Jed Bradley was honest when I talked to him in January 2013. A first-round pick by the Milwaukee Brewers 18 months earlier, the left-hander admitted his velocity was down, and that he’d been experienced “a big learning curve.”
He was also thoughtful and realistic. The Georgia Tech product spoke about how most fans don’t understand “the pathway you have to take to get to the big leagues,” and about how the high minors are populated by veteran players who are supporting families and “putting everything on the line just for a shot.”
Bradley got his shot last September, appearing in six games, and hurling seven innings, for the Atlanta Braves. Last week, at age 26, he bid baseball adieu.
When I asked him why he retired, the former ACC Honor Roll student was every bit as honest and thoughtful as he was four years ago.
“I always told myself that if I got to a place where I didn’t enjoy it anymore, I’d walk away,” Bradley told me on Monday. “I’ve been in that place the last few months. I’ll always love the game, but I was to the point where I wasn’t enjoying going to the park every day. It had became more like a job.”
It was a job he’d been doing relatively well. While it’s fair to say that Bradley wasn’t living up to expectations — 15th overall picks are supposed to thrive — he’d earned the promotion to Atlanta. The Braves acquired him from the Brewers midway through a 2016 campaign that saw him log a 3.09 ERA, and a 9.0 K-rate, over 107 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A.
He wasn’t satisfied, in large part because his stuff had long ago plateaued. More accurately, it had backslid.
“If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t get to fully showcase my physical abilities in pro ball,” said Bradley. “I was more raw in college, but if you look at what I was physically able to do as far as throwing a baseball… that never translated. When I was in college, I was throwing in the mid-90s, and in pro ball I was mostly 88-90, maybe 91.
“For a long time, I could perform decently well — I could figure out ways to get guys out — but I never got to use the same skill set that got me drafted in the first round. That weighed on me for a long period of time. I finally got tired of competing at a level I didn’t feel was commensurate to doing the game justice.”
That doesn’t mean he would have given up his lifelong dream. Asked if he’d still be playing had he not received a big-league call up last year, Bradley answered in the affirmative.
“Absolutely,” he told me. “That was the driving force behind everything I did. I was driven to make it, to put that feather in my cap, so to speak.”
The Huntsville, Alabama has road trips in his future. He’ll be returning to Georgia Tech in the fall — “I’ll most likely get my degree in business” — but first he’ll do some some leisure travel while enjoying his “only summer off in a very, very long time.”
He’ll tell some stories along the way. His baseball career may have been short-lived, but it included indelible moments. Having his family present when he was drafted is something he’ll never forget — “we were together making plans for my future” — as are his big-league call up and debut. Having them happen in an Atlanta uniform made it even more special.
“I was a huge Braves fan growing up, so you couldn’t have drawn it up any better,” said Bradley. “I loved being with the Braves, and getting to play on the field I grew up going to. It was a real honor. It was almost like a dream.”
As fate would have it, Bradley was in close proximity to a nightmare. The Braves were playing in Miami when the player selected immediately before him in the 2011 draft was tragically killed in a September boating accident.
“The whole thing was surreal,” Bradley told me. “(Jose Fernandez) had gone a pick in front of me, and we ran into each other quite a lot in the minors, on his very short ascension to the big leagues. We also played Miami a few times after I got called up, including the game where the benches cleared (on September 14) after we threw at him. To have been up close during his rapid rise to stardom, and then see it end, was pretty heavy.”
Bradley doesn’t think the tragedy played a role in his decision to walk away, although he acknowledges it may have impacted him on a subconscious level. Baseball is just a game. Bradley knows that all things must pass, including things you’ve loved.
“I’ll always miss the game,” admitted Bradley. “I’ll always miss playing. Goodness, it’s something I’ve done since I was five years old. But I still stand by my decision. I wasn’t happy doing it anymore, and life is too short to do something that doesn’t make you happy. This is something I put a lot of thought into. The time had come to move on.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.