Diamondbacks setup man Archie Bradley doesn’t disagree with the premise: His season hasn’t been bad, but it doesn’t feel the same as last year. But he doesn’t entirely know how to explain it. And he doesn’t really know how to feel about it, either.
“I know as far as extended dominance, it hasn’t been as steady as last year,” Bradley said. “But I still feel like I’d put myself up there as one of the dominant guys around the league.”
Bradley served up the go-ahead homer in Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants, a solo shot by Evan Longoria that snapped a 2-2 tie in the eighth inning. It went down as Bradley’s second loss in the past 2 1/2 weeks and seemed to shine a spotlight on the notion that he hasn’t been the same caliber of shutdown reliever as he was last year.
A year ago, Bradley posted a minuscule 1.73 ERA in 73 innings – and he was sitting on a 1.17 ERA before giving up five runs in his final three appearances. This season, his ERA is at 3.06 through 53 innings.
But has his year really been that much worse? Not entirely. On the plus side, he has allowed fewer baserunners per inning this year and his walk rate is slightly down. On the other hand, his strikeout rate is a bit down, and he’s already allowed more homers (seven) than he did all last season (four).
Two things stand out as possible explanations: For one, Bradley had arguably the best relief season in club history last year, and he says he’s considered the possibility that he may have a fine major league career and yet never have another season as dominant as 2017.
Another likely explanation lies in the way Bradley has been deployed. As often as he can, Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo tries to use Bradley against as many of the opposition’s top hitters as possible, whether that means pitching the seventh or the eighth inning.
“I look at their top hitters and I go, ‘Who’s the group and who is Archie facing?’ ” Lovullo said. “I kind of build it around that. I know (Brad) Boxberger will get the ninth and I build it around Archie getting the toughest three hitters.”
The numbers bear this out: No pitcher in the National League (minimum 50 innings) has faced a higher aggregate OPS (on-base-plus-slugging) than Bradley.
Bradley is allowing more hard contact and a higher slugging percentage on fastballs in the middle and the upper portions of the strike zone. This could be, in part, a result of Bradley’s decreased usage of his curveball, a pitch he’s been unable to throw as effectively due to a cracked nail on his right index finger. With the curveball less reliable, hitters can more comfortably sit fastball.
Bradley acknowledges this factor, but both he and Lovullo believe the league’s growing familiarity with him is another reason.
“I think the league has made some sort of adjustment that has inflated his numbers,” Lovullo said. “They’re probably looking in a certain area and knowing that, ‘This spot is where I need to look to catch balls and do damage.’ ”
Said Bradley: “It just seems like this year guys are ready for a fastball and when they get it they haven’t missed it. There’s that fine line of up in the zone and up-up in the zone where I strike guys out. I think now that guys know that I’m a guy, you have to be a little more fine with it.”
Still, the season has left Bradley with a sort of ambivalent feel. He can find explanations for it and doesn’t sound like someone who has lost confidence, but he doesn’t seem to think it all adds up – or, at least, he doesn’t like the way it feels. Instead, he’s focusing on the good stretches he’s had, and on the belief that he still has more of them left in the tank.
“Maybe some of the underlying numbers don’t show the same level of consistency or dominance,” he said. “But overall so far, but I look at the stretches we’ve been on when we’re good and winning, and the way I’ve been throwing the ball, I’ve been throwing it as good as anyone during those stretches.”
Reach Piecoro at (602) 444-8680 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @nickpiecoro.