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The rise and fall of Archie Bradley, fan icon

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I don’t think I’ve seen fan sentiment change so quickly since the days of Eric Byrnes. But if anyone can turn that back around, it’s Archie.

Vanderbilt v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Archie Bradley’s 2017 season was the stuff of legend. After struggling as a starter, posting a 5.18 ERA over 34 starts, he was moved to the bullpen and unexpectedly blossomed there. He posted a 1.73 ERA over 73 innings, the lowest in franchise history by any pitcher with more than 50 innings of work, and became a fan favorite with his passionate approach to the game. “This is OUR house,” he roared (below), coming off the mound after retiring the Dodgers on seven pitches in an August game. Then there was the insanity of the wild-card game against the Rockies. He became the first reliever ever with a triple in the play-offs, driving in two crucial runs with perhaps the season’s most memorable moment.

Despite the team’s subsequent failure in the division series against the Dodgers, there was likely no more popular Diamondbacks player going into the off-season than Bradley. And Archie seemed to be everywhere you looked around the valley this winter. Doing human bowling at a Coyotes game. Being Santa Claus as part of ASU’s “curtain of distraction.” Hanging out with Michael Phelps at a Suns contest. Playing drums at a Phoenix Rising FC game. Attending GCU basketball. Taking part in the 2018 Annexus Pro-Am at the TPC Scottsdale, before the Waste Management Phoenix Open. As he said, shortly before spring training got under way in February:

“Why not immerse yourself in a community that wants to support you? Why not support them and show our fan base that we do have that we love them and we appreciate them? It’s only going to continue to grow... This is home for me now”

However, it’s safe to say that 2018 has been a shitty season for Bradley - and I don’t just mean that story about him pooping his pants. It started perfectly well. He had a sub-two ERA at the break, with a 1.97 ERA and had been worth +233.3% in Win Probability to that point. But the second half began with a brutal first outing: six runs in less than an inning and the loss against the Rockies. Bradley became the latest victim of the boogeyman that is reliever volatility. Overall, coming into this weekend’s series against Colorado, he had a 7.29 ERA since the break, and giving back almost all that positive impact on the team, with -192.4% of Win Probability, almost the worst in the majors.

Win Probability is actually a pretty good measure of fan sentiment. If you look at the D-backs overall this season, whether it’s pitching or hitting, the players you’d think of as “most liked” are probably the ones on top of the table. For pitchers, that’s Patrick Corbin, lay Buchholz and Yoshihisa Hirano. For hitters, it’s Paul Goldschmidt, Daniel Descalso and David Peralta. At the other end of the spectrum for batters, we find at the bottom our trio of catchers, with Steven Souza not much higher. On the mound, it’s Jake Diekman, Shelby Miller and Jorge De La Rosa who bring up the rear, not exactly fan favorites. But let’s chart Archie’s cumulative WP over the course of last season and this.

Ouch. It’s easy to see how things have gone in the second half, with fan frustration likely reaching its boiling point in consecutive games this month against Los Angeles. Bradley first allowed a three-run homer to Matt Kemp, which led to the D-backs bidding farewell to first for the final time. Then the next night, it took just one pitch from Archie to the same player for a walk-off double. The reaction on social media was brutal and unsurprising, even from Arizona fans. Sensibly, the pitcher has been almost silent on Twitter since, with precisely four Tweets. No further adverts for the Negrete Law Firm. No plugging of his “official platform”. And certainly no more “Archie’s Adventures”.

Fandom will always be fickle. It’s in its nature, and very much a case of “What have you done for us lately?”, particularly with regard to relievers. It’s easier for hitters to be heroes, with walk-off hits and clutch home-runs. For bullpen guys, success is negativity: stopping the opposition from scoring. All you can do is put up a zero; anything else is typically regarded as failure. Just ask Byung-Hyun Kim, arguably our best reliever ever, yet forever defined by two days in New York. But the higher a player’s profile, the more likely they are to become a lightning rod for negative opinion if they don’t perform. Look no further than Eric Byrnes. We’ve had less productive outfielders. They just didn’t have their own show on FSAZ.

This applies particularly to those with outgoing and demonstrative personalities. They are always going to trigger extreme opinions. Fans on their own team love ‘em; opposing fans hate ‘em, whether it’s Yasiel Puig, Bryce Harper, Jose Valverde or whoever. Even that love from the home supporters can sour if the good performances stop, and then those endearing little quirks can turn into annoying idiosyncrasies. At its worst, we see what happened with Byrnes, with the player eventually being released, to a unanimous chorus of “Good riddance to bad rubbish.” I’d really hate to see that happen to Bradley, but there are a couple of significant grounds for optimism.

Firstly, he’s cheap. Bradley isn’t arbitration eligible until next year, and fan tolerance is linked to player cost and resulting expectations. See not only Byrnes, but Yasmany Tomas, or perhaps even Justin Upton. You can argue it wasn’t until after J-Up signed a $51.25m extension in spring 2010, that his relationship with Arizona fandom began to fracture (the establishment at that point of “Uptown” at Chase Field likely helped, being excessive for any 22-year-old player). Bradley is earning close to minimum salary, and that likely caps disenchantment this year. As he moves through arbitration, that won’t always be the case, yet for now it works in his favor. You can be bad or expensive: both is a lethal mix.

Also, as noted above, Bradley has significantly dialed back his off-field activities - or, at least, the well-publicized ones! - which is probably a very wise idea. It seems to show understanding that if Archie wants to re-establish his role as a fan favorite, it won’t begin with guest appearances for other sports teams. It will start with his performance on the mound. This season is almost certain to be a disappointment to Arizona fans, and Bradley’s meltdowns in the second half are a significant factor in that. If I were him, I’d not only keep my head down the rest of the season, I’d plan a lower-key winter as well. Come spring 2019, he can let his pitches do the talking for him, at least initially.

Nobody’s saying Archie needs to change. Indeed, I’d hate to see that happen, or for the D-backs to lose one of their more memorable and quirky characters. He seems genuinely to enjoy connecting with fans, and that can certainly still be done, particularly on an individual basis. But I think he has probably learned a valuable lesson about tally poppy syndrome this year. For the more you put yourself out there when times are good, the harder it can be for you when times are bad.