The evolution of a hitter: Jackie Bradley Jr. out to prove his strong spring is for real

Jackie Bradley Jr. is 15-for-40 (.375) with two doubles and three home runs this spring. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Looking for reasons to believe in Jackie Bradley Jr. as a competent major league hitter?

Consider his first two at-bats Sunday.

In the second inning, young Philadelphia Phillies starter Jerad Eickhoff threw Bradley primarily offspeed pitches, including a two-strike curveball with enough break that the Boston Red Sox center fielder swung over it.

So, two innings later, Eickhoff altered his pattern, starting Bradley with a fastball. It made sense. In 700 big league at-bats, Bradley has swung at the first pitch only 10.6 percent of the time. In high school, he once went an entire American Legion season without swinging until he had taken two strikes, a strategy designed to teach him to hit after falling behind in the count.

This time, though, Bradley teed off, ambushing Eickhoff’s juicy heater and driving it to right-center field for a two-run homer.

A year ago, would Bradley have swung at that pitch?

“Probably not,” Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez said. “But it’s not just swinging at the first pitch. It’s knowing you’re ready to attack. If it’s not your pitch, take it. If he throws you your pitch early [in the count], attack.”

Rodriguez and hitting coach Chili Davis have been trying to instill that aggressiveness in Bradley, and the 25-year-old appears to have embraced the idea. He still prides himself on knowing the strike zone and waiting for his pitch, but now, if he gets that pitch early in the count, he isn’t afraid to pounce.

And Bradley is quietly putting together a stellar spring. You probably haven’t noticed, considering most of the attention in Red Sox camp has been focused on third baseman Pablo Sandoval’s belly and Hanley Ramirez’s first-base chops, but entering Monday’s game against the Baltimore Orioles (1:05 p.m., ESPN), Bradley is 15-for-40 (.375) with two doubles, three home runs and a 1.082 OPS.

Of course, it’s only spring training (let’s not forget Bradley took the Grapefruit League by storm in 2013, forcing his way onto the Opening Day roster, only to fizzle in April and get demoted to Triple-A), and it isn’t quite as impressive as the monthlong surge last year that had him looking like the second coming of Willie Mays. But it’s enough to give the Red Sox hope that Bradley might do enough with his bat to justify keeping his all-world glove in the lineup every day.

“I want to show that I’m a complete ballplayer, not just one-dimensional,” Bradley said. “I’m never going to give up. I give a lot of credit to the hitting coaches because we’ve been able to come in and do the things that we need to do and stick to that. It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to keep continuing to work.”

Last spring, Bradley was a Red Sox afterthought. He batted .198 with a .531 OPS in 127 games in 2014, including an 0-for-35 drought that threatened the longest run of futility in baseball history. He had a long swing that left him vulnerable to high-and-tight fastballs and behind both Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo on the organization’s outfield depth chart.

The Sox shuttled Bradley to and from Triple-A twice before calling him up again in late July. From Aug. 9 through Sept. 7, he went 37-for-83 (.446) with 13 doubles, four triples, seven homers and an otherworldly 1.441 OPS.

Bradley had heard other athletes talk about “The Zone.” For one month, he took up residence.

“You don’t think about what you're doing,” he said. “People ask, ‘What are you doing different?’ Sometimes you just don’t have an explanation. It felt like anything that came across the plate, it was going to be a hard-hit ball.”

It was a powerful feeling. It also was entirely unsustainable for any hitter. But with the Red Sox facing familiar AL East rivals over the final 25 games, Bradley finished the season in an 11-for-80 swoon that was more consistent with his .213 career average.

Still, he insists his torrid streak strengthened his belief that he could hit major league pitching. Bradley always projected such confidence, even when he struggled in 2013 and '14. Now, though, it’s a more subtle self-assurance. Rather than defiantly telling everyone how good he is, Bradley is simply out to show it.

“I don’t think there’s a false positivity he’s trying to generate,” manager John Farrell said. “I think he knows himself as a player more clearly. He’s experienced success. He’s learned from challenges along the way, so he knows himself.”

Said Rodriguez: “When you can do it one time, you can do it again. That’s what he knows now. He felt like that was a good run and he can do it on a consistent basis. That’s the big difference. He knows he’s a good hitter, and he can do it at this level.”

The Red Sox appear convinced of it, too. Rather than delving into a free-agent market that was loaded with proven outfielders, they opted to enter the season with Bradley in center field and the No. 9 spot in the order.

“I think we're seeing the Jackie Bradley that everybody thought we would have,” Rodriguez said.

If only he shows up during the season.