The path Jackie Bradley Jr. was on with the Red Sox ended in one place, his getting traded. It seemed inevitable that a National League team with a spacious ballpark — say, the Padres — would offer up a prospect or two for Bradley to play center field and that would be that.
The Red Sox set it up, moving Mookie Betts to center and then signing outfielder Rusney Castillo out of Cuba. Everywhere Bradley looked, there was an arrow pointing in another direction.
“I’m sure he felt that maybe he wasn’t going to be a part of this organization and be somewhere else,” hitting coach Chili Davis said. “Sometimes your defense mechanism is to say, ‘Fine, it is what it is and hopefully that day comes.’ ”
You don’t choose Scott Boras as your agent, which Bradley did when he left college, without being pragmatic about the business of baseball. Bradley understood better than anybody that the Red Sox were running out of patience with him.
In 2014, Bradley was the worst-hitting center fielder in the majors. He was demoted to Triple A in August, and when he came back in September, he was 1 for 36.
That left Bradley at .198 for the season with a .531 OPS. That Bradley was one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, perhaps the very best, did not make up for his inability to hit.
“I struggled. I struggled bad,” Bradley said. “I knew I had to do something. I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. I wasn’t consistent. When I did hit the ball hard, I couldn’t replicate it.”
In the offseason, Bradley took time off to travel and spend time with his wife, Erin. The couple also purchased a new home in Naples, Fla., about a 45-minute drive from the Red Sox spring training facility in Fort Myers.
His head clear, Bradley called assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez around Jan. 1. Rodriguez, who lives in Fort Myers, makes himself available to the players in the offseason. The two went to work a few days later.
“Before we started, I asked him what he wanted to do,” said Rodriguez. “He told me exactly what I had to hear. Jackie had a plan.”
Bradley wanted to shorten his swing, take the movement out of his stance, and cover more of the plate. He was cheating to get to pitches outside and getting beat by fastballs on the inner half.
“I had nothing to say,” said Rodriguez. “I felt the same way.”
Bradley and Rodriguez met for a few days a week at Fenway South, taking countless rounds of batting practice and rebuilding his swing. By the time spring training started, Bradley was taking quick, short swings and generating more power.
Davis, in his first year as hitting coach, liked what he saw.
“Jackie had a bigger swing and he needed to cut it down,” Davis said. “A lot of young kids, they swing and they get out of control. The more you’re in control, the shorter your swing is, the more good contact you’re going to make and the more precise contact you’re going to make.
“If the contact is constant and the barrel of the bat is getting to the ball, the power will be there.”
Davis demonstrated by throwing a punch from behind his right shoulder.
“If you start way back punching, it takes a lot of effort to be quick, and it won’t be as accurate and I’ll probably miss you,” he said. “Being short to the ball and getting through it, it creates better contact. If you have the power, it will show up. If not, you’ll hit a bunch of line drives. It’s a win-win.”
Bradley looked good in spring training, and over the course of 71 games he hit .305 for Triple A Pawtucket. Success at the majors was more difficult to establish. He was called up three times from April 28 to June 25 and was 4 for 30.
“We talked a lot about trust,” Rodriguez said. “He was taking better swings and he had to stay with that. He believed what we were telling him. He trusted Chili, I know that.”
Bradley stayed with the plan that had worked for months.
“I knew I still had work to do,” he said. “I wasn’t down and out. I was where I was at the moment. Just keep playing and try to force an opportunity.”
The Red Sox traded Shane Victorino on July 27 and called up Bradley the next day. Since then, he has hit .333 over 31 games, with 11 doubles, 3 triples, 5 home runs, and 25 RBIs.
Bradley is 29 of 68 since Aug. 9, with 19 extra-base hits. Interim manager Torey Lovullo has kept Bradley in the lower third of the order, allowing him to be comfortable.
“What we’re seeing now fundamentally is the front foot’s down, the hands are back, and he’s surveying the strike zone,” said Lovullo. “He’s able to command the strike zone and not miss pitches the way he has in the past.
“The muscle memory is there and it’s been pretty impressive. I feel like him getting in a good position to hit has bred confidence.”
Is it real? Bradley was a career .331 hitter at the University of South Carolina and has hit .294 in the minors over 303 games. It’s reasonable to suggest he can be at least a league-average hitter in the majors.
“Oh, he can hit,” Davis said. “Sometimes it takes guys a little longer at the highest level. But Jackie can hit.”
In the coming days, the Red Sox are planning to shift Bradley back to center field and move Betts to one of the corners. New president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski — who tried to trade for Bradley when he was in Detroit — speaks glowingly about his defense.
Former general manager Ben Cherington served the Red Sox well by not trading Bradley.
“You look back and you think it’s good we didn’t get rid of that guy,” said Rodriguez. “He’s a good player. In the meetings that we had, I remember Ben saying to make sure we didn’t lose him. We knew if we could get him going with the bat, we’d have something special.”
Said Davis, “I don’t want him somewhere else. I want him here. He’s too good a player. I love the fact he’s smiling more, he’s more boisterous, and he’s talking more. He feels a part of this.”
Bradley diplomatically evaded a question about whether he feels wanted again.
“Let’s just say I feel more comfortable,” he said. “I’m proud that I never changed as a person. I had to change as a hitter.”