We’re all well aware of JBJ’s prodigious struggles over the past two seasons. It’s been frustrating, painful, and just plain sad to see one of the Sox’ former top prospects look so completely lost at the plate. I don’t want to discount what he’s done in the field, because it has been immensely valuable, and he’s a supreme talent in center field, but he’s been worth, cumulatively, -0.1 fWAR over the past two seasons. For reference, here is JBJ’s career line through 158 major league games and 521 major league plate appearances: .200/.273/.285. His career K% so far is 28.4%, and he owns a deplorable wRC+ of 54. Conversely, his minor league performance gave us all quite a bit to dream on. Through 232 minor league games and 1058 minor league plate appearances, Jackie Bradley, Jr. hit .290/.394/.456, to go along with his otherworldly defense. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen anything even faintly resembling his minor league performance, with respect to offense, and frankly, it’s becoming worrisome.
I started becoming curious if anyone had ever started out his career so poorly, but was able to subsequently turn it around and have a successful career. We’ll define success very loosely. For the purposes of this article, we’ll define success as having appeared on at least one All-Star roster in his career. To shed some light on my question, I used the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index. I searched for all position players since 1901 whose on-base percentage and slugging percentage were both less than .300 in their first 500 major league plate appearances and on an All-Star roster at some point in their careers. The list of players who have done this is very, very short: Ozzie Smith (Career fWAR: 67.6), Larry Bowa (Career fWAR: 16.7), Connie Ryan (Career fWAR: 15.5), Omar Vizquel (Career fWAR 42.0), Dave Concepcion (Career fWAR: 39.7), Brandon Inge (Career fWAR: 15.4), Billy Hunter (Career fWAR: -3.4), and Brady Anderson (Career fWAR: 32.7). Now, this list may be largely uninspiring, but it wouldn’t be a total disaster if all we got from Jackie Bradley, Jr. were 15 wins above replacement. Baseball is extremely hard. The average career is 5.6 seasons. I think the Sox would be more than satisfied with 5.6 seasons of 2.6 fWAR ball, but in our minds, we build up prospect hype to nigh impossible to meet expectations, and we forget just how difficult it is to create actual value. All that being said, it’s still pretty terrifying that only 8 players ever have managed to make at least one All-Star team after such miserable starts to their careers. It’s also worth mentioning that of those 8 players, 5 of them were shortstops; so, much of their value is derived from their defense at arguably the most premium and difficult position on the field. There is only one center fielder on that list. It’s Brady Anderson.
Growing up, I was a Red Sox fan, of course, but I was also, admittedly, a huge Baltimore Orioles fan. Cal Ripken, Jr. was my hero. I had a Cal Ripken lunch box, Christmas tree ornament, a half dozen posters, a couple books, and close to 100 baseball cards. I had all sorts of Cal Ripken figurines and other assorted trinkets, and I could tell you the names of all of his siblings, where he was born and when he was born. Yes. It is a little creepy. Naturally, since I was such a huge Cal fan, I became a de facto O’s fan. I had to know who Cal played with and who his friends were on the team. So I started to follow and become a fan of Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, Mike Mussina, Eddie Murray, and, obviously, B.J. Surhoff. But my favorite player, other than Cal, had to be Brady Anderson. I couldn’t even really tell you why. I think partially it’s because of his incredible sideburns, and partially because he was number 9, which in my juvenile brain was in some way significant because sequentially it came immediately after the number 8, which, of course, was Cal’s number. But it’s also because I loved looking at his 1996 season on the back of his baseball cards. He hit 50 home runs that year and hit .297/.396/.637. It was just such an anomalous, albeit extremely impressive, year for Brady Anderson. The most home runs he had ever hit in a season before 1996 was 21, and the most home runs he ever hit in a season after 1996 was 24. It was just one of those crazy, fluke years that some players have (not dissimilar from Jacoby Elsbury’s monster 2011 season).
Brady Anderson was initially drafted in 1985, by the Boston Red Sox. He was traded to the Orioles in the summer of 1988, along with Curt Schilling (who was drafted by the Red Sox in 1986), for Mike Boddicker. Boddicker helped the Sox win the AL East that year, although the staff was led by that year’s AL strikeout champion, Roger Clemens. The Red Sox were promptly swept by Oakland in the ALCS, and the trade was made for naught. Anyways, back to Brady.
His first two seasons and 681 plate appearances were horrible. He batted .210/.296/.298, with nearly twice as many strikeouts as walks and an OPS+ of 69. Slowly, but surely, however, Brady came around, and finally broke out in 1992. In 1992, at age 28, Brady Anderson made his first All-Star team and finished 14th in MVP voting. He batted .271/.373/.449 with an OPS+ of 130. His walk rate and his strikeout rate were identical, at 13.1%, and he was worth 5.3 fWAR. It was an amazing year. He had two more years where he was even better, or almost as good (6.9 fWAR in 1996 and 5.2 fWAR in 1999), but he was never really able to replicate that level of success and sustain it. He did, however, play ten more seasons after his breakout in 1992, and he averaged 2.6 fWAR per season, which is nothing to sneer at.
As has been mentioned ad nauseum, Jackie Bradley, Jr. has the tool set necessary to succeed at the major league level, but whether he’ll be able to put it all together is another question entirely. It’s extremely troubling that there is essentially only one comparable player who was able to put together a nice career after starting out poorly, but it’s also oddly comforting. It’s as if there has to be someone else on that short list of players who were able to turn it around, and we just have to have confidence that Bradley, Jr. is going to be the one to do it. All we can do is wait patiently, marvel at his extraordinary defensive prowess, and hope that he manages to become a sort of Diet Brady Anderson on offense. I don’t think that’s asking too much, is it?