Jackie Bradley Jr., the best outfielder so far in 2014 for the Boston Red Sox, may be the best argument against making too much of small samples we've seen in some time.
In just over a year, Bradley managed to hit .419/.507/.613, coming out of nowhere to win a roster spot on the 2013 Red Sox and start the season as the team's everyday left fielder.
Soon enough, Bradley went from the next great Red Sox star in many eyes, to an epic failure, posting a 3-for-38 start that landed him back in Triple-A by the middle of April. He returned for a few more stints, holding his own a bit better, but didn't show enough to land a spot on the postseason roster. His rookie season OPS+, in 107 total plate appearances? 68.
Still, though the Red Sox signed Grady Sizemore as an insurance policy, they saw Bradley as their Opening Day center fielder entering 2014. But once again, Bradley's small sample appeared to tell a bigger story. His .476 OPS opened the door for Sizemore, who won the job. Bradley would have to prove he was better than the sum of his spring at Triple-A.
But then came the injury to Shane Victorino, the brief reprieve. And what do you know? In a small number of at-bats, Jackie Bradley Jr. figured it all out. He's at .276/.382/.345 entering Sunday, and is excelling in the field at all three outfield positions.
The questions have shifted again on Bradley, even as Victorino speeds toward recovery. Now, "Will he ever make it?" has been replaced by "Can the Red Sox send this guy down ever again?"
So it might amuse you to know that all these massive shifts in performance have come without Bradley altering his process, his outlook and certainly not his belief in himself.
"I haven't changed anything really, honestly," Bradley told me as we talked in front of his locker prior to Saturday's game against the Yankees. "Just sticking to what I know. I guess it's just a comfort thing. Once you get more comfortable out there, doing it and seeing it, and then everything else just sort of starts clicking."
Realistically, what's driving Bradley's results in the 2014 regular season so far is a batting average on balls in play that was .533 entering Saturday's action. In 2013? .246. And no, he isn't hitting a greater percentage of line drives -- those are down so far, as are his ground balls, at the expense of more fly balls.
He is doing a much better job of avoiding pitches out of the strike zone. Interestingly, he's taking more pitches in the strike zone as well. Bradley doesn't see this as a change in process, but rather an ability born of experience.
"I think it is, just recognizing what you can swing at," Bradley Jr. said. "What you've had success against as well. So just picking certain pitches that you would like, and sometimes, swinging at pitches that you might not like, but that you've had success with in the past, to make adjustments here and there."
That development was precisely what the Red Sox hoped for from Bradley, back when they sent him to Triple-A last season.
"Well, he was challenged last year," Red Sox manager John Farrell told me when I asked him how he accounted for the massive swings in his performance. "The book got out on him pretty quick, the way he was attacked at the plate. He went back down to the minor leagues and addressed some of those issues that arose last year. And when he came back to us, he came back with a better understanding of what his strengths -- particularly inside the strike zone."
But how, then, to account for his spring struggles? For Bradley, at least, there's no accounting for it. It's the results, which are utterly divorced from his process. Nothing has changed on his end, not game prep, not his offseason routine back home in Richmond, not even his daily routine in-season.
"Just going in there, just getting warm," Bradley said. "Maybe a little tee work, taking soft toss and then, taking BP. You can't really focus on doing a particular thing, because it's hard to simulate an actual game. Everybody can do BP, but to actually simulate it -- you work on things in games, making adjustments, pitch to pitch. That's how you make adjustments."
Ah, but getting those at-bats, particularly at the major league level, isn't so easy for a young player like Bradley on a team loaded with talent and built to win, like the Red Sox. Certainly, Bradley knows there's a correlation right now between putting up results, quickly, and getting the extended period of everyday play that allows for the kind of adjustments he makes over the course of a season. A veteran, even with a start like Bradley's 3-for-38, wouldn't have been sent down to Triple-A last year. A veteran wouldn't lose a starting job with a sub-.500 OPS in spring training.
"We'll see about the samples," Bradley said, smiling. "You can't really control that. But I'll still say, I'm the same ballplayer, in spring training last year, during the season, in spring training this year that I've always been. Like I said, it's really more of a result thing."
Right now, those results are working for him. He had a period earlier this week reaching base in 8-of-11 plate appearances. He's playing an excellent center field when called upon, and doing the same in right and left.
Suddenly, he's a potential two-way player on a roster with Sizemore, whose injury history means his games need to be managed. He's a player with a limited platoon split coming through the minor leagues on a team where the two left fielders, Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava, struggle against righties and lefties, respectively. And he's a player who can replicate the superior defense Victorino plays in right field -- a necessity for home games at Fenway Park.
It's extremely unlikely Bradley will ever approach the player he was in the spring of 2013. It's also safe to assume, given enough at-bats to even out the rough patches, that he's a far better major league hitter than he looked to be last April, or this March. Pair that with his defensive chops, and you've got a useful major league outfielder.
His manager sees a change in confidence.
"I think more than anything, he's more confident than he was at any point during the regular season last year," Farrell said of Bradley. "Spring training last year? Yeah, he was kind of the new kid on the block. But he's played exceptional defense for us, and he's putting up quality at-bats."
And what does the man himself see as the difference between the Bradley who lost his job in March and the one who is forcing his way into the lineup in April? A new approach? Renewed confidence, as his manager said?
"It's the same thing it's been, going back to high school," Bradley said. "I don't think you can have any doubts. If you don't have confidence in yourself, nobody else will. Sometimes you can still have confidence in yourself, some others might not. That's fine, though. You go out there, play your game, and just prove it. Just keep playing. And I have gotten the opportunity. So that's what I'm focused on right now. Help the team, and let things play out the way they should."
And if they don't, Bradley doesn't plan to alter his emotional response.
"I'm never gonna get too high, I'm never gonna get too low," Bradley said. "I'm a happy medium type of guy."
No matter what the small sample sizes would have you believe.