Donnie Brittingham has a lot of memories of Jackie Bradley Jr. He coached Bradley since Little League. He remembered how Bradley used to pitch and strike out every batter, then slide over to catcher and throw out every runner.
Bradley was a jack of all trades, yet the outfield is what he mastered. So it’s fitting that one particular play stamped what Brittingham already knew: Bradley could be one of the best to ever do it.
It happened during an American Legion game, sometime around 2008, just before Bradley graduated from high school.
Brittingham remembered a ball hit to left-center that looked to be leaving the yard. But Bradley got a perfect jump on it, and it became clear that he’d have to scale the fence. His timing was impeccable, robbing what would have been a homer.
“His torso was over the fence,” Brittingham said. “All you could see were his feet sticking up.
“He was one of those guys — a ball gets struck well and you’re the [opposing] coach in the dugout and go, ‘Damn,’ because you know.”
Bradley’s foundation in the outfield begins with Brittingham. The attention to detail, thinking one step ahead, and anticipating where a ball will land are Brittingham’s teachings.
“It was part of the process,” Brittingham said. “He worked on everything that I could come up with.”
Over the course of his major league career, Bradley has given Red Sox fans a front-row seat into what the process can produce.
Let’s take a look into some of his techniques.
▪ Turning your back on a fly ball to get to a spot
This is a part of Bradley’s game that can fly under the radar. He doesn’t have blazing speed, Brittingham said, but he has what he calls “baseball speed.”
Much of that falls under Bradley’s instincts, but it’s also a skill that’s been honed since Little League. Turning your back on a fly ball that’s over your head, running to a spot you predict it will land, then finding it again is what every outfielder strives toward. If it’s done correctly, you can get to a lot more balls because your eyes aren’t fixed on something that’s moving.
“First of all, you have to be able to trust it,” Bradley said. “You have to work on taking your eye off the ball and trusting your reading and calculate where you think it’s going to be. You need any little edge you can get. I figured taking my eyes off it would allow me to get back there quicker than running backward while looking forward.”
But it’s easier said than done. You can misjudge your steps, overrunning the spot or not quite getting to the spot.
Bradley perfected this with Brittingham, who would start out throwing balls over his left and right shoulders. They would then graduate to a ball right at him, and then one directly over his head. From there, batting practice became crucial. Bradley would play each ball off the bat at game speed, keying in on running to a spot versus the ball.
During a game against the Oakland A’s last April, Jurickson Profar squared up a pitch and hit it well over Bradley’s head. The ball left Profar’s bat at 102.7 miles per hour and traveled 409 feet to the deepest part of Fenway.
There were no men on and it was the top of the ninth inning with the Sox leading, 9-4, so Bradley played straight up. Yet on contact, Bradley was running with his head down to a spot where he thought the ball would land. He didn’t look up until almost reaching the warning track.
The play looked simple, but that’s largely because of what Bradley did leading up to it: crossover step, head down, and run to a spot, re-find it, and make the play.
Bradley has done it countless times over his career, but here’s one where the degree of difficulty was evident.
On the Sox’ final road trip last year, Tampa Bay’s Tommy Pham squared up a pitch for what looked like extra bases against Rick Porcello. The ball left Pham’s bat at 107.3 m.p.h. on a line.
Bradley was still able to turn his back on the ball and find it again, yet he knew he didn’t have much time, so he had to find it quickly. Once he did find it, Bradley noticed the ball started to slice toward his glove side, so he adjusted and flipped his shoulders to make the play.
“I’m just trusting what I see,” Bradley said. “I knew it was hit really hard and I knew it was going to be over my head. It’s also knowing that, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to catch this ball in the first place.’ So it’s having faith in that, that allowed for me to play free.”
▪ To bounce or not to bounce
Bradley’s arm has become somewhat underrated even though he was tied for fifth in the league with 10 assists among outfielders last season. Much of the talk the last couple of years has been about A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano’s arm, while Bradley isn’t mentioned in some circles. That might be due to a couple of things: 1. Teams simply aren’t running on him as much; and 2. He knows when to air it out and when a one-hop throw is the more prudent decision.
Again, for Bradley, everything is calculated.
