MINNEAPOLIS — The Red Sox signed 31 of the high school and college players they selected in the 2011 amateur draft. Only Jackie Bradley Jr. has played in the majors.
As his peers develop their skills and gain experience in minor league cities, largely shielded from the pressure to win and the criticism that comes with failure, Bradley is the everyday center fielder of the Red Sox.
It’s an opportunity he treasures, but one that demands the kind of patience not often required at the University of South Carolina or during his quick trip through the minors.
“The game is the same,” Bradley said. “It’s frustrating, because at the moment it seems like things aren’t going real well.”
Bradley is hitting .218. Of the 93 qualified hitters in the American League through Sunday, only 10 had a lower batting average. He entered Monday one of 12 players with at least 107 at-bats yet to hit a home run.
Twice already this season Bradley has struck out three times in a game, something he once didn’t believe was possible.
“There are struggles, but one day you’ll look back at these times and say you got stronger from it,” Bradley said. “That’s how I look at it.”
There are signs that the 24-year-old Bradley is incrementally developing into a better offensive player.
His .328 on-base percentage is better than the league average of .323. Bradley also is 11 of 33 with runners in scoring position and leads the Sox with three stolen bases.
Bradley has given the Red Sox 0.4 WAR, a statistic that represents the number of wins a player has added to his team above what a replacement-level player would.
The metric encompasses offensive and defensive contributions. Mike Trout, at 2.3 WAR, is the leading center fielder in the American League. Bradley is sixth. Jacoby Ellsbury of the Yankees, the player Bradley replaced, is at 0.7.
Defense is what has Bradley ranked so highly. Statistics that measure range, arm strength, and other factors rank him among the top four or five center fielders in the game.
A devotion to honing his instincts enables Bradley to turn his back on a batted ball and race to the spot where it will land. That knowledge, and a quick first step in the right direction, allows him to make what should be difficult catches appear routine.
“He has the ability to impact every game when he steps on the field defensively,” Sox manager John Farrell said.
But Bradley wants to be much more than that. That he usually bats eighth or ninth is not acceptable to him.
“There are adjustments at every level,” he said. “I guess I need to learn how to hit again. But I always figure it out. It always clicks.
“I feel like I’m recognizing pitches and seeing pitches. I need things to start lining up. I’ve felt like I’ve had the asset of having a good eye. Now I’m taking a look in the mirror and thinking, ‘That good eye just didn’t disappear.’ I know I can swing at better pitches. But I can’t make excuses. Everybody goes through this.”
Farrell has regularly played Bradley, 21-year shortstop Xander Bogaerts, and 25-year-old third baseman Will Middlebrooks. It’s part of an organizational desire to incorporate more young players onto the roster.
It’s up to Farrell to find that balance between the need to win and the desire to give young players a chance.
“Our evaluation or opinion of the players has not changed. For us to get as best an accurate read on their abilities requires opportunities,” he said.
“We still bank heavily not only on the talent each possesses, [but] the work that they put in. But along the way you’re looking for signs of maturity, signs of learning from previous experiences and that will continue to take shape.”
The Sox have seen that from Bradley. He has become better at handling inside pitches and his swing has gotten stronger. He also has become more willing to accept coaching.
Of all the players in the Red Sox clubhouse, right fielder Shane Victorino best understands the challenge Bradley is facing.
Victorino was 22 when the San Diego Padres took him in the Rule 5 draft before the 2003 season. He played in only 36 games, hitting .151, before the Padres returned him to the Dodgers.
Victorino didn’t return to the majors until 2005, again as a Rule 5 pick. This time he got in 21 games but spent most of the season in Triple A. It wasn’t until 2006 that Victorino became an everyday player.
Like Bradley, Victorino’s best tool at that stage of his career was his glove. But he developed into a player who has a career .342 on-base percentage and extra-base power.
It’s not unreasonable to suggest Bradley could become a similar hitter. He has a .404 on-base percentage in 218 minor league games and was a consistent doubles hitter.
“I’ve been very pleased with Jackie’s progress. He tries hard and he works to get better. That’s what I look for,” Victorino said. “I’m not looking to see if he’s hitting .250 or whatever. I want to see the consistency of his work and if he’s working hard to get better. Is he asking questions? Is he making adjustments in the game? Stuff like that, to me that’s progress. Not the stats.
“You can look at the numbers of what he’s doing on the field. But I want to see the consistency over 162 games. That’s the part that has impressed me.”
Sox hitting coach Greg Colbrunn said Bradley recognizes his weaknesses. Colbrunn has seen mistakes made one week corrected the next.
“He knows the strike zone, but he’s still learning when to be aggressive and when not to be,” Colbrunn said. “It’s little things because he has the ability. I stress quality at-bats and the consistency of those at-bats.”
Colbrunn sees Bradley developing into a hitter with a high on-base percentage who can add 30 doubles and 10-12 home runs. Add in the defense and that’s a standout player, maybe a borderline All-Star.
Bradley has no particular model in mind.
“I’m just trying to find myself,” he said. “I’ll start with that first. I guess we’ll see what the future holds. I know it’s in there.”