23 June 2007

Milton Bradley

by Joshua Worley

What dooms him, finally, are not his emotional ailments, but his physical ailments. Milton Bradley is like an exciting board game with a tragic flaw. It's complete with exquisitely carved wooden tokens, an embossed game-board, and a rule-book that is almost frustratingly detailed. Given patience and persistence, the rules can be sorted out, but finally the game that seems like it will be so much fun is unplayable for a much more mundane and irrefutable reason. There are no dice.

It may be Bradley's emotional meltdowns that get the bigger headlines, that are more memorable, that make him seem like a bad risk, but it's really his persistent and unshakable injuries that have told the story of his career. If he could just stay healthy, he would be a star, one of the most exciting players in the game. Good and exciting are not synonymous. Adam Dunn is good, very good, but not exciting. Milton Bradley is good and exciting, a real joy to watch play baseball. He plays with such purpose. He is a good defender, a patient hitter with power, a fast, determined runner. He's more like Matt Kemp than Juan Pierre on the bases. Fast and scary.

Fast and scary. These words so well describe Bradley. His temper comes fast and scary. It was with the Dodgers that his worst meltdowns came. Bradley's most physically healthy year may have been his most mentally unhealthy year, at least publicly. Bradley's incidents from 2004 don't need but a few words to describe for anyone who watched that Dodger season. The bag of baseballs. The bottle and the fan. The "Uncle Tom" reporter. The "Arrest Me" incident on an Ohio highway.

Milton Obelle Bradley -- CF/DL

age: 29
bats: switch

Year -- games -- OPS

2002 -- 98 -- 0.723
2003 -- 101 -- 0.922
2004 -- 141 -- 0.786
2005 -- 75 -- 0.834
2006 -- 96 -- 0.817
2007 -- 19 -- 0.819

Bradley just seems to wear down so easily. It's as if he plays too hard, with such fire, that he just burns himself up. I wonder if it's not a coincidence that his healthiest year on 2004 was also his second worst year with the bat; his worst year leaving out his rookie year. Bradley is never fully healthy for long.

After Bradley called Jeff Kent a racist made pointed remarks about what he perceived ( perhaps correctly ) as Jeff Kent's insensitivity toward African-Americans in 2005 and then allegedly choked his wife that off-season, the Dodgers had seen enough of him and decided to ship him out. But given that he had only played 75 games in 2005, there were also plenty of on-field reasons to trade the troubled outfielder. New GM Ned Colletti eventually traded Milton Bradley to Oakland for Andre Ethier. Antonio Perez was also sent to Oakland in the deal.

By talent alone, the deal was a clear win for Oakland. But talent alone has never defined Bradley, unfortunately. Given Bradley's injury troubles, and that Oakland just designated him for assignment, did the Dodgers in fact win this deal?

Andre Ethier had a great 2006 and helped the Dodgers make the playoffs. By no means a cinch to play on the big club in 2006, Ethier was promoted to the Dodgers in May of 2006 when Ricky Ledee was injured. He played occasionally for a month or so, and then really started to hit for a sky high batting average in the middle months of the season, before falling into a September slump and losing most of his playing time to Marlon Anderson. Nevertheless, Ethier was a blue bolt through the Dodgers season, and unexpected charge that helped power the Dodgers into the playoffs. Surely just based on 2006 the Dodgers won the Bradley trade?

But Milton Bradley also had a good 2006, when he played. He also helped his team make the playoffs. Of course it's important to remember that Ethier didn't log a full 2006 either, though for different reasons than Bradley. Here are the three principles of the trade and their win shares in 2006, according to hardballtimes.com.

player -- WS -- WSAB

Ethier -- 12 -- (+4)
Bradley -- 13 -- (+6)
Perez -- 0 -- (-3)

WSAB is win shares above bench, and roughly says how better or worse a player would be than a typical bench player. When he played in 2006, Bradley was actually a bit better than Ethier, though Perez's apocalyptically awful year drags down the Oakland half of the ledger and probably gives the Dodgers a slight edge on the trade in 2006.

Given the the A's have now designated Bradley for assignment, there may be some reactionary writers who take the angle that these Moneyball GM's have learned the hard way the value of team chemistry. Both DePodesta and Beane traded for Bradley, and their teams were later forced to part with him. It's not all on base percentage and VORP; chemistry and character matter! But more to the point, durability matters. I don't necessarily think it's a mistake to acquire a player like Bradley, who is so injury-prone, but he may not end up being worth as much as you'd think, or hope. Ned Colletti has gone to the other extreme, of course, and acquired the anti-Bradley in Juan Pierre. Pierre is fast and not scary at all. He's durable and mediocre. I think overpaying for Bradley is less objectionable to over-paying for Pierre, though this may be a gambler's philosophy. edit: on second thought, I'm not sure it's fair to say either DePodesta or Beane overpaid for Bradley.

I don't think one can rationally say that given what the principles knew at the time of the trade that the A's or the Dodgers made a bad trade. Bradley had worn out his welcome in LA off the field, and the incident with his wife was truly awful and disturbing. There was no reason to think it was a sure thing that Bradley would play a entire injury-free season. There was also no reason to think Ethier would ever become a good big leaguer, much less in 2006. In fact, it's not certain even now that Ethier will ever be much more than a fourth outfielder. He's not yet recaptured any of his July 2006 magic in 2007.

The A's were set to get a small bit of remaining value out of Bradley in their trade with the Royals, but they were burned by a Bradley injury one last time. The trade has been scuttled because Bradley injured his oblique muscle in his very last at bat with the A's! It's so absurd and fitting, and sad, too. The Dodgers will get some value out of Ethier in the future, maybe a lot if he ever rebounds to his 2006 level. So based only on results, I do think the trade has turned into a small win for the Dodgers. This doesn't mean Oakland did the wrong thing in trading for Bradley, just as I don't think it was wrong for the Dodgers to obtain Bradley in 2004. Bradley is a high-stakes player. You've got to know that when you roll the dice on him. He may pay off spectacularly for awhile and help you go on to greater things. Just know that eventually he'll come up snake-eyes.


Jon said...

This was a good post, but one thing I always need to correct whenever I encounter it: Milton Bradley never called Jeff Kent a racist.

I wish I could dig up the exact quote, but the gist of it was that Kent would say things (and/or joke) that he didn't realize would be offensive to black people. Milton said it more pointedly than I would have, but it pains me to see the myth of him calling Kent a racist repeated. Unless he said so off the record, it never happened.

For all his flaws, Milton seemed to be trying to make a valid point, which got completely lost as the press turned it into something more headline-worthy.

Joshua Worley said...

You're right. I was too sloppy in the presentation, and I've tried to change it to better reflect what actually happened. Thanks, and I think it's great that you fight these kinds of mis-information.