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Archie Bradley: Cause for concern?

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Since coming back from the DL after taking a line-drive to the face, rookie starter Archie Bradley's numbers have imploded. Is there reason to be worried?

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Ralph Freso/Getty Images

"It's just bad baseball, it's bad pitching, it's bad pitches, it's bad sequences, it's just everything is not good right now and I know that. I don't feel sorry for myself. I don't think anyone else should. I've just got to get it fixed, I've got to get it fixed quick."
-- Archie Bradley

Before and after

The difference in Bradley's numbers since the incident on April 28, when he took a 115 mph ball to the cheek, could hardly be more stark. Viewers of a nervous disposition may care to avert their eyes.

IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA BABIP S% GB LD%
Up to April 28 20.0 9 4 4 11 14 0 1.80 .176 59% 1.55 18%
From May 16 10.2 19 14 14 8 8 2 11.81 .425 59% 1.39 23%

Some of that is certainly BABIP regressing with a vengeance, though that increased line-drive rate will also mean the BABIP post-injury will increase, because line-drives are much more likely to become hits than fly-balls or ground-balls. But was also see more fly-balls, an already poor walk rate decline further, to the point where Bradley has walked as many batters as he struck out since coming back.

Has his pitch arsenal changed, in type or quality? He has been forced away from his fastball somewhat. That represented 75.1% of pitches thrown in April, but that has declined to 71.8% in May. Previously, he was almost exclusively a fastball + curve guy, those two representing 97.9% of all pitches thrown, but May has seen him doubling the use of his change-up - as we'll see, last night in particular. There is no apparent decrease in fastball velocity (it has ticked up fractionally, from 93.0 to 93.2 mph), but I do note his curve has also increased, from 84.6 to 86.2. Since speed difference is a factor in effectiveness, that may be a problem.

One things I did not was a sharp uptick in what Brooks Baseball calls "grooved pitches" - pitches that are located in the middle section of the plate, both horizontally and vertically: what Mark Grace used to refer to as "center cut." In April, those represented 6.48% of Bradley's fastball output; in May, that fraction has increased by more than half again, to 9.03%. Good hitters know what to do with those, and it usually isn't pretty for the delivering pitcher. It may well explain why opponent's are batting .382 off Archie's four-seamer, well over double the figure (.152) against the same pitches in April.

Reasons to be fearful

Catcher Tuffy Gosewisch thinks there's one thing which is particularly key to Bradley's recent woes. "I think that probably 98 percent of bad outings are command, for all pitchers, not just Archie.. If you don't have fastball command, it's really tough because you're behind hitters and they can really shrink their strike zone, the pitches they're looking for. When you're behind in the count, you've got to give them something to hit." Chip Hale agreed, saying Archie was "not throwing enough strikes. He's got to get control of those other pitches so he can use them. He can't just be a thrower in this league. You've got to be a pitcher."

Tuffy also went in to more detail about how he tried to work around Bradley's problems last night. "Tried to mix in the curveball as much as we could today, just to get them off the fastball. Then after the first inning, we started throwing more changeups, just to give them a different look. We were trying to mix it up and really use the changeup as much as we could to get them off the fastball. The curveball wasn't [working] for a strike, so we couldn't use that a whole lot." So, Bradley couldn't control his fastball, and was struggling to locate his curveball? Ouch. That's why, according to Brooke Baseball, Bradley threw as many change-ups last night as he had in all previous outings combined.

The one thing which Bradley appeared to rule out completely, is any connection to his time on the DL. "No, the injury is past," he said, and certainly there has been no indication of tentativeness on the mound. But I do have to wonder if the league has simply caught up to Bradley, given a two-pitch repertoire is more often associated with a relief pitcher than a starter. That said, the stats show hitters leaping on Bradley early, rather than when they get multiple looks at him, The first time going down the order, Archie's line against is .283/.441/.457, which improves to .244/.314/.333 the second time through.

Are fans worried?

I threw that out on Twitter last night, to gauge how concerned Diamondbacks fans are about the struggles of Bradley. The results were, literally, all over the place.

There were some specific criticisms offered, in particular around his off-speed pitches:

However, there was also plenty of patience expressed, and a general feeling that there was no need to panic.

On the other hand, there were a number who felt that a change of scenery might be best for Bradley.

So, what's the team to do?

"I think the question is is he better off getting down there with less of the pressure of a big league start and just getting his work in, or should he get another assignment or two."
-- Tony La Russa

It is worth mentioning that even with all his recent struggles, Bradley's ERA of 5.29 is still better than that of Jeremy Hellickson (5.33), and he also had the advantage in FIP (Archie is at 4.46 vs. Jeremy's 4.82). Bradley is also in the same ballpark (in more ways than one!) as Josh Collmenter, who has a 5.05 ERA and 4.63 FIP. With several other pitchers struggling in the rotation over the season so far, it may give Archie a longer leash that he'd get if he was the only starter struggling.

An alternative is perhaps already on the roster, in the shape of Vidal Nuno, who threw 2.1 scoreless innings in relief of Bradley last night, and has been solid this season, with a 2.00 ERA in nine frames, and a very nice K:BB ratio of 13:2. I'm sure the team is already contemplating what to do. Bradley's next scheduled start is on June 1, at home against Atlanta, which may be a slightly easier test than on the road against the team with the best record in the Natonal League. But if he struggles once again, there is a certain point beyond which it's counter-productive to keep him in the majors.

To me, Bradley needs a reliable third pitch to have sustained success. Two aren't enough for a starter because the odds are, on any given day, one or other won't be at full effectiveness. While a reliever can get through an inning without anyone noticing, hitters are more likely to pick it up, the more pitches they see. That seems to be pitching coach Mike Harkey's belief:  "Once you get through those first two or three starts, it starts getting around the league. They start watching video, they understand, they see the counts that you're in. You need to make adjustments a lot quicker... and his adjustment is he needs to command his fastball better, he needs to get strike one more."

Bradley is only 22 - probably younger than some players we'll be drafting in a couple of weeks - and there will inevitably be bumps in the road before he reaches his full potential. Recognizing this, and dealing with these set-backs appropriately, is something the organization needs to do. If they decide the minors is best for him, I've no problem with that. It's something Tony La Russa admitted is being considered:  "We're having those discussions. Later today, I'm going to call Dave Duncan because I treasure his advice so much...  There's a question about whether if his approach is different would he be successful versus just giving him the work."