Jackie Bradley’s Time is Not Now

2012-07-02 18.11.30

The case for Bradley is simple: He’s been the best player in camp since the day he arrived. After going 3-for-4 with a homer on Monday and adding another hit in his lone at-bat yesterday, he finds himself hitting .536 (15-for-28). Add flawless outfield defense, the fact that he’s homegrown, and the lack of compelling alternatives, and this decision should be a slam dunk.” – John Tomase, “Jackie Bradley’s Time is Now

Like many fans and reporters alike, John Tomase of the Herald has apparently been swept up in the Jackie Bradley Jr hysteria that is sweeping Boston at the moment. Even implying that the Red Sox should send JBJ to the minors elicits reactions like these:

It’s easy to see why people are excited. From his appearances on everyone’s top prospects lists to his .423 OBP over two minor league seasons to his defense to his personality, it’s hard not to like the kid. As Chad Finn suggests, he might be “the fun story of camp.”

While it’s ok to get excited, however, it’s important not to get carried away. ZIPS, for example, believes that Bradley would produce something like a .249/.329/.367 in the majors right now. Given his defense and speed on the bases, that might actually still be a useful player. A savior, however, it is not.

“But,” you say, “he’s hitting .536/.629/.714 this spring!” Well, let’s talk about Spring Training statistics for a minute. Working as far back as MLB’s statistics allow us to go – 2006 – here are other notable Spring Training performances.

  • 2012: Putting up a .447/.512/.816 for a 1.327 OPS over 18 games, Darnell McDonald outhit Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, Will Middlebrooks and Adrian Gonzalez. His closest competitor amongst regulars is Cody Ross who slashed a .370/.431/.826.

    McDonald’s final numbers over the 38 games before the Red Sox released him? .214/.309/.369.
  • 2011: Amongst players with a minimum of 14 games in Spring Training – three more than Adrian Gonzalez played – Oscar Tejeda hit .360/.407/.640. That was better than Ellsbury, Gonzalez, Pedroia, JD Drew and Marco Scutaro.

    His final 2011 line? He never appeared in the majors, and split last season between the Pirates and Red Sox AA systems.
  • 2010: For players appearing in a minimum of 16 games, Jeremy Hermida was the best hitter on the roster, posting a .450/.500/.650 line.

    In the 52 games before his release, Hermida put up a .203/.257/.348 for the Red Sox.
  • 2009: Filtering to a minimum of 40 at bats, Jeff Bailey’s 1.055 OPS narrowly edged out Chris Carter’s 1.038 and Nick Green’s .938, but easily bested Pedroia’s .913, Jason Bay’s .909 or David Ortiz’ .892.

    Jeff Bailey’s final line in 2009? .208/.330/.416. It would be his last as a big league player.
  • 2008: Over a minimum of 35 at bats, Joe Thurston’s .874 OPS was enough to eclipse Drew, Manny Ramirez and Ortiz.

    How did Thurston do in 2008? He played four games for the Red Sox and hit .000.111/.000.
  • 2007: Do you remember Eddie Rogers? If so, you probably live near Pawtucket. He still managed to outhit Ortiz and Ramirez, however, with a .922 OPS.

    After appearing in a handful of games for the Orioles the year before, Rogers never played for the Red Sox in 2007 and hasn’t appeared in a major league game since.
  • 2006: Dustan Mohr might be a more familiar name, as he appeared in more than a 100 major league games from 2002-2004. With the Red Sox in the spring of 2006, he hit .350/.422/.650 for a 1.072 OPS. Ortiz only put up a .970, Ramirez a .944, Mike Lowell a .916 and Kevin Youkilis an .880.

    In 21 games for the Red Sox that season, Mohr put up a .175/.233/.350 line. He would appear in the majors for 7 games the following year, and that was it.

The point here, of course, isn’t that Bradley Jr is Darnell McDonald, Oscar Tejeda, Jeremy Hermida, Jeff Bailey, Joe Thurston, Eddie Rogers or Dustan Mohr. He’s better than all of them. In terms of their accumulated WAR totals, he’s exceedingly likely to end up being better than all of them combined.

No, the takeaway here is simple: spring training stats are meaningless. Basing decisions off of them, therefore, is foolish. And if you take away the spring numbers-based belief that he’ll be a well above average offensive player, the case for starting him in the majors collapses.

