LOS ANGELES, CA – OCTOBER 28: Jackie Bradley Jr. #19 of the Boston Red Sox celebrates his team’s 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Five of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium on October 28, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Most arguments with Adam Jones conclude with me feeling like I’ve been arguing with myself.
But I’ll always remember the one when – in the midst of my first year at the Sports Hub – Jackie Bradley got stupid hot.
A post-hype prospect by the summer of 2015, JBJ had failed to beat out Grady freaking Sizemore for the center field job the previous year. His average sat a ghastly .102 on August 5th. The Red Sox were last in the AL East for a second consecutive campaign, five and a half back of the fourth place Rays.
Then he caught fire.
“He went like 5-for-6 with two homers, or something like that,” recalled Jones on the heels of yesterday’s news that Bradley signed a two-year, $24 million deal with the Brewers.
Apparently the Sports Vulture has the memory of an elephant.
In total, from August 9 to September 7, the center fielder hit a scorching .446 with seven homers and 32 RBI. The Sox went 15-10 in those games. But the nocturnal critic wasn’t convinced.
“That was the first time the hype got out of control.”
Hiding from the hot sun on a weekend afternoon in the subterranean channels of the old Sports Hub studios in Brighton, Jones and I pondered the future for JBJ in Boston. We were seeing the highs. We’d observed the lows. We knew he had a glove. What could we reasonably expect from an offensive standpoint going forward?
What was “good enough?”
Jones spent most of the shift throwing water on callers who thought the Sox had found the next Fred Lynn.
Would you believe I was the optimist in the discussion?
“I don’t know exactly what I said that day,” he said, “but I would bet you were more right than me.”
Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the floor.
“I probably said, ‘if Bradley could hit .250, he might have a spot in the major leagues.’ I might have said lower than that…that day in 2015, we weren’t even sure he’d be a major leaguer. We weren’t even sure he would stick.”
To say Bradley’s success came in fits and starts in the years to follow would be an understatement. In 2016, he had a 29-game hit streak over which he hit .415 with eight homers and 30 driven in. The Sox went 21-8 in those games. JBJ was selected to the American League All-Star team, but cooled down the stretch and had just one hit in 10 at-bats of a three-game ALDS sweep against Cleveland.
And Jones went back to a hill he wouldn’t leave. Still hasn’t.
“The problem is, he’s so trick or treat, you never know what you’re gonna get. That’s year to year, that’s within a season. That’s week to week, month to month.”
His average was at .202 on May 29 of the following season. He proceeded to hit .356 with six homers and 22 RBI over the next 35 games. The Sox were 22-13 in those contests.
He mustered just three hits in the 2018 ALCS against the Astros. But two of them were homers, and he famously drove in nine runs in three Boston victories to take home MVP of the series.
And did the Vulture eat crow? No way.
“He had some pop in that series. A low average, but some pop.”
“It really comes back to my ultimate feeling, if you really want to know what it is: that he’s over-hyped. Fans feel like he’s like this irreplaceable piece…he’s the greatest center fielder I’ve ever seen. He’s the greatest center fielder of my lifetime, patrolling the Fenway outfield. That is more of what I was pushing back on.”
But was he good enough?
If you look at his “prime” years of 2016 to 2018 – when the Red Sox went to the postseason – his average output was .250/.330/.433 with 19 homers, 70 RBI and 11 steals. Pretty solid.
Jones couldn’t resist a rebuttal.
“What about the other seasons? How many years was he in Boston, like eight? His peak is fine, but he didn’t do that every year.”
Sure, Bradley spent chunks of the season hitting below the Mendoza line, but inevitably there would be some big hits during a hot streak, and the glove was always there.
“I think there were times he was the third or fourth best defender at center field in his own division.”
Adam: you already told me I was right. JBJ’s a Brewer now. You can give it a rest.
When the ink dries on a player’s baseball card (or whatever NFT the kids are trading these days), the numbers are what they are. Memories of the miserable months when it seemed like Bradley’s bat was invisible may resurface from time to time. But the clutch swings, the unbelievable defensive plays, his role on a World Series winner…those things will stick with fans.
And we’ll look back with the same rose-colored glasses Jones spent half a decade trying to break like a schoolyard bully.
Wait, did I just use past tense? The Vulture never rests.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.