Th­ese days, start­ing can wait

Re­lief pitch­ers are so valu­able now that po­ten­tial aces are be­ing moved to the bullpen

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­post.com

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.”

RICK SCUTERI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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