Archie Bradley was once an elite prospect just two years after being drafted out of high school by the Diamondbacks in 2011. However, injuries and inconsistencies have slowed Bradley in the majors. His long term future is still somewhat in the air. Is he a starter or a reliever at the MLB level? Based on the headline, you already know what my answer will be.
We rewind to 5 seasons ago. The Rays had a very good young pitcher by the name of Wade Davis. As a starter, Davis pitched to an 85 ERA+ and 4.79 FIP in 2011. So in 2012, the Rays moved him to the bullpen where he flourished with a 2.43 ERA, 2.78 FIP, and 89 strikeouts in 70 1⁄3 IP. Davis was traded to the Royals after that season and after one more year of being mediocre as a starter ended up moving to the bullpen full time. In 2014 and 2015, Davis was a key part of a vaunted Royals bullpen that won one World Series title and one game away from a 2nd.
We move back to 2017 and the Diamondbacks have a similar problem. Bradley last year pitched to a 5.01 ERA with a league average 4.10 FIP. While there was the occasional brilliant flash, Bradley struggled to be consistent as a starter in 2 seasons in the majors. Bradley was on the outside looking in for a rotation spot this Spring and wound up making the bullpen. In two outings, Bradley has pitched 5 1/3 scoreless with 8 strikeouts to 1 walk and only 4 hits allowed. His velocity is in the upper 90s and his knuckle-curve becomes even tougher.
Comparing the two pitchers, Davis was actually worse as a starter in terms of wins. Using bWAR, Davis recorded -0.8 bWAR as a starter vs. 10.4 as a reliever through 2016. In Bradley’s case, he was +0.6 bWAR as a starting pitcher, although he’s been mediocre for two seasons as a starter. When Davis was moved to the bullpen long term by the Royals, his fastball velocity averaged 95+. Bradley in two outings is consistently 96+ out of the pen. Both pitchers use a 4SFB, knuckle-curve, and cutter combination against hitters and are about the same size as well.
I’m not going to predict right off the bat that Bradley will 100% develop into the next Wade Davis type pitcher after just two relief appearances. However, given the similarities between the two pitchers, I think that such a scenario is very probable as well. As a starter, I see Bradley struggling to last 180 innings and putting up 2.0 WAR year to year. As a reliever, his path to 2+ WAR might not be as difficult for how dominant he’s been in short stretches over his career. Davis put up 7 WAR between 2014 and 2015 even though he only pitched 140 innings over that time period, so it’s possible that if Bradley has a similar career that he’s more valuable as a reliever than a starter.