By the time I asked about Jackie Bradley Jr., Roberto Osuna wasn't really listening to me. Pro that he is, the Toronto Blue Jays closer had answered the first few questions I'd posed, about his pitch mix so far in 2016 and his suddenly slower slider, with an air of polite boredom—the tone you use when the cashier at K-Mart asks if you're paying with credit or debit. His hands, crossed in his lap as he sat in front of his locker, hadn't stopped fidgeting since I'd walked up to him. Then I mentioned Bradley's name. The hands stopped instantly. The head turned. The eyes met mine.
"Let me tell you something," he said, pausing for emphasis. "He is an unbelievable hitter. For me, he's one of the toughest hitters I've ever faced." Osuna has faced David Ortiz, and he has faced Mike Trout. He's faced Giancarlo Stanton, Buster Posey, and Albert Pujols. Yoenis Cespedes, Robinson Cano, and Dustin Pedroia have dug in against him, too. And yet, for Osuna, Jackie Bradley—who slashed .198/.265/.266 in his first full big league season and nearly fell out of the picture in Boston, and whose half-season quasi-breakout in 2015 still left him with a .245/.335/.498 line last year—stands out. If you're surprised, it's time to get over it. Over the final stretch of last season and the first third of this one, Jackie Bradley has become exactly what his numbers say he is: one of the best hitters in baseball.
That success isn't entirely unexpected. After all, the Boston Red Sox took Bradley with the 40th overall pick of the June draft in 2011, the last year of Theo Epstein's tenure with the team. But it wasn't inevitable, either, and it seemed extremely unlikely after Bradley's initial go-round in the league. Two years ago, Bradley was coming off a second consecutive season south of the Mendoza line, and still hadn't managed to bring his strikeout rate down from the high 20s. Boston fans and media alike clamored for a trade, and it was probably only his exceptional outfield defense, and the Sox's dearth of options in that department, that saved him. Now Bradley is saving the Sox: he's hitting .323/.400/.582 on the 2016 season, with nine home runs and an American League Player of the Month award already under his belt.
So what changed? Jose Bautista, who knows a thing or two about hitting—and about slow starts to a career—has a theory, and it's not complicated. "He's just not missing his pitches any more," Bautista told VICE Sports this week, "and he's having better-quality at bats where he's laying off off-speed pitches, and toughly located fastballs, and waiting for a better pitch." In essence, this is still See Ball, Hit Ball. It's not a difficult strategy to explain, but it remains extremely difficult to do, especially in the major leagues. When a player can simplify things like that, and truly see and hit the ball as if it were an easy thing to do, though, that makes life very hard for the opposing pitcher.
"Knowing that wherever you throw it, that's where he's going to hit it, it really makes you have to execute," said David Price, who faced Bradley in prior years before becoming his teammate in Boston this year. "You can't just live on one side of the plate, or know that you can have more wiggle room away or in; you've got to be able to execute against Jackie, and even when you do he's still hitting pitchers' pitches, and he's hitting pitchers' pitches for extra bases."
Rick Porcello, another Boston teammate and former adversary, agreed with Price. "I think he's not swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone anymore," he said. "And if they are slightly outside of the strike zone, they're pitches that he's looking for and he's hitting them." That sentiment is easily borne out by the numbers: Bradley's contact rate on pitches outside the zone has jumped four points since last year, and inside the zone by six, even as his swing rate has stayed basically constant. He's not swinging any more; he's swinging better.
As simple as it sounds, that's actually a fairly revolutionary leap forward in terms of Bradley's development. Most of the time, when a hitter suddenly gets better at making contact, it's because they've become better at recognizing pitches out of a pitcher's hand. That's the kind of skill that can take a bit of time to develop at the big-league level. This bit is not complicated: major league pitchers are a lot better than their minor league counterparts, and so getting used to their pitches is hard. It would be totally reasonable to chalk Bradley's improvements up to a young player—for all the struggles Bradley endured over his first two partial seasons in the league, he's still only 26—finally understanding what a changeup, or any other pitch, looks like out of the hand of a big leaguer.
But that's not it, according to his peers. The verdict was unanimous: Bradley could identify the pitches last year; he just couldn't hit them. Take it from the stars quoted above, if you want, or take it from the man himself.
"I actually felt like I was recognizing pitches a lot last year," Bradley told VICE Sports. "I just wasn't making contact. That kind of solved it—you make more contact and then it just seems like you're hitting better, and you're getting a lot of base hits because you're not missing as many pitches."
Bradley was naturally cagey about the mechanical changes he's made to get to pitches better, but it's easy to see that his swing is a little quicker to start this year, and his hands a bit swifter. Price, in particular, zeroed in on the relationship between Bradley's hands and his stance: "He's all over the plate [with his batting stance], but now he has the ability to suck his hands in on that good fastball in, or that good breaking ball in. He keeps his hands back, and what he's done with it throughout the course of this season has been pretty special."
When I asked Bradley if he'd done anything to speed up his hands this offseason, he grinned a wide, Cheshire Cat grin. "I think pitchers are always looking to adjust," he said. "I am as well. We both know it's a cat-and-mouse game, and the person who can make the adjustments the quickest is more than likely the one who's going to win." Which is a long, friendly, way of saying, Back off, guy, I'm winning and I'm not going to tell you a thing.
Fair enough. Bradley doesn't have to do much explaining these days, and his results speak for themselves. The league has definitely noticed. Porcello, with a hint of professional disgust that was tempered only slightly by the fact that he doesn't have to face him for the foreseeable future, put it most plainly. "There's no clear-cut path on how you're going to go after him anymore," he said. "You really just have to make pitches and kind of hope that he gets himself out."
Price had much the same thought: "When hitters are that hot," he said, leaning back in his chair, "you just kind of make a pitch, and hope they hit it at somebody." That hope, recently, has gone unfulfilled. Jackie Bradley Jr. has arrived, and for the moment no one has any idea how to get him to leave, let alone get him out.