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All Jackie Bradley Jr. Needs Is a Below-Average Bat

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By collecting hits in both games of Boston’s doubleheader on Wednesday, Jackie Bradley Jr. extended his hitting streak to 24 games. It’s now the longest hitting streak in MLB history by a person named Jackie. But beyond the shifting of forename-specific bragging rights, what does this mean?

It almost certainly does not mean that Bradley is going to keep hitting .338/.390/.607 for the rest of his career. If he did that, he’d be almost as good as Mike Trout. Yet while Bradley is no Trout, his current tear suggests that we finally need to start adjusting our expectations for the 26-year-old.

Bradley has been a big name in prospect circles since he was at the University of South Carolina. In 2011, the Red Sox took him no. 40 overall in a draft that also produced Gerrit Cole, Francisco Lindor, José Fernandez, and numerous other top prospects. Coming out of college, Bradley was already an elite defender — if not truly 80-grade, then close to it. He doesn’t launch missiles from the outfield like Yoenis Céspedes and he’s not constantly putting on an acrobatics exhibition like Kevin Pillar — though he can. Instead, Bradley, like Cinderella, magically gets to the ball no matter what. Even if he couldn’t hit a lick, the glove alone would make him a valuable fifth-outfielder type.

As an amateur, Bradley was a patient hitter, which allowed him to destroy pitchers in the SEC, the minors, and even spring training, where the quality of command isn’t that good. But once big league pitchers got to him, he started running deep counts, falling behind, and striking out a ton. With enough power, the high strikeout rate could be excused, but Bradley hit only 14 homers over his first three seasons in the majors. Before this season, he’d hit .213/.290/.349 in 785 big league plate appearances, and that’s despite a torrid finish to 2015.

So for Bradley, the question has always been: If you’re an elite defensive center fielder, what kind of hitting ability do you need to have a substantial career? In short, if you’re an elite center fielder, you don’t have to be an average hitter to be an average player overall; good defenders at premium positions can always get away with being a little less productive offensively. For instance, Kevin Pillar has a career 87 wRC+, and he’s a pretty good player. Kevin Kiermaier has a career 106 wRC+, and he’s been an All-Star-quality performer for two years now. Last year, Lorenzo Cain — despite not being named Kevin — was about as valuable at the plate as Prince Fielder, but Cain, thanks to his ability in center, was an MVP candidate. Meanwhile, Fielder was about a league-average player overall.

Bradley won’t keep hitting like the best player alive, but he doesn’t need to. Even if he’s a below-average hitter, he’ll be a valuable starter. And if he’s just an average-to-above-average hitter going forward, he’ll be one of Boston’s best players overall. For a while, it looked like Bradley’s bat would drag down his glove so much that he wouldn’t even be worth an everyday starting spot. But between his hot stretch run in 2015 and his even hotter start to 2016, a much brighter future is finally in play.

This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 20, 2016.