These days, starting can wait
Relief pitchers are so valuable now that potential aces are being moved to the bullpen
By just about any measure, Archie Bradley has been the Arizona Diamondbacks’ best pitcher in 2017. Through Friday, he had an ERA of 1.56, a WHIP of 0.92, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.5 and, if you’re into advanced stats, an xFIP (expected fielding-independent pitching) of 2.51, which is better than those of Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel or Stephen Strasburg. Opposing batters have hit just .197 with a .569 on-base-plus-slugging percentage off him this year.
But after pitching as a starter his entire life, Bradley has worked out of the Diamondbacks’ bullpen all season, and that’s where he will be staying. When Arizona — a surprise contender in the NL West, a half-game behind first-place Colorado through Friday— needed a starter to face the Washington Nationals on Thursday, as a result of Shelby Miller’s season-ending elbow injury, it bypassed Bradley in favor of Class AAA call-up Braden Shipley.
“Let him continue to have success and blossom as a reliever,” Diamondbacks Manager Torey Lovullo explained Tuesday in regards to Bradley. “Long term, as we’ve talked about, we still want him to be a starter. When and if that happens, we can’t put a date on it. But for right now, with what we need, [Bradley] coming out of the bullpen, with the dominance that he’s had, it just made a lot of sense to leave him there.”
The usage of Bradley underscores both the progressive philosophy of the Diamondbacks’ new regime — led by General Manager Mike Hazen in the front office and Lovullo, a first-year manager, in the dugout — and the rising value of relief pitching in relation to starting pitching across the industry. Everything about both Bradley’s pedigree and Arizona’s need screamed out for Bradley to be moved to the rotation. But in the final analysis, the team decided he simply has more value in relief.
“The value of a great bullpen guy is so much higher now,” said Diamondbacks assistant GM Amiel Sawdaye, a 1999 graduate of the University of Maryland who worked under Hazen with the Boston Red Sox. “These guys are signing for 14 [million], 15 million dollars [per year]. And you see what teams are giving up [in trades] for an elite one.”
Viewed from a distance, on late-night TV on the East Coast or through box scores or the MLB At-Bat app, the Diamondbacks’ bullpen usage makes little sense. Outside of Fernando Rodney, who has been deployed as a fairly conventional closer, Lovullo is all over the place with his moves, in the way a manager might act when he doesn’t trust anybody down there. But that is far from the case.
Take Bradley, Lovullo’s top weapon. Over his nine appearances, he has entered anywhere from the fifth to the ninth inning, with his stints lasting anywhere from two to 10 outs. He has entered with the Diamondbacks trailing, with them leading and with the game tied. He has also entered with runners on base, something he said he had never done in his entire life before this year. Seven of the nine appearances have been for more than one inning.
He gives Lovullo credit for communicating with him about how he might be used in any given game, but he has had to learn to live without the certainty of knowing, days in advance, exactly when and where he will pitch.
“I still think my future is as a starter,” Bradley said, “but I also think my history as a starter has helped in this transition, since I’m used to [pitching] multiple innings and going through a lineup multiple times.”
And it isn’t just Bradley who is operating this way. Veteran lefty Jorge De La Rosa has entered anywhere from the sixth to the ninth, for stints lasting anywhere from one to five outs. Right-hander J.J. Hoover has also entered anywhere from the sixth to the ninth, going anywhere from one to six outs. The same goes, more or less, for right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen. When the phone rings in the Diamondbacks’ bullpen, it could be anyone who is summoned to get warmed up.
“I don’t want to define exactly what’s going on down there,” Lovullo said when asked about the apparent lack of defined roles. “In defining roles, I think it puts guys in situations that they may or may not be ready for. So I like the way it’s going.”
Rarely has a franchise undergone as dramatic a change in philosophy in one offseason as the Diamondbacks just did. Under the old regime, with Tony La Russa as a hands-on chief baseball officer, Dave Stewart as GM and Chip Hale as manager, Arizona was regarded as one of the least analytically inclined franchises in the game, and players often grumbled about a lack of communication and trust from management. Hazen and Sawdaye, meantime, are products of the highly analytical Red Sox regimes of Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington, and Lovullo is already considered a master communicator in the clubhouse.
“I don’t think there needed to be wholesale changes. Obviously, bringing in new management organically changes things,” Sawdaye said. “Bringing in Torey — I think he’s been a huge part of the culture in the clubhouse . . . . I think there were areas in need of general improvement, and they were very evident, and there were other areas, like player development, where you were a little surprised. You were like, ‘Wow, they are a little progressive in that area.’ ”
Much of the Diamondbacks’ winter and spring was spent getting the players used to the organization’s major change in philosophy and getting them to buy into a new way of doing things.
“There’s definitely a different vibe, a lot of just positive energy,” third baseman Jake Lamb said. “The scouting reports we get — they’re different. And Torey’s communication skills are off the charts. I think everyone has loved what he’s done so far.”
For Bradley, the reluctant — but dominant — reliever, the Diamondbacks’ new world has a different set of challenges. While the free agent market has begun to recognize, and adjust to, the rising importance of great relief pitchers, no matter when in the game they pitch, the arbitration system, which largely determines how players with between three and six years’ service time are compensated, has been slower to react, with starting pitchers and closers still rewarded in outsize proportions.
It isn’t a problem yet for Bradley, 24 years old and with just more than one year of service time. But he understands how the business side of the game works — his future earnings could be determined, at least in part, by how the Diamondbacks choose to use him.
“It’s been — not difficult. But it’s the first time I’ve been put in a situation where you have to understand: This is what’s best for the team,” he said. “And even though I’m throwing well, I don’t know if this is necessarily the best case for me or not. Obviously, I’ve thought about it, but it’s one of those things I’m trying to keep it out of my mind.”
In an earlier era, the Diamondbacks’ perfect scenario might have been to shift Bradley into their rotation later this season. But now, if that ends up happening, it would probably indicate something has gone wrong.
“In a perfect world,” Lovullo said, “we leave [Bradley] exactly where he’s at. If we’re not at the point where we need to transition him out of the bullpen, [that means] we’ve had a real good starting five.”
Archie Bradley, who was a starting pitcher in the minors, remained in Arizona’s bullpen this past week, even when there was an opening for a starter.