The Arizona Diamondbacks Archie Bradley is a different pitcher today than he was when he entered the big leagues. One change, was eliminating the change. But why?
Until a move to the Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen in 2017, Archie Bradley was a three-pitch pitcher: a power heater, a 12-to-6 curveball and an ever-developing straight change. After Arizona made him the 7th overall selection of the 2011 Amateur Draft, Baseball America wrote this in his draft report:
"“Bradley’s hammer curveball can be just as devastating as his fastball, and he has some feel for a changeup.”"
As the Diamondbacks shut-down fireballer out of the pen, the devastating fastball and hammer curve are recognizable in 2018 – but whatever happened to that changeup? It sounds like he had some feel for it?
Five years ago, Bradley was the top overall pitching prospect in the bigs, per Fangraphs, with a shot at making Arizona’s 2014 Opening Day rotation. Baseball America’s scouting report from that time said this:
"“His changeup is a slightly above-average pitch that he hasn’t used enough to develop fully, though it could also be a plus pitch in time. ”"
So after two seasons as a professional, Bradley’s change improved from “some feel” to “could be a plus pitch.”
Jump ahead three seasons, after Bradley’s first (and only) full season as a starter, he finds himself competing to hold his spot in the rotation. In an interview with Images Arizona, Bradley was asked about his best pitch. He said this:
"“Fastball. The old No. 1. The heater. I’ve been getting up to 92-97 mph. I have been making tons of strides with the changeup, though.”"
Thus, after five seasons as a professional, Bradley is still working hard enough on his changeup to give it a shout-out when asked about his best pitch. Apparently, he was alone in that valuation, because – as with managers and front offices executives – the changeup was doomed by the dreaded vote of confidence. A month after Bradley made the above statement, he moved to the bullpen and stopped throwing the changeup altogether. It hasn’t been seen or heard from since. It’s interesting: Bradley gets bumped to the bullpen, and at the same time the changeup he’s been working for five seasons gets put out to pasture. Causation much?
The fact is, modern starters need 3-4 reliable offerings to get through opposing lineups three times. Bradley, however, held his own as a starter in 2016 with only the changeup to complement his star-class fastball-curve combo. Predictably, his ERA went from 4.38 the first time through the lineup to 4.13 the second time, to 6.75 the third time through the order. The only time he started a fourth time through the order, he lasted 3 batters, giving up a double that plated two runs.
Overall, Bradley took the hill for 26 turns, going 8-9 with a 5.02 ERA. Fielding independent metrics liked his performance more, a 4.10 FIP exactly matching the expected FIP. Some bad luck in the form of a .338 BABIP could have jacked the ERA some, but even so, 1.8 fWAR in 26 starts is, at worst, serviceable for a 24-year-old.
The power portion of his arsenal played as a starter, a 22.4% K-rate, but command was an issue. As for the change, despite the props Bradley gave it after the season, he only trusted it in-season at a 7.1% usage rate (curveball at 23.8%, fastball at 69.1%).
Fangraphs’ pitch value ratings registered Bradley’s changeup at -2.9, making it the 98th most valuable changeup out of 137 thrown by starters with at least 100 innings. That’s not a great pitch, but did it need to be euthanized? For that, we should figure out why Bradley threw it in the first place. Because on its face, it was a relatively effective offering, limiting opposing hitters to an expected .243 BA and .409 expected slugging. That’s somewhere between Tim Anderson and present-day Evan Longoria. I think if you could choose to face a lineup of Andersons and Longorias, you’d feel pretty good about it.
Notably, 153 of the 180 changeups Bradley threw (85%) were against left-handed hitters. It wasn’t a wipeout pitch, but mostly because Bradley didn’t use it that way, as the 26% whiff rate nearly matched the 30.6% whiff rate of the curve. It was a change-of-pace tool early in counts. Taking the overall numbers against Bradley’s changeup – with its usage rate against opposite-hand hitters – and it looks like a salvageable offering against lefties.
Except that if you go a step further, you’ll find the danger in trusting surface statistics. Because even though righties only saw 27 of those Bradley changeups, they failed to register even a single hit. That’s too small a sample to say anything significant about the effectiveness of the pitch against righties, but it does tell us the overall numbers are watered down. Against lefties, the target audience, Bradley’s change produced a .286 batting average and a whopping .571 slugging, which would have ranked fifth overall in the majors in 2018. Suddenly, Bradley’s changeup isn’t turning lineups into Tim Andersons and Evan Longorias, but Christian Yelichs and Trevor Storys.
A year after ditching the change, a sinker has crept into Bradley’s arsenal. Statcast breaks down Bradley’s 2018 arsenal usage thusly: fastball (68.9%), curveball (17.8%), sinker (12.6%), slider (0.7%). Maybe this new sinker will be Bradley’s ticket back into the rotation. Or it might just be the evolutionary step he needs to survive high-leverage innings as the Dbacks’ stopper in the pen. Or maybe a year from now we’ll be looking at his slider usage and wondering what happened to the sinker.
Regardless, Bradley already trusts the sinker more than he ever did the change. So until you hear Bradley give his new pitch the dreaded vote of confidence, he’s back to being a three-pitch pitcher.