With the 2017 season now officially in the rearview mirror, and with the Houston Astros first-time champions, we turn our attention to the 2018 fantasy baseball season. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for next year. This week, we focus on Jackie Bradley Jr., another former All-Star with a somewhat depressed stock potentially on the trade block this offseason.
Jackie Bradley, Jr.
2017 statistics: .245/.323/.402, 17 home runs, 8 stolen bases
Jackie Bradley Jr.’s primary calling card is his elite outfield defense, and the defensive metrics and Statcast data both support that sterling reputation. From the final two months of 2015 through 2016, however, Bradley’s offensive production ticked up substantially, making him one of the more valuable position players in baseball over that span. In 2017, however, Bradley’s bat regressed in a major way, and the absence of any sort of standout tool offensively made him fungible in most fantasy leagues. While his glove gives him a higher real-life floor than most players have, his defensive value in the majority of fantasy leagues is only in that it ensures him significant playing time. Plus, his offensive downturn in 2017 came with some disturbing peripheral trends that could signal that his nearly 1,000 plate appearances of excellent production in the prior two years were more of an aberration than any sort of long-term breakout.
As mentioned, Bradley’s 2015 season featured some encouraging offensive results, as he slashed .249/.335/.498 in 255 plate appearances, with that power output unprecedented in Bradley’s career to that point. However, his underlying numbers in 2015, particularly with regards to his control of the strike zone, presented some red flags. He continued to strike out at a very high rate, and his 71.5% contact rate that year was actually the lowest mark of his career.
In 2016, though, he managed to repeat that level of offensive output, thanks largely to a four percentage point uptick in his contact rate that was manifested in a significant drop in his strikeout rate and a .018 point uptick in his batting average. This season, however, saw his contact rate fall back to its 2015 levels. And while his strikeout rate did not jump back up, this was largely a reflection of Bradley becoming more aggressive early in counts, offering at pitches that he was less able to drive for power. His plate discipline altogether was still right around average and he drew a fair number of walks, but his struggles with contact potentially caused him to prioritize putting the ball into play, even at the expense of his contact quality.
No matter the metric one uses, it is clear that Bradley’s batted-ball authority in 2017 was simply less impressive than it was in 2016. His soft-contact rate increased last season, his hard-contact rate fell slightly, and his ground-ball and opposite-field rates increased, indicating that Bradley was more frequently hitting balls softly the other way rather than lifting the ball with authority. His average exit velocity fell two miles per hour, as well, from a stellar 90.1 MPH to an only slightly above-average mark of 88.1 MPH. Unsurprisingly, his results suffered; his isolated power fell from .219 to a mediocre .158, and his home run totals dropped off from 26 to 17. Whether looking at process or results, it is apparent that Bradley was significantly diminished as a power hitter in 2017.
To be sure, these numbers need not be a death knell; his average exit velocity on balls that he hit into the air, for example, remained constant, indicating that his raw power likely remains intact. And a player can be a fine fantasy asset with average power if they have an impressive array of secondary skills. Unfortunately, neither of these arguments appear particularly persuasive in Bradley’s case. His five percentage-point uptick in ground ball rate is a particularly disturbing trend, as loft is obviously key for a player to derive anything meaningful from raw power, and his drop in home runs is likely directly linked to his decreased frequency in getting the ball elevated. This is also to say nothing of the fact that, if he continues to make contact at such an alarmingly low rate as he did this season, his strikeout rate will almost undoubtedly tick upwards, further depressing his in-game power.
Bradley also lacks a collection of secondary offensive skills that would allow him to be a coveted fantasy asset if he is not hitting for power. He has never hit for high batting averages because of the swing-and-miss in his game (he has batting averages of .198, .249, .267, and .245 in his four semi-regular seasons as a major-league player), nor has he emerged as a quality stolen base threat. As Paul Swydan recently noted, Bradley has curiously yet to reach double-digit stolen bases in a season, despite an obvious athleticism that he flashes on defense regularly and despite rating as one of the game’s elite baserunners in other areas of the game. H never stole more than 24 bases in a minor-league season, either, so he is not teeming with untapped base-stealing upside despite his pure speed. While his legs may enable him to score a few more runs than most players would, his legs are not the fantasy asset that they may appear to be on the surface.
Like many other players covered here recently, Bradley has been bandied about in trade rumors, especially given the speculation that the Red Sox could pursue J.D. Martinez in free agency to infuse a power element curiously missing in their offense in 2017. Unlike the other players that I have evaluated, however, a trade would not seemingly benefit Bradley. While Fenway Park rates as a difficult park for left-handed hitters to hit home runs (which could, of course, help Bradley in that regard), it is otherwise unequivocally hitter-friendly, so a trade could further depress Bradley’s batting average, runs scored and RBI opportunities. Boston rated as an average to slightly-below offensive team in 2017, but they seemingly have more offensive upside than most of the mid-tier teams, so a trade could very well send Bradley to a less productive offensive team as well. In all likelihood, it would be in the best interest of Bradley’s fantasy stock if he remains penciled in as the Red Sox’s everyday center fielder next season.
Jackie Bradley Jr. looked like one of the more promising players in baseball entering the 2017 season, even if his fantasy value did not quite match up with his actual value because of a defense-first profile. While he again was fantastic with the glove, Bradley was certainly disappointing with the bat in 2017, and his value will probably be down somewhat entering 2018 drafts. An in-depth look at his underlying metrics indicates that his stock should indeed be down, as he experienced alarming regression in most every facet of his offensive game. Entering his age-28 season, he is, in all likelihood, finished developing as a player, without any sort of calling card offensively that makes him worth playing every day, particularly if his batting average continues to plummet. He likely profiles as a pedestrian fantasy asset moving forward, a fine reserve outfielder but not a player worth targeting early on in anticipation of a bounce-back.