; our eyes tell us he’s tremendous, but there aren’t enough numbers yet to tell us more than he’s probably good and possibly great.

I would say that Bradley’s got plenty of time to find his stroke, except the Red Sox probably need to find a place for Mookie Betts and second base is already taken.

Bradley’s probably assured of a job somewhere, as long he keeps making those spectacular plays. But if you can’t hit at all, eventually they will find someone who can. Just ask Darwin Barney.

The original version of this article assumed that Bob Ryan was listing Trot Nixon, not Otis Nixon.


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