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Alex Speier

Can Jackie Bradley Jr. turn his season around again?

It’s not Jackie Bradley Jr.’s first time at this rodeo.

Monday represented a landmark for the 29-year-old Red Sox outfielder, who stayed on an Elvis Luciano changeup and drilled it over the fence in left for his first homer of the year in a 12-2 romp over the Blue Jays. The timing — in the Red Sox’ 47th game of the season — was noteworthy given its similarity to his emergence from a funk one year earlier.

In May 2018, Bradley went through a couple of weeks in which he simply couldn’t hit fastballs.

There was no art to what opponents were doing; they just pounded the zone with four-seamers and watched Bradley whiff. The struggles were so pronounced that manager Alex Cora started scaling back his playing time, and it was fair to wonder whether a demotion was in his best interest.

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But in his second at-bat May 20 — the 47th game of the season — Bradley ripped a fastball for a double. Though he owned a meager .165/.267/.252 line at the end of that game, from that point forward, Bradley started hitting the ball hard — initially with little to show for it.

Bradley hit .259/.332/.458 over the rest of the season, meaning that for those last four-plus months of the season, he was an above-average hitter (the league average slash line in 2018 was .248/.318/.409) who played superb defense. He was an above-average all-around player. The Red Sox stuck with him and were rewarded for doing so.

Can he do it again? Comparing Bradley's numbers last season to this year, and how he finished 2018
Category 2019 (first 47 games) 2018 (first 47 games) Rest of 2018 (last 115 games)
Average .146 .165 .259
Slugging .243 .267 .332
OBP .200 .252 .458
Strikeout % 30.0 28.1 24.7
Swing/Miss % 16.6 16.3 13.8
xwOBA .275 .290 .368
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com, BaseballSavant.com

They were rewarded again Tuesday, albeit in a 10-3 loss in Toronto, as Bradley went 2 for 4 with a solo home run in the eighth.

However, it’s somewhat dangerous to assume that because Bradley figured out his offensive approach at roughly this point of 2018 that he’ll do the same in 2019. The degree of difficulty is somewhat greater given some fundamental swing adjustments he made during the offseason. Still, given the magnitude of last year’s turnaround, it’s worth asking whether Bradley came back from depths that were this extreme a year ago.

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Bradley’s start to this season has been worse than in 2018. His average and OBP are somewhat lower, while his slugging percentage through 47 games (.200) was significantly lower in 2019.

Yet his swing-and-miss rate was virtually unchanged — which is to say, very bad — and his strikeout rate likewise was up (from 28.1 percent to 30.0) but only slightly.

In other words, he’s been making contact about as much as he was in 2018 — when he showed the ability to improve the frequency and quality of his contact considerably starting in late May.

Is there any evidence that Bradley, beyond his two homers, is showing improvement? Beyond his batting average, there seems to be

a few signs pointing in the right general direction:

■ Bradley couldn’t hit a four-seam fastball in April. He swung-and-missed at roughly one out of every seven heaters he saw (14.3 percent). This month, he had cut his swing-and-miss rate against four-seamers to a more reasonable 8.1 percent — roughly one of every 12 he saw.

■ The adaptation with his new swing to breaking balls (curveballs and sliders) was particularly extreme in April, no surprise given his attempt to work with a new swing plane that would be most challenged by the depth of pitches.

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He had no shot against curveballs in particular last month, going 0 for 10 with seven strikeouts while swinging and missing at more than one of every six. This month, he had swung and missed at roughly one of every 20 curveballs.

And though hitless against sliders this month, he’s shown an improved ability to get the bat on the ball, with a decreasing swing-and-miss rate against such offerings.

■ His swing-and-miss numbers were jumping in May against changeups — making his homer on Monday off that pitch particularly significant. Opponents are going to attack Bradley with changeups until he proves he can hit them. On Monday, he did just that.

Is Jackie Bradley Jr. on the upswing How he has hit by pitch type in April and May
APRIL MAY
Pitch Type Average Slugging Swing/Miss% Average Slugging Swing/Miss%
4-seam .185 .259 14.3 .167 .250 8.1
Sinker .375 .375 7.8 .250 .250 11.1
Changeup .071 .071 19.1 .143 .571 29.3
Slider .063 .125 27.6 .000 .000 22.6
Curveball .000 .000 17.5 .200 .200 5.3
Cutter .000 .000 23.5 .167 .167 15
Splitter .000 .000 28.6
Overall .148 .182 17.5 0.143 0.238 14.9
SOURCE: BrooksBaseball.net

■ Overall, his quality and frequency of contact has gone up considerably.

Statcast measures “expected weighted on-base average” (xwOBA) — a statistic that takes the exit velocity and launch angle of every ball put in play by a hitter to measure the likelihood that a ball hit in a similar fashion becomes an out, single, double, triple, or homer. Doing so strips out the luck associated with balls put in play — i.e. if a batter hit a rocket to a fielder.

Based on that metric, Bradley had been much better in May (his .326 xwOBA is just above the league average of .322) than he was in April (.249).

In short, Bradley has been showing the sort of in-season improvement that convinced Cora to stick with him through his early struggles in 2018.

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That faith was rewarded over the duration of the regular season and particularly during the playoffs, when the center fielder delivered numerous game-changing hits.

If Bradley continues to show improvement this year, perhaps Cora’s commitment to the longer view will once again be rewarded.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.