The Red Sox sent New England into a frenzy late Wednesday night, acquiring Jackie Bradley Jr. and minor league infielders Alex Binelas and David Hamilton from the Brewers just ahead of Major League Baseball imposing a lockout at midnight.
The Brewers received outfielder Hunter Renfroe, but the story was Bradley, who was a first-round draft choice by the Red Sox in 2011 and spent his first eight major league seasons in Boston.
Bradley signed with the Brewers as a free agent last offseason and then struggled mightily, batting .163 in 428 plate appearances. His average and OPS (.497) were the lowest in the majors among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. Bradley has always been known as a streaky hitter and glove-first guy, but those numbers were jarring.
In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Bradley hit .283/.364/.450 with seven home runs and an .814 OPS in 217 plate appearances. Despite the small sample size, Bradley felt he was finally beginning to understand his swing. He stopped trying to slug and instead began trying to find holes, knowing that results would be the ultimate judge, not necessarily how hard he hit the ball. For instance, he would take the broken-bat single to beat the shift instead of the hard-hit ball right at the second baseman.
The 2020 season also brought out a strength of Bradley’s that he never consistently tapped into during previous seasons: Using the opposite field.
Bradley’s bat path is made for Fenway Park and its short left field. In 2020, Bradley utilized that part of the ballpark 27.8 percent of the time, the highest mark of his career. Bradley lowered his pull percentage to 29.9, the lowest of his career, and stayed up the middle 42.4 percent of the time, also a career high. Bradley kept his approach up the middle to left-center, which kept him in a direct path to the baseball.
During his tenure with the Red Sox, Bradley would often roll over pitches toward second base. In some sense, Bradley still did that, but focusing on the opposite field gave Bradley his best chance at being successful.
But in 2021 with the Brewers, that approach wasn’t followed. Bradley used the opposite field at just a 19.8 percent rate, tied for the lowest of his career. He became pull-happy again, increasing that rate to 43 percent. Bradley yielded a career-high strikeout rate, too (30.8 percent). And after hitting .377 on fastballs in 2020, that number dipped to .187 last season.
Despite those numbers, the Red Sox still wanted a reunion, and for valid reasons. As chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said Wednesday night following the trade, “True center fielders are hard to find.”
Bradley was a Gold Glove finalist in center last season. Renfroe, meanwhile, was a Gold Glove finalist in right field and was tied for the most outfield assists (16) in the majors. However, he also led outfielders with 12 errors.
Renfroe had a career year at the plate, batting .259 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs, but the Red Sox’ struggles in the outfield were glaring, forcing Kiké Hernández into the everyday center field role.
Hernández in center is still in play; Bloom mentioned the possibility of using Hernández or Bradley in right field, too. But Bradley’s ability to command center field at such an elite level gives the Sox more options and flexibility. On days the Sox feel they need to upgrade the infield defense, for instance, Hernández can shift to his natural position at second.
Even though he’s been inconsistent during his career, it’s tough to imagine Bradley being as bad as he was in 2021 for the Brewers. Furthermore, Bradley has experience and familiarity with not only the Red Sox but the American League East, which should produce some positive results.
In the end, though, he’s not back with the Red Sox to produce at the plate. Shipping Renfroe off shows the Sox feel they have enough offense. Bradley’s homecoming, instead, shines light on a defensive upgrade, one that the Sox desperately needed.
“Jackie is really one of the best, especially one of the best in this ballpark, that’s ever done it,” Bloom said. “And so to have him back, I think, the more the merrier in terms of premium outfield defenders here.”