Cleveland is still nine games over .500 after Josh Naylor’s horrific injury ... after Aaron Civale’s sudden finger issue ... after Shane Bieber’s shoulder started barking ... after Zach Plesac’s shirt-removal failure — I could go on, but someone really should have stopped me sooner. The point is, this doesn’t make sense. And while I should be over the moon about the results, instead I’m finding it hard to get into this team.
Some people are easily able to find the endearing in the 2021 Cleveland baseball club and I am jealous of those people. All I see is a bunch of luck and I can’t think of anything except how that luck will eventually run out. Maybe it’s the lifelong Cleveland fan in me (or University of Illinois fan, or Milwaukee Bucks fan — I’m a real hodgepodge of bad luck fandom), but I have to force myself out of the apocalyptic mood and into something more optimistic.
That’s where Bobby Bradley comes in.
Since his call-up on June 5, Bradley has slashed .246/.319/.569 with six home runs and a wRC+ of 137 in 72 plate appearances. This is a far cry from the guy who hit .178/.245/.356 with a 40.8% strikeout rate in 49 plate appearances back in 2019.
More than anything, this incarnation of Bobby Bradley is fun to watch. He’s got so much swagger on the field right now his shirt can’t contain it.
And his solid offensive start has seemed to put him at ease in the field as well. Check out this nice play against the Twins he made:
Perhaps the most important part about that video is the end, however. That’s when Bradley flashes a big grin toward the first base dugout. He’s just out there enjoying himself, and it shows in how much he has improved in 2021. The psychological aspect of the game is such a huge and unquantifiable part of performance that I could end my entire analysis of Bradley by simply concluding that he’s at ease and letting his natural talent shine through. But there has to be something more, right?
Maybe the simplest explanation is that in his time at Columbus between big-league stints, Bradley improved his pitch recognition. We’re talking about pretty small samples here, but Bradley’s chase rate is way down on breaking and off-speed pitches this year. He’s seen 79 breaking balls in 2021 and only chased 21.7%, whereas in 2019 he saw 93 and chased 37.9%; likewise, he’s seen 70 off-speed pitches and chased 30, whereas in 2019 he saw 23 and chased 35.7%. When you look at zones over the plate rather than pitch type, you see that Bradley has been better than league average with his pitch selection, improving in almost every zone.
This, of course, has led to fewer strikeouts. Bradley has long been associated with strikeouts, profiling similar to players such as Joey Gallo, striking out often but offering big rewards in the form of home runs when a connection was made. Again, we’re talking small samples, but the difference is evident in the zone map of strikes against Bradley in 2019 and 2021.
In his 19 games in Cleveland this year, Bradley is striking out 25% of the time, which is just slightly above the league average of 23.9%. It doesn’t seem like much, but he hasn’t had that low of a rate since he was promoted from Double-A in 2018. What’s more important is that he’s lowered his strikeout rate while maintaining his other stats; his HR/FB rate of 37.5% is the exact same as he had in Columbus this year through 109 plate appearances. Although we don’t have Statcast metrics for Triple-A, it seems safe to say his 19.1% barrel rate (perhaps unsustainable) is at least in line with his success with the Clippers.
In terms of mechanics, I don’t see much difference between his first home run for Cleveland from 2019 and his swing this week. The big change is that he’s become better at finding his pitch and laying off poor pitches. That might just be the difference that makes him a regular major league player, because after thousands and thousands of repetitions Bradley’s swing is what it is and any change is likely to get erased at the first sign of struggle. Mental skills are nebulous and can unravel in even more mysterious ways than a swing change, but no one can ever take away the success that Bradley has had so far.
Should a struggle come, Cleveland has a psychologist, a director of hitting development, two performance coaches, two sports scientists, and a bevy of analysts and baseball operations employees ready to help Bradley find his way back. And I bet when he sees himself smiling, shirt flapping the breeze, he’ll remember that this is fun.
That’s what Bradley reminds me, that baseball is fun — no matter how up and down everything can be. So, thanks Bobby, keep mashing taters for me.