Take the Sox’ Sept. 6 matchup against the Yankees. In the top of the sixth inning, with Gary Sanchez on second, Brett Gardner singled up the middle. Sanchez tried to test Bradley, who threw him out at home on a bounce.
The answer is simple to Bradley, and it speaks to how he’s a step ahead. There were two outs. He knew Gardner was a fast runner. Had he thrown on the fly and not gotten Sanchez, Gardner would have advanced into scoring position. By keeping the throw low, Bradley makes the trailing runner hesitant to attempt to take the extra base. If you go back and watch, Gardner didn’t attempt to take second.
There are exceptions, of course, when Bradley knows he can go for the kill shot. When the Sox played the Twins in June, Bradley let his arm loose.
With C.J. Cron on first, Nelson Cruz struck an Eduardo Rodriguez offering off the right-field wall. The ball ricocheted hard and bounced to Bradley, who noticed Cruz was already on his way to third. His real play was at home, where he gunned down Cron on the fly.
“I knew my runner,” Bradley said. “Risk/reward says I need to go home at that particular point. I knew where [Cron] was. He was about two-three steps from third base when I glanced. And I grabbed the ball and tried to make a strong throw through.”
▪ Playing the wall
Bradley never seems to have any hard crashes into the wall because he knows the right techniques to avoid impact.
He did it against the Twins in that same series last June. Jorge Polanco hit a ball to the wall, and Bradley made a spectacular play, but the most impressive part was how he thought to get his feet on the wall to avoid injuring himself.
“Hands, knees,” said Bradley. “Sometimes I’ll jump into the wall to protect myself from hitting it full speed because I know my limbs can withstand the hit."
This is where Bradley goes even deeper. Playing the wall, he explained, doesn’t mean bracing for it. In fact, Bradley purposely relaxes his body when he’s about to hit it instead of tensing up.
“I know how to make my body go limp in order to avoid crashes,” Bradley said. “If you tense up, that’s normally when you break bones. You almost want to be like a rag doll.”
Last summer, the Yankees’ Gio Urshela squared up a pitch to right-center. Bradley made the play but didn’t stop his torso from hitting the wall. However, you can see what he’s alluding to, keeping his body relaxed to withstand the blow.
▪ Eye test vs. metrics
The eye tells you that Bradley is the best center fielder in baseball. The defensive metrics don’t. He ranked 31st in UZR last season among all outfielders. He was minus-2 in defensive runs saved.
Much of this might have to do with the funky dimensions of Fenway Park and/or flaws in the metrics. Anything to left-center has a chance of being a double off the Green Monster, which counts against Bradley. If he had more room to run, those are plays that he perhaps makes.
Though Bradley doesn’t really worry about metrics at this point in his career, he does pay attention.
“You pay attention to it because it’s something that’s used to not only rank you; in a way, it’s how you’re getting credit," he said. "Even though they say, ‘No, we don’t look at that this much,’ well, teams and other officials are using that data for something. So to say that it’s not that important would obviously be false.
"They also haven’t been able to say how you can improve on that. For example, offensively, if you’re not hitting, you know what you have to do in order to improve your hitting.
“Defensively, do I have to work on my first step? Do I have to work on angles, routes? How do you calculate guys not trying to throw people out because they’re trying to keep the double play in order? Is it better to hit all cutoff men? Is it better to throw runners out? How do you know if that runner would have advanced or not advanced because the runner actually knows I have a strong arm?
"It’s just so many different variables. How can you actually quantify what’s actually happening all the time?”
▪ A reminder
Brittingham said the catch Bradley made during American Legion play reminded him of one Bradley made in Baltimore last year to rob Trey Mancini and save the game.
“I was running at an angle,” Bradley said. “I almost had to cut off my angle. If I jump at the wall at an angle, I won’t be able to dig my spike into the wall. I never looked back at the wall when I went up. I knew my steps. I knew the amount of steps needed to take in order to get to that location.”
There’s something else he knows, too.
Recently, Bradley’s catch was posted on MLB’s Instagram account. The Rays responded, pumping up their own center fielder in the comments: “[Kevin] Kiermaier better.”
Bradley replied: “Let me jot that down.”
Like the amount of steps it takes for him to get to a wall, Bradley knows where he sits among the league’s top center fielders.
“I’ll keep it on a little notepad," Bradley said. "I’ll just remember it. There’s nothing wrong with that.”