At least Milton Bradley is never boring. This morning, the former Chicago Cubs outfielder was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "Two years ago, I played, and I was good. I go to Chicago, not good. I've been good my whole career. So, obviously, it was something with Chicago, not me." Obviously. Bradley, who has -- how to put this politely -- bounced around baseball, was reacting to criticism of his one-year tenure at Wrigley Field, in which he hit .257 with 12 HR, and then traded to Seattle. The 31-year-old switch-hitter claims that fans on the North Side expected too much out of him. Well, who's really to blame, Chicago or Milton?
In 2008, Bradley looked like he had finally put together all of his considerable raw talent into a coherent package. With the Rangers, he put up a .321/.436/.563 line. Riding that performance, he signed a three-year deal with the Cubs worth $30 million. Was his 2008 performance really the result of playing in a low-pressure media situation on a team that was not expected to contend? Perhaps there's another explanation. Take a look at the percentage of pitches he swung at outside of the strike zone going back to 2006.
Obviously, swinging at a ball outside the strike zone isn't a good idea because it leads to a lot of foul balls and weak tappers. Sadly for Bradley, he was usually rather good at making contact with these pitches. In 2006, he made contact with 59.1 percent of them, and in 2007, 58.0 percent. In 2008, while swinging at the highest percentage of pitches out of the zone in that four-year span, his contact rate on them dropped to 47.5 percent. He swung and missed more often at bad pitches, rather than making contact with them, and had a career year. In 2009, his contact rate was back up to 59.8 percent on balls out of the zone.
But there was another side effect that actually worked in his favor. In 2008, Bradley's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) jumped to .388, which appears fluky when compared to his career BABIP of .322. In 2009, his BABIP was a more vanilla .310, which is more in line with his career mark. Bradley's inability to make contact with balls out of the zone in 2008 meant that when he did hit a pitch, it was a better pitch and he was able to hit it harder. So, Milton Bradley, if you want to play the game of who's to blame, may I suggest looking in the mirror. You were fortunate to not make contact with some pitches that you had no business swinging at in 2008. And you are $30 million richer for it.
Mariners fans, if you see Milton lunging and missing at a ball out of the zone in 2010, thank your lucky stars.
Russell Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus