NEW YORK — Typically, hitters mark offensive turnarounds through approximations. They have been feeling good “for a while,” over a stretch, a few games, a couple weeks. Jackie Bradley Jr., however, eschewed vagueness in identifying what may be a pivotal moment in his season.
He started to see improved results last week in Toronto, driving a couple of homers to the opposite field. But that’s not where he felt an offensive transformation occur. Instead, Bradley circled last Saturday in Houston as one that marked a redirection of his season.
“It was work that I put in that day to make the adjustment,” Bradley said before Thursday’s game against the Yankees was rained out. “Ever since then, I can tell a difference.”
Prior to Saturday’s game against the Astros, Bradley spent time in the batting cage with hitting coach Tim Hyers, assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett, and teammate Mookie Betts. Bradley had been struggling with the timing of the weight transfer in his swing all season, rushing forward too early with his front leg in a way that disrupted the timing of his swing.
Moreover, Bradley’s swing was becoming a paint-by-numbers exercise rather than a fluid, instinctual act. In a season where he’s been implementing swing changes made during the offseason, Bradley was worrying about mechanics – where his hands and legs were – rather than simply reacting to pitches.
Yet that changed during pregame work on Saturday. Barkett mixed breaking balls and fastballs from a distance of roughly 30 feet. It’s a difficult drill, one with which Bradley had struggled in the past.
This time was different. It was as if Bradley had entered the Matrix, time slowing into drips as he started smashing every pitch that his coach threw.
“I was mixing fastballs and breaking balls from a very short distance, not telling him what was coming. He was able to have his way with it, to the point where it was incredible how good he was doing it. It was like this light bulb going on,” said Barkett. “Most people are going to have a hard time hitting either one from that close. He was hitting both with ease. I was like, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing right now.’
“Since then, it’s just kept going. I asked him today about it. He referenced that day, and how impactful it was on him, because of what he learned about himself from the drill that we did.”
Bradley had been working for some time to get his swing synched up, making steady progress – including through the Toronto series. But that pregame work in Houston represented something different, what Barkett called a “final exam,” one that assured Bradley that he can trust the rhythm of his swing and simply react to pitches rather than trying to align the twin variables of what an opposing pitcher is doing and what he’s trying to do with a swing.
It’s only been five games, but there is evidence of progress in Bradley’s recent results. In 20 plate appearances since that work, he is 5 for 15 with a homer, three doubles and three RBIs. He has reached base in half (10) of those plate appearances while striking out just once.
Of particular note, Bradley is crushing the ball to the opposite field — particularly noteworthy given that, according to Fangraphs, the outfielder is hitting .615 with a 1.231 slugging mark when hitting the ball to left this year. Through April, just 20 percent of the balls he put in play were to the opposite field; in May, that number has jumped to 32.1 percent.
Bradley is well aware of his success when hitting the ball to left. Yet earlier this year, his timing did not permit him to do so successfully.
“I’d been letting the ball travel the whole season,” said Bradley. “You might not have known when I was trying to go the other way because they were foul balls or missed.”
Now, however, he’s not missing.
That said, Bradley does not take his recent improvement – either this five-game burst or a slightly broader 10-game run in which he’s hitting .324/.419/.784 — for granted. There is satisfaction that the work he’s invested all season behind the scenes is starting to pay dividends, but at a time when he’s hitting .185/.285/.315 for the season, Bradley isn’t about to take a victory lap.
“It’s great [to see improvement]. You know that [the work is] something that’s going to be beneficial, something that’s easily repeatable,” said Bradley. “[But] I’m not where I want to be. I’m not going to be overly excited about it. I’ve dug myself in a hole, and I’m going to work my way out of it.”
That process, it appears, may have started.