Red Sox’s Jackie Bradley Jr. back on track after sluggish start

Lucas Harrell sits down with Hazel Mae to talk about his pitching performance in his Toronto Blue Jays debut on Canada Day against the Boston Red Sox.

The Boston Red Sox are likely past the point where they fret too much over struggles from Jackie Bradley Jr. If there were any nerves to be calmed after his slow start this year, though, the centre-fielder’s strong June likely did the trick.

Bradley may play the prime outfield position, but he’s flanked by two guys who attract a generous amount of attention. Mookie Betts, Boston’s right-fielder, was runner-up for the 2016 American League MVP award. Left-fielder Andrew Benintendi, meanwhile, was one of the most heralded rookies in the Majors entering this season and, for the most part, he seems on track for stardom.

That leaves Bradley in the middle, where he’s always been a defensive wizard. And while a breakout 2016 campaign—in which Bradley was an All-Star Game participant— answered most of the questions about his bat, the .171 average attached to his name about six weeks ago was reminiscent of the drawn-out problems that marked the first chapter of his Major League career.

Bradley—who was slowed by a knee injury near the start of the season—righted the ship in a big way, however, batting .353 with an on-base percentage of .431 in 28 June games. After accumulating four hits through the first two outings of Boston’s three-game weekend visit to Toronto, Bradley’s overall OBP now sits at .365, the third-best mark on the Red Sox after Dustin Pedroia (.376) and Xander Bogaerts (.366).

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“What’s been really encouraging from Jackie is what he’s doing with pitches that are away from him on the plate, where he’s driving them to left-centre field,” Boston manager John Farrell said of the left-handed hitter before Friday’s series-opener. “He’s got great plate coverage this year.”

That enhanced versatility is a positive development for a guy who’s tended to pull the ball in his career and has had some trouble making contact altogether. Strikeouts were a huge problem for Bradley when he broke into the Bigs and even last year—when he swatted 26 home runs—the production was somewhat offset by the fact he fanned 143 times, more than all but 29 Major League players.

It’s probably safe to assume Bradley will never have the dish discipline of teammates Betts and Pedroia, presently ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the Majors in terms of lowest strikeout percentages. Still, there’s no denying the damage Bradley can do when he’s dialled in. Last season, he hit safely in 29 consecutive games from April 24 to May 25, a run that produced eight homers and a .415 batting average.

“You saw a year ago, he can get on a hot streak that can carry you and he’s kinda close to that same streak right now,” Farrell said.

That Bradley, a first-round pick by Boston in 2011, would ever be spoken of in those terms seemed like a stretch when he was frequently fanning during the first chapter of his pro career. He hit .198 in 423 plate appearances during 2014 and, two years ago, he was stuck at .118 through 22 games in a 2015 campaign that saw him continue to log significant time in triple-A.

Then, something clicked and Bradley put up a .288 average with nine homers during the final 52 games of that season. His role on the Red Sox has been growing ever since.

“He’s a durable player, loves to play every day, he’s strong [and] he plays a gold glove-calibre centre field,” said Farrell. “He’s really evolved. When you think of the early struggles in his big-league career, the way he’s evened out his production, he’s really evolved into a very good major-league player.”

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