Jackie Bradley Jr. started in center field for the Red Sox on Aug. 17, 2014, and had two hits. But within a few minutes of the game ending, he was called into the manager’s office and demoted to Triple A Pawtucket.
Mookie Betts, who only a few months earlier was a second baseman, would be the new center fielder and Bradley wasn’t needed. Five days later, the team announced it had signed Cuban center fielder Rusney Castillo for seven years and $72.5 million.
When that news popped up on his phone, Bradley realized his future was probably not with the Red Sox. If he were to make it in the majors, it would have to be with another team. At 24, he was so far down the depth chart the horizon wasn’t visible.
“They did a lot,” said Bradley. “That was a tough time. But it was out of my control. Let them do what they had to do and I would do what I had to do.
“It did pop into my mind that maybe I needed to be somewhere else. But I didn’t let that get too far. Because you never know what can happen. I just had to get better no matter who I was playing for.”
The Red Sox brought Bradley back to the majors when rosters expanded in September and he went 1 for 36. Well-meaning friends started calling, worried about his mental health.
“I don’t like to hear constant encouragement,” said Bradley. “It gets annoying. I was fine. Y’all think something is wrong with me. I’m a grown man. I’m not down and out. I’m not going to do anything harmful to myself. You can stop encouraging me.
“I was tired of hearing words.”
He didn’t blame the Red Sox. Bradley knew his .198 batting average and .256 on-base percentage were embarrassing. He was one of the worst hitters in the game.
“It was just one year. But it was a really, really bad year,” he said.
When the season ended, the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals were among the teams that poked around, hoping the Sox had soured enough on Bradley to trade him. The coaching staff had given up on him; that was the word.
“A lot of us thought he needed a change of scenery,” said a National League scout. “They could have easily moved him.”
Former Sox general manager Ben Cherington resisted. Bradley had game-changing defensive skills and was young enough to become at least an acceptable hitter. Bradley had been a supplemental first-round pick, and Cherington was rooted in player development.
“I didn’t pay attention to any rumors,” said Bradley. “It really comes down to yourself in the end. You have to want it. You have to have that fight.
“I wasn’t going to let that season beat me up or determine what kind of person or player I was. People want to see what you’re going to do to overcome it.”
Work with Rodriguez
Everybody sees it now. When Bradley reports to Fenway Park for Friday night’s game against the Cleveland Indians, his name will be in the lineup as the center fielder, just as it has been for all but one game in this turnaround season for the Red Sox.
Bradley is hitting .338 with 21 extra-base hits and 32 RBIs in 40 games.
Through Wednesday, his .997 OPS was ninth in the majors, and only five players had driven in more runs. Bradley’s .607 slugging percentage is 40 points higher than Mike Trout’s.
Don’t forget the hitting streak that is starting to captivate fans. Bradley has hit in 24 consecutive games, the longest run in the majors this season and longest within a single season for a Red Sox player since Dustin Pedroia hit in 25 straight in 2011.
Bradley has hit .407 since the streak started April 24.
“This is who is he is,” said Betts, who has moved to right field. “This is Jackie. I’m not saying he’s going to hit .400 the rest of the season, but this is the same hitter I saw in the minors. Power, hitting to all fields, he’s doing it all.”
To get from where he was then to where he is now, Bradley drove 35 miles. That’s how far it is from his offseason home in Naples, Fla., to the Red Sox spring training complex in Fort Myers.
Once Bradley rested up after the torturous 2014 season, he started working with assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez on eliminating the holes in his swing.
“I was very focused,” Bradley said.
On practice fields and in the batting cage, usually by themselves, Bradley and Rodriguez figured out what had to be fixed. Sometimes the drills were as simple as tying rope across the plate so Bradley would be forced to keep his swing level.
“He did the work,” Rodriguez said. “You can’t make them come in.”
Counterintuitive as it may sound, the biggest key was being less patient at the plate.
Bradley saw an average of 3.92 pitches per plate appearance in his first two seasons in the majors, putting him among the team leaders. But going deep into counts rarely paid off.
Bradley was making pitchers work, but he had a low on-base percentage and piles of strikeouts. By taking so many pitches, he was getting himself out.
“I looked back at some of those at-bats,” he said, “and I was thinking to myself, ‘Why are you taking pitches right down the middle? You might not get that again.’ ”
Bradley was a product of a minor league system that rewarded working counts, and he was a successful hitter at every level. But against major league pitchers with better command, what was a virtue became an obstacle.
“It works for some people. It didn’t work for me,” Bradley said. “They wanted us to make the pitcher work. That’s all they told us. Make the pitcher labor. I want to make the pitcher work by getting constant base hits.
“I’m trying to be a hitter; I’m not trying to work counts. That doesn’t work for me. If the pitcher wants to walk you, he’ll walk you.”
‘He showed us’
Once spring training started in 2015, new hitting coach Chili Davis developed a good rapport with Bradley, and they built on the suggestions Rodriguez made. Bradley also kept a low profile, keeping comments to the media perfunctory if he made any at all.
“You learn about your level of competiveness, your level of resolve, in times when you’re challenged,” said manager John Farrell. “We saw a different player.”
Bradley started the season in the minors and was recalled for brief stints in May and June. As the Red Sox fell into last place and traded off veteran players, Bradley became a starter in late July.
There was a hot streak in August and a cold spell in September, but the sum was a vast improvement. He started 57 of the final 60 games, hitting .267 with an .891 OPS.
“We played him to see what he could do and he showed us,” said bench coach Torey Lovullo, who managed the final 48 games as Farrell underwent cancer treatments. “Sometimes a player just needs that second chance.”
Lovullo’s upbeat style of managing connected with the younger players, Bradley among them. As the Sox improved, he was right in the middle of it.
“Every time I stepped on the field, it was an opportunity to showcase myself and prove I belonged here,” Bradley said. “I wanted to do something to help the team.”
Dave Dombrowski, who as GM of the Tigers tried to trade for Bradley, took over as president of baseball operations of the Red Sox in August. He wanted Bradley in center field. The uncertainty of 2014 was replaced by optimism.
That carried over into this season. Bradley earned a job in spring training and Farrell stuck with him.
“Let’s face it, 2014 was a prolonged challenge for him,” the manager said. “He’s a little bit more hardened for it. Hardened in a sense of what the game is going to present to guys. To see him benefit from the way he’s swinging the bat and playing now, you take some extra satisfaction.”
For Bradley, these are special times. His wife, Erin, is due with their first child next month, and family up and down the East Coast can’t wait.
Professionally, Bradley is an important player on what looks like a contending team, and he has the confidence of his manager. He is hitting .298 with 16 home runs and 73 RBIs over 100 games since his return to the majors last July.
One hundred games are enough games to invest in. As Betts said, this is who Bradley really is.
“I’m never a person to say, ‘Look, I told you so,’ ” said Bradley. “But that is what me smiling is about. I don’t need to say anything to anybody who was negative about me. Just know that when I smile, it’s me knowing I proved people wrong.”