Jackie Bradley Jr. has the athletic ability and acumen to win multiple Gold Gloves in center field. But stellar defense was not enough to save his job with the Red Sox.
Bradley was demoted to Triple A Pawtucket on Monday and replaced by Mookie Betts, who started in center field against the Los Angeles Angels.
Bradley, a 24-year-old rookie, struggled mightily at the plate for all but a few weeks of the season, hitting .216 with a .288 on-base percentage and .290 slugging percentage over 112 games. Of the 153 qualified hitters in the majors, Bradley has the third-lowest OPS.
General manager Ben Cherington and manager John Farrell informed Bradley on Sunday that he was being sent back to the minors. He reported immediately to Pawtucket and started on Monday night. He went 0 for 5 in a 2-0 loss to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
“I’ve got to be accountable for myself and for the season. I didn’t perform at the level I’m capable of performing,” he told reporters. “Like they told me, it’s a performance-based league.”
Still, the timing was odd. Bradley had reached base in eight of his last 20 plate appearances, going 5 of 16 with two walks and a hit by pitch. He also had two RBIs, a stolen base, and three runs over five games.
Bradley was 2 for 3 with a walk against the Houston Astros on Sunday before he was summoned into Farrell’s office.
The Sox stuck with Bradley when he went 17 days and 35 at-bats without a hit, then dumped him when he started to break out of it.
“The move to send Jackie back to Pawtucket has been talked about for a little while now. I think it’s important to note this wasn’t reactionary,” Farrell said.
Farrell said the team wasn’t satisfied. The Sox wanted to see Bradley have a shorter swing and a better approach with two strikes. He has struck out 111 times in 348 at-bats this year.
“While we anticipated an increase [in strikeouts] coming to the big leagues, it’s exceeded his expectations, ours as well,” Farrell said.
Said Bradley: “It’s definitely different. It’s frustrating because I do feel like I’m putting good swings and not making contact. I think it’s just over time it will change. I obviously don’t want it to be where it has been.”
Farrell said the Sox hope that Bradley will gain some “confidence and some momentum” in the minors before he returns when the rosters expand on Sept. 1. But a return is not certain.
“I would expect him to come back. Without a guarantee, we certainly anticipate him coming back,” Farrell said.
Bradley took the demotion with his customary maturity.
“I wasn’t disappointed in going down. I was disappointed in myself,” he said. “If you play better, they won’t send you down . . . My confidence will never waver as long as I’ve got a breath in my body.
“Talent is talent. You see the numbers, they don’t necessarily reflect the talent. It’s all about refining your talent and bringing out the best of your abilities.”
Bradley’s biggest contribution came in the field, where he statistically ranked as the best outfielder in the game. That enabled him to compile a 1.5 WAR, fifth highest on the team.
The move was as much about Betts and the Red Sox wanting to finish the season on a positive note and better evaluate one of their top prospects.
Betts, 21, has been a terror in the minor leagues, hitting .346 with a .960 OPS in 99 games for Pawtucket and Double A Portland. He has 11 homers, 65 RBIs, and 33 stolen bases in 40 attempts.
Betts was called up twice earlier this season, spending 21 games on the active roster. But Betts started only 11 games and had 44 plate appearances.
“I’m just happy to get the opportunity again,” he said. “I think I had a good, productive three weeks, learning some more in the outfield getting some good at-bats.”
With Bradley in Pawtucket, Betts can play regularly in center in what will amount to an audition for next season. It seemed telling that Farrell used Bradley as a comparison when discussing Betts.
“He’s got what I consider a fairly low-maintenance swing. It’s some of the things that we’re talking about Jackie needing to get back to. That’s bat speed, that’s a compact stroke. He’s got a clearer understanding of the strike zone as well,” the manager said.
Betts, who started playing the outfield for the first time in his career in May, has improved his defensive play in recent weeks.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Betts said. “I feel like my reads are better. It’s a little different here because guys square up the ball a little bit more, hit balls harder. But I feel like my reads are getting a lot better.”