It’s been a roller coaster of a calendar year, plus a few months, for center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. He made the 2013 Opening Day roster, but lasted less then a month before being sent down to Triple-A Pawtucket - spending the majority of the season there before being called back up in September. He did not make the postseason roster.
Fast forward to 2014 and Bradley Jr. originally didn’t make the Opening Day roster, as he was beat out by Grady Sizemore, but due to an injury to Shane Victorino, he was added to the squad the day the season opened and since that time he’s been able to gain a sense of comfort and establish himself as the everyday center fielder.
“Every single day you’re going to learn and that’s what I’ve been able to do, especially playing everyday lately,” Bradley Jr. said. “It’s just learning, the daily grind and getting to know different pitchers and their strengths and weaknesses.”
Last season in 37 games, Bradley Jr. had a slash line of .189/.280/.337, appearing overmatched at times. In 29 games to open 2014, the 24-year-old is hitting .225/.337/.348, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story as he’s looked much more comfortable at the plate, including totaling 10 extra base hits after having just five a season ago.
Sizemore opened the year as the Opening Day center fielder, but a slow start for the former MVP candidate, combined with Bradley Jr.’s exceptional defense, has allowed Bradley Jr. to man center 22 of the last 24 games.
The Richmond, Virginia native has made some plays where he’s looked like a Gold Glove winner as he reads the ball extremely well off the bat and sprints to where the ball will fall. He’s also showcased a tremendously strong throwing arm, making it difficult for opponents to try and take an extra base on him.
"He gets some of the best jumps on balls of anybody I’ve ever seen,” pitcher Clay Buchholz said. “And that’s saying a lot, having Ells (Jacoby Ellsbury) out there for the last couple years. He’s picked us up a lot.”
Bradley Jr. is a very humble, calm player and person, but when asked this week about how much confidence he has in the field, his eyes lit up.
“A lot,” he said while a bright smile. “I feel like I can go get it.”
While it’s only a month into the season, it’s also worth noting that Bradley Jr. has the third-best WAR (wins above replacement) by a Red Sox position player (0.5), trailing only Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli.
Now getting consistent playing time, it’s been smooth sailing for Bradley Jr. so far in 2014 - a far cry from all the ups and downs of a season ago.
Follow Metro Red Sox beat writer Ryan Hannable on Twitter @Hannable84