A glimmer of hope as Jackie Bradley Jr. adjusts his swing
For Jackie Bradley Jr., Wednesday marked a long-awaited night of hope. The Red Sox center fielder collected a pair of hits — just his second multi-hit game of the year — and drove in a pair of runs, while also hammering a ball to the track in left-center for a loud out, perhaps a sign that he may be awakening from a nightmarish start.
Of course, the real test comes in whether those glimmers of promise remain visible moving forward.
The Era of Launch has produced numerous success stories, players who became stars by overhauling their swings to drive the ball in the air with increased frequency. J.D. Martinez, Justin Turner, and Daniel Murphy are examples of players who redirected their careers by reconfiguring their swings and reconceiving of what they wanted to do at the plate.
Less publicized are the examples of players whose careers were set back by such adjustments. But the stories of players who endured worse performances after tinkering with their swings are numerous.
“There’s a lot of risk,” acknowledged Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers. “It’s risk versus reward.”
To this point in the season, Bradley has offered evidence of the risk of such an adjustment.
After a winter in which he worked diligently with Craig Wallenbrock, the same California hitting guru who helped Martinez overhaul his career, Bradley has gotten off to a dreadful offensive start.
Among players with at least 50 plate appearances, Bradley entered Wednesday with the third-lowest average (.134) and OPS (.367).
He’d swung and missed at 18.1 percent of all pitches he’d seen, the fourth-highest rate in the big leagues.
“It’s a result-oriented game. It’s time for the results to start showing,” said Bradley. “You don’t ever want to accept your struggles. You continue to work. [But] I get frustrated because I’m not showing what I’m capable of doing. I’m not stressing. I’m not worried. I’m more frustrated than anything.”
Bradley’s challenge may be amplified by the magnitude of the adjustments he’s trying to implement. After he went from a struggle in the first half of 2018 to a tremendous second half in part due to in-season adjustments, Bradley went further in order to solidify an approach intended to drive the ball in the air.
Yet he’s been searching both for the right mechanics — he’s working to eliminate a toe-tap timing mechanism, trying to take a more direct stride to get his foot down earlier so that he has fewer moving parts — as well as the right offensive approach. To date, he’s struggled to attack fastballs in the zone and he’s been vulnerable to chasing breaking balls out of the zone.
“I just think the swing, the approach, and the mental side just haven’t matched up for him yet,” said Hyers. “He’s trying to manage his timing, manage finding that swing plane, and going from there. It’s been a struggle for him for the first part of the season.”
The Red Sox and Bradley can take some solace in the fact that he’s come back from massive struggles before, whether his breakout in 2015 that allowed him to put behind an awful 2014, or his reversal from the first half to the second half last year.
“That proves that his character, that he’s going to keep working, keep grinding, and not give up,” said Hyers. “He’s run into failure before and he’s come out of it.”
That said, while Bradley — who is working with Hyers and assistant coach Andy Barkett while also consulting by phone with Wallenbrock — remains confident that he will emerge from his funk, he’s also getting impatient.
“I don’t do doubt. My talent hasn’t changed. I’m talented enough to do anything on this field — I can run, I can field, I can throw, I can hit for average, and I can hit for power,” said Bradley. “[But] I’ve got to go out there and do it. I don’t like talking about it because actions speak a lot louder than words.”
Despite injuries to their top three second basemen — Dustin Pedroia, Brock Holt, and Eduardo Nunez — when the Red Sox called up Michael Chavis last week it was not with the expectation that he’d play second given his limited exposure to the position. But his potential offensive impact and his initial comfort at the position forced the team to reconsider. On Wednesday night against the Tigers, Chavis was in the starting lineup at second for the third time in four games.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’ve got to see him more. There are a few people that feel [at the infield corners] he’s going to be fine,” said manager Alex Cora. “But you see him at second base. He’s making plays.”
It remains to be seen how much he remains at second, particularly once the Red Sox start getting their primary second basemen back, but the immediate offensive potential shown by the 23-year-old has led the team to think creatively.
“One thing for sure,” said Cora, “he’s going to be a good offensive player.”
Pedroia (left knee), Nunez (back), and Holt (cornea) took batting practice on the field against a pitching machine working at high velocity and ran the bases. Cora said that “there’s a pretty good chance” that Holt goes on a weekend rehab assignment and that Nunez might do likewise soon . . . The Red Sox have yet to announce a starter for Friday’s series opener against the Rays. David Price is scheduled to start on Saturday, and Chris Sale is slated to pitch the series finale on Sunday . . . Brian Johnson continues to make progress in his throwing program. The lefthander, on the injured list with elbow inflammation, is throwing from 90 feet.
With assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister visiting with affiliates, minor league pitching coordinator Dave Bush is working with the big league team.
“That was one of the goals, to expose me to this and let [Bannister] work with minor leaguers again,” said Bush. “It’s beneficial to both of us, and for coaches and players to hear some different voices.”
Bush was pursued by multiple organizations during the offseason, including an offer by the Brewers (one of his former teams) to serve as bullpen coach, but Bush declined, both because of the enjoyment he’s gotten out of his role with the Sox and because he can live at home year-round in Southern Maine.
Run of bad luck
Three years ago, Anderson Espinoza looked like the top Red Sox pitching prospect in years, with Pedro Martinez saying that the slight righthander compared favorably to him at a similar career stage. But the Sox traded Espinoza in the middle of 2016 for Drew Pomeranz, and since then the Padres have barely seen him on the mound.
Espinoza suffered an elbow injury in 2017 and required Tommy John surgery that season, wiping out his 2017 and 2018 campaigns. He returned this spring but this week was diagnosed yet again with a torn ulnar collateral ligament that will require a second Tommy John. Espinoza will be out until at least 2020.
“That’s so sad. He’s so gifted,” said Chavis, Espinoza’s teammate at Single A Greenville in 2015 and 2016. “He’s special. I remember one night where he sat at 96 miles per hour starting, this little, skinny kid blowing it right by everyone. I really hope it works out for him.”