It’s getting to that point in the offseason where we’ve exhausted the list of top-tier free agents to profile. However, there is still a plethora of available targets who still have some value to offer to interested clubs. Last week, I investigated the merits of a reunion with Ian Kennedy, and today I’d like to take a look at another reliever the Phillies had hoped would reinforce their ailing bullpen in 2021, Archie Bradley.
2021 Stats: 53 games, 51 IP, 3.71 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 4.56 xFIP, 7.1 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 0.3 fWAR
Bradley began his career as a starter with the Diamondbacks before converting to a full-time reliever in 2017. The Reds acquired him at the deadline in their 2020 playoff push, and though he allowed only one run in 7.2 regular season innings, his ineffectiveness in the postseason contributed to Cincinnati’s early exit. Bradley was non-tendered that offseason, though this is more a reflection of the Reds’ cost-cutting measures than his ability, and ultimately signed with the Phillies on a one-year, $6 million deal.
Since his permanent move to the bullpen, Bradley has been one of the steadier relievers in the game. Out of all qualified relievers since 2017, Bradley ranks 14th in innings pitched (284.1) and 20th in fWAR (4.3). That said, there are recent trends that spark worry.
Bradley’s fastball velocity has declined every season since he joined the bullpen, from over 96 mph in 2017 to 94 mph in 2021. He’s only 29, so loss of velocity in what should still be peak or near-peak years is not encouraging. In addition, the four-seamer has been bleeding spin rate in recent year, dropping about 250 rpms since 2017. This combination of worsening velocity and spin rate resulted in the pitch’s lowest whiff rate (18.1 percent) since Bradley became a reliever.
His primary strikeout offering, the curveball, has suffered a similar fate. It’s consistently ranked among the worst curveballs in the league in terms of spin rate, sitting in the fifth percentile or worse since 2017. However, he was still able to achieve results with it... until 2021. Bradley’s curveball posted career-worsts in whiff rate (9.5 percent), strikeout rate (10.8 percent), put-away rate (8.9 percent) and xwOBA (.328), likely due to a combination of increasingly frequent missed location and the fastball’s diminishing effectiveness.
Perhaps as a result of this degradation in quality of his pitches, Bradley just suffered the worst season of his career as a reliever. His ERA, FIP, and xFIP all inflated by roughly a run over the previous four seasons. His strikeout rate nosedived from 26.5 percent in 2017-20 to 17.9 percent in 2021.
Despite this seemingly bleak outlook, there is some indication Bradley is making adjustments to his game to confront this new reality of declining stuff. He is using the sinker more than ever and just posted the best groundball rate (55.7 percent) of his five seasons as a reliever. He sat in the 84th percentile in exit velocity and 72nd percentile in barrel rate — both bests as a reliever. Perhaps he has realized he is no longer the pitcher that can overpower batters, and has adapted to more of a pitching-to-soft-contact approach.
However, everything I’ve said up to this point may be moot down to one factor: Bradley’s beard. Apparently, after getting sent to the bullpen in 2017, Bradley visited a palm reader who told him that growing a beard would result in success. Lo and behold, it worked, and he’s kept the facial hair ever since. Baseball players, and pitchers in particular, are superstitious creatures and perhaps he’d view the Yankees’ facial hair policy as a deal-breaker from the get-go. (I’m being semi-facetious here, please don’t argue too forcefully about the Yankees and facial hair in the comments.)
Taking all this into consideration, I’m struggling to see a fit for Bradley on the Yankees. They already have a deep lineup of talented relievers making a fraction of his most recent salary. Given the success they’ve had in developing relievers within, their resources would be better invested elsewhere.