FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jackie Bradley Jr. made his major league debut with the Red Sox on April 1, 2013. Only second baseman Dustin Pedroia has been with the team longer.
Be it through trade, free agency, or retirement, nearly all of the players Bradley broke in with have left the organization.
On the day Bradley made his debut, Jon Lester beat the Yankees with relief help from Koji Uehara, Andrew Miller, Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa, and Joel Hanrahan.
Bradley batted eighth, behind Jonny Gomes and ahead of Jose Iglesias.
“That’s pretty crazy. It’s been a long road but I’m glad to say I’m still here,” Bradley said during a recent interview after working out at JetBlue Park. “There were times I didn’t think I was going to be. But things have a way of working themselves out.”
As the Red Sox prepare for spring training, Bradley is coming off his first full season in the majors. He played in all but six games in 2016, posting an .835 OPS. Bradley had 26 homers, drove in 87 runs, and made the All-Star team.
He also experienced the postseason for the first time and was a finalist for the Gold Glove in center field. Based on WAR, only Mookie Betts and Pedroia were more valuable to the Sox last season.
As a new season approaches, the 26-year-old Bradley is intent on refining his skills. His focus offensively is cutting down on strikeouts and defensively to make his throws more accurate.
“I want my strikeout percentage to continue to go down. That’s my thing. If I put the ball in play more often, I have a chance,” Bradley said.
Bradley struck out in 28 percent of his 678 plate appearances during the 2014-15 seasons. He dropped that to 22.5 percent in 636 plate appearances in 2016. That was still 16th in the American League.
Teams have come to view strikeouts as a necessary residue of hitting for power. But Bradley can’t accept that.
“No matter how much the perception has changed, I hate striking out,” he said. “You’re not supposed to feel this way, but I feel embarrassed. My mind-set is if you really despise something, you’ll do less of it.”
As he did last season, Bradley wants to stay aggressive early in counts.
“The perfect pitch is one you can handle,” he said. “You get late in the count and the pitcher has the advantage. The cat-and-mouse game is against you. You have to stay aggressive with certain pitchers, especially pitchers who have great strikeout rates.”
Bradley hit 30 home runs in 172 games at South Carolina, so the power he showed last season wasn’t a surprise. But he doesn’t consider himself a power hitter quite yet.
“It’s maturity and I’ve put the work in. But I didn’t expect 26 homers,” he said. “Now I’ve raised the level of expectation on myself. Whatever happens is fine. I like triples, too. Those are fun.”
In the field, Bradley is intent on winning a Gold Glove.
“There are things I can do better,” he said. “I’m going to be very focused and determined to finally get one.”
Bradley felt he was too quick with some throws instead of trusting his strong right arm.
“I need to take my time and make a more accurate throw,” he said. “My personal expectations are high. I should be better.”
Bradley is looking forward to a full season with Andrew Benintendi in left. An outfield of Benintendi, Bradley, and Gold Glove winner Betts has the ability to change games.
“A lot of talent, a lot of athleticism out there. Both of those guys are very smart,” Bradley said. “Communication is the key, as always. Us three, we can’t hit each other. We can’t do that. But I think it’ll be so much fun to see the range and the fun we’re going to have.
“All of us really take pride in our defense. It’s impacting the game now and being looked up as getting closer to hitting in terms of value. I love that it’s getting the recognition it is.”
Bradley and Betts played the outfield with the kind of on-field chemistry usually associated with the second baseman and shortstop. As a group, the Sox saved 42 runs defensively in the outfield, second in the majors to Kansas City, which had 45. A full season of Benintendi should make the Sox even better.
“It’s almost like a competition between ourselves to see who could make the best play,” Bradley said.
The Sox outfielders even had their own postgame celebration, a meeting in center field that ended with the player who had the best game doing a dance step while the other two pantomimed taking his photo.
Will “Win, Dance, Repeat” return in 2017?
“That’s a good question. That is what everybody has been asking,” Bradley said. “We haven’t thought about or talked it through. I’m sure we’ll figure something out. We came up with it in spring training. Once the boys get back together and rekindle, we’ll see. Everybody seems to like it except for the losing team.”
Bradley has experienced some life-altering changes off the field. He became a father for the first time in June and with his wife, Erin, delights in the adventures of their daughter, Emerson.
Bradley also landed a $3.6 million deal from the Red Sox in his first year of arbitration eligibility. The Sox control his rights for two more seasons.
“We accomplished a lot last year,” Bradley said. “I look at the guys working out here already and you get a sense of how special the team could be again. We’re all ready to get started.”
Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.