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The weird lineups are fine, but there’s too much Jackie Bradley Jr. going on

Weird is good! So much Bradley isn’t weird.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (41) gestures to the dugout after hitting a single during the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Former Royals managers Ned Yost and Mike Matheny were not exactly paragons of analytical thinking, and by the time you go back to the pre-Yost days of Trey Hillman, Buddy Bell, and beyond, the modern analytical movement was limited to a few cutting edge teams.

Matt Quatraro, then, brings a bit of a culture shock, coming from the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Guardians school of analytics. That’s a big deal for a lot of reasons, and one of the most clearly obvious is in regards to lineups. Yost and Matheny tinkered, for sure, but Quatraro’s commitment to the analytics has resulted in some, shall we say, unusual looking lineups in this early season, a theme that continued when bench coach Paul Hoover took over when Quatraro tested positive for COVID-19.

Take, for example, this one, the fifth game of the year against Yusei Kikuchi: no MJ Melendez, no Vinnie Pasquantino, no Kyle Isbel, Matt Duffy hitting fifth. Seems weird!

Or this lineup, game eight in the young season. No Witt. Isbel hitting fifth. Michael Massey hitting...second?

Though these seem like the kind of lineups that you’d see in, like, September, there is logic behind them. In both cases, the opposing pitcher had extreme splits; Yusei Kikuchi’s career wOBA allowed against lefties is .283, while Alex Cobb’s wOBA allowed against righties since coming back from injury in 2020 is also under .300. Loading up with opposite-handed hitters gives you the best chance to win while paving the way for late-game substitutions, which the Royals have done in nearly every game.

Also contributing to these odd lineups is that the Royals are no longer committed to playing a player every single day forever and ever amen. Witt sitting out seems weird. Salvador Perez has already sat out, which seems even weirder. Look—baseball is hard enough to do when you’re not playing 162 games. Playing 140-150 lets players stay fresh and recover quicker from nagging injuries, and there’s no prize for getting to a games played streak of a few hundred.

Quatraro, Hoover, and company aren’t coming up with this on their own. Before each series, the front office sends the big league coaching squad suggested lineups based on expected run production against the projected opponent starting pitchers. These lineups are then tweaked by Quatraro from factors that the equations know nothing about (you know, quirky “human element” things).

But in any case, both of those weird-but-not-weird lineups above had something frustrating in them: Jackie Bradley Jr., who is, generously, not a big league caliber player. You know how everyone was tired of Ryan O’Hearn’s offensive ineptitude? Bradley makes O’Hearn look like Joey Votto. Which seems like a joke, except Bradley’s wRC+ since 2021 is 45, which is...bad, aka “second worst in baseball among everybody with 500 plate appearances bad.”

The worst MLB hitters since 2021

Austin Hedges 196 659 17 6.2% 25.3% 0.169 0.229 0.274 39
Jackie Bradley Jr. 272 819 10 6.7% 26.0% 0.180 0.246 0.281 45
Andrelton Simmons 166 536 3 7.3% 14.0% 0.216 0.277 0.261 53
Marwin Gonzalez 177 514 11 6.6% 25.7% 0.193 0.267 0.311 60
Garrett Hampson 239 723 13 7.5% 25.2% 0.226 0.287 0.356 61

Bradley is still a good defender—but, like, “good defender” only gets you so far. Bradley’s overall value has been deeply in the negative, and since 2021 he’s been the third-worst position player.

The worst MLB hitters by WAR since 2021

Name G BsR Off Def WAR
Name G BsR Off Def WAR
Hunter Dozier 281 -10 -32.3 -26.3 -2.4
Miguel Cabrera 248 -12.1 -27.9 -25.6 -2.2
Jackie Bradley Jr. 272 1.5 -53 7.9 -1.8
Maikel Franco 207 -4.8 -39.8 -1.7 -1.5
Kole Calhoun 176 -0.9 -21.5 -9.5 -1.2

You’ll notice that Bradley has a friend up there at the top—Hunter Dozier, who by Fangraphs’ version of WAR is the worst everyday player in baseball. Fun! But Dozier is a separate and thornier matter; Dozier has over $17 million in guaranteed money on his contract and while he’s probably a sunk cost, it’s worth making absolutely sure that he is a sunk cost before cutting him loose.

Bradley, on the other hand, was a free agent pickup because the Royals wanted more depth in the outfield after Drew Waters’ injury, which, fine, you need someone to play in the outfield and be a defensive replacement and whatnot. But you don’t have to play Bradley all the time, which the Royals are doing. I mean, Bradley has more plate appearances than Edward Olivares coming into Monday night’s game.

Look, I’m with the weird lineups, that’s fine and probably a good thing. I would just prefer the Royals play somebody who isn’t 33 and in decline from one of the worst players in the league. I realize that injuries are the reason Bradley is here, but injuries didn’t force the Royals to sign Bradley specifically or play him as often as they are. And, yeah, “inventory” is good when you have 130, 140, 150 games left to play. Sure. It is just frustrating to watch, and the Royals’ offensive performance reflects having a pair of such poor performers—go figure.