Having never played above AA – and having slumped noticeably in the second half there last year (.350/.424/.463 vs .228/.346/.423) – the 23 year old is likely to benefit from more consistent at bats in the minors. Just as important are questions of service time. While some dismiss these as minor issues, if you believe that Jackie Bradley Jr is the second coming, exposing him to free agency a year earlier than you have to is silly.

The only rational course of action for the club is to start him in the minors, likely at AAA. If he struggles, as could easily happen (development is rarely linear, remember), he would do so in an environment where the focus is on development rather than wins and losses. And if he puts up a 1.343 with Pawtucket, you’ve sacrified a few weeks of playing time to gain a year of service time. In a year where even the most optimistic forecasts have the Red Sox competing for one of the two wild card berths, that’s not only the logical choice, it’s the only choice.

Jackie Bradley Jr is a true prospect, and has done nothing in his career to argue that he won’t be an adequate successor to Ellsbury, but please, skip the Mike Trout comparisons. As a 20 year old, Trout put up a .326/.399/.564 line in the American League. When he was 20, Bradley was hitting .368/.473/.587 – for the University of South Carolina.

Trout couldn’t wait, but Bradley Jr can. So can we.

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4 thoughts on “Jackie Bradley’s Time is Not Now

  1. Fantastic points…I do have to quibble with one thing, though: why did you bother to cite ZIPS here? You note how worthless ST stats are, and yet apparently overlook that projection systems are almost as worthless for young players.
    Case in point: Mike Trout. His ZIPS projection was .267/.338/.414, and I don’t have to tell you how far off that was. Heck, it couldn’t even come close to nailing Trout’s stolen base profile (39 SB/14 CS projection, 49/5 actual).

    Even if you take a player with a much more similar profile to Bradley’s, Yonder Alonso, you see that ZIPS is largely taking a shot in the dark (likely just taking the player’s minor league performance and running it through an expected percentage decline of production for whatever league jump the player was set to make). JBJ has only one full season in the minors, so his potential production is all over the map.

  2. @redsoxu571: thanks for the comment. couple of thoughts:

    spring training statistics versus ZIPS (as well as other projection) systems is the definition of an apples to oranges comparison. the former reflects non-competitive performances (i.e. pitchers working on a specific pitch), non-major league caliber talent (look at the roster for any given game), hitters and pitchers regaining their timing and so on. in other words, it’s value-less from a numbers perspective. and while i’ve obviously focused on red sox examples to make it easier to relate to the examples, you can go through every teams spring training numbers and find exactly the same thing. in other words it’s not cherry picking, it’s the spring training reality.

    projection systems, on the other hand, are built on more reliable data: major league players competing against major league players, in games that actually count. they are therefore much more reliable as a predictor of future performance.

    every creator of a projection system, however, will freely and happily admit that the systems are imperfect. if anyone could predict the future with perfect accuracy, they probably would be working on wall street rather than in baseball. what projection systems are designed to provide, instead, is a version of the future that is measurably better than what we might come up with in the absence of such systems, by guessing. and it is indisputably better than what you would project based on spring training statistics.

    which is why the mike trout comparison is unfair. trout did something that maybe two or three other players have ever done in the history of the game. expecting projection systems to anticipate that kind of once in a generation performance is a fool’s errand, because the simple fact is that unexpected variances – good and bad – are part of what keeps life interesting. all that we can ask of projections is to give us their best guess based on past performances, and if a player hits that 1 in 1000 projection, tip your cap and hope the model gets it better next time. and appreciate the performance, of course.

    in the meantime, i’ll take ZIPS over spring training stats. maybe – hopefully – bradley outperforms the ZIPS line because we don’t have major league data for him. but if i had to bet between the .696 OPS forecast by ZIPS and his 1.343 OPS line from Spring Training, i know which i’d take.

  3. I agree with your assertion spring stats are meaningless, however that is not why JBJ should be our starting LF. First, he has a batting eye that is major league ready. He sees and identifies pitches quickly and lays off junk. That skill will translate to any league. Secondly, JBJ is better than Nava and probably equal to Gomes at this point in terms of production. If they are equal or even similar than the job should to the younger guy and Gomes becomes 4th OF and in the DH rotation.

    1. Then wouldnt you want his for that extra year? I would. Sorry, but keeping him in AAA until april 12th is a small price for another very valuable year of control in todays MLB…

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