The Diamondbacks Might Have Found Two Good Relievers

The Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen could charitably be described as not particularly great. A more straightforward talker would call the group pretty lousy. We currently have them projected as the very worst group of relievers in Major League Baseball.

The closer is 40 years old and has some of the most significant command problems of any pitcher in the league. The best 2016 ERA of the three primary middle relievers belongs to Andrew Chafin, at 6.75. Tom Wilhelmsen (6.80) and J.J. Hoover (13.50!) round out the trio of reclamation projects being asked to hold leads, and while single-season ERA is of course a terrible way to evaluate a pitcher’s quality, it says something about the Diamondbacks bullpen quality that these are the guys they are asking to pitch in important situations early in the season. Nothing wrong with betting on reclamation projects with better stuff than results, but usually you don’t have to bet on them to hold a tie game in the 8th inning on Opening Day.

But three games into the season, there are reasons to think the Diamondbacks might have two good relief pitchers in their bullpen. And it’s not any of the guys we just mentioned.

Let’s start with my obvious case of personal confirmation bias. In February, I called Jorge de la Rosa “The Biggest Free Agent Bargain” still on the market, suggesting that he’d make a particularly interesting left-handed reliever for a team looking for cheap upside in their bullpen. de la Rosa pitched three games in relief last year, and threw eight spectacular innings, striking out 10 of the 26 batters he faced and recording 24 outs in the process.

As a guy who has been a decent enough starter but could have his stuff play up in relief, he looked like an interesting option to bet on in the multi=inning bullpen role that a lot of teams talked about trying out this year. Obviously, there was no guarantee that de la Rosa would succeed as a reliever, but he missed bats, got both lefties and righties out reasonably well enough, and seemed like a guy who might be able to reinvent himself with a late-career move to relief work.

The early returns couldn’t have been much better.

The velocities listed at Brooks Baseball aren’t significantly affected by the change from PITCHf/x to Trackman this season, so this is a velocity bump you can believe in. In his first few outings of 2017, de la Rosa’s fastball has jumped three ticks, which makes sense for a guy who doesn’t have to stretch himself out to get through five innings anymore.

To this point in 2017, de la Rosa has faced all of seven batters, so there’s no point pretending the results mean anything. But we’ve seen de la Rosa throw 94 before, and back when he was doing that in 2008 through 2010, he threw nearly 500 innings with a 97 ERA-/92 FIP-/90 xFIP-. The version of de la Rosa with a 94 mph fastball was one of the better starting pitchers in baseball; take that guy, let him face a heavier skew of left-handed hitters, and you probably have a good reliever.

Of course, de la Rosa has aged since then, and getting your fastball back from 91 to 94 isn’t the same thing as climbing in a time machine. But de la Rosa has an out-pitch splitter and a fastball that is now sitting mid-90s; if he has any kind of command, they’ll have a lefty besides Chafin that is worth trusting with a lead.

But de la Rosa isn’t really the story here. I led with him because it ties into something I already wrote, and it’s fun to say “look, I was right!” before the sample size gods rain humility down on us all. de la Rosa’s velocity spike is nice enough, and maybe he’s a decent middle reliever until his arm breaks down, but he’s not probably a significant part of the Diamondbacks future.

Archie Bradley, though, may very well be.

The former #7 pick in the 2011 draft and a four-time Top 25 prospect according to Baseball America (ranking there in every year from 2012-2015), Bradley hasn’t yet lived up to his promise as a starter, and thanks to the acquisition of Taijuan Walker over the winter, got moved to the bullpen to begin this year. On Tuesday, Bradley made his first career relief appearance, and if you think you’re not getting another velocity chart, you haven’t been paying attention.

As a starter, Archie Bradley sat around 93. In his first outing as a reliever, he sat around 97. That’s better!

But there’s something of particular interest here beyond just “starter throws harder in bullpen”, because Archie Bradley didn’t just sit 97 for a few batters; he sat 97 for about half a game.

Because Bradley is currently the team’s long reliever, he entered in the fifth inning with his team trailing 8-2, and proceeded to get the last out of that inning before pitching the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings too. Here’s how the 14 batters he faced fared against him on Tuesday night.

Groundout, strikeout, strikeout, double, strikeout, walk, fly out, single, strikeout, fly out, strikeout, strikeout, single, strikeout.

Seven of the 14 batters Bradley faced walked back to the dugout having failed to put the ball in play, because Bradley’s stuff was not what he was throwing as a starter. From Nick Piecoro’s postgame story, here a couple of quotes from some scouts who were in attendance.

“He was electric,” a scout with an American League club said. “He was like Wade Davis out there. Everything he threw was above-average. That was (on the 20-80 scouting scale) a 70 fastball, 70 curve, 60 cutter. That must have been exciting for (the Diamondbacks) to see.”

“Who was that guy?” another scout asked tongue-in-cheek. “That was really impressive.”

Yes, that scout said Bradley was throwing a 60 cutter, which is interesting because, before Tuesday, Bradley hadn’t thrown any cutters in the big leagues. He threw nine of them on Tuesday, giving hitters another look besides his fastball/curveball combination, and at 91, it’s a high-velocity offering for a pitch that has some movement.

So Bradley picked up four ticks on his fastball in his first relief outing compared to what he was throwing as a starter, and yet he carried it through a long relief outing. He also flashed a new pitch that he hasn’t had before, which got an above-average grade from at least one scout. And to top it off, he absolutely pounded the strike zone, trusting his faster fastball enough to not nibble around the edges, which got him in trouble as a starter.

Yeah, it’s one game, in a low-leverage situation, and not against the best competition you’ll ever see. He struck out Eduardo Nunez and Jarrett Parker twice, along with Chris Marrero and Conor Gillaspie one time apiece; he also got Buster Posey once, to be fair. But the results don’t matter nearly as much as the stuff, and the fact that the stuff held across 14 batters and 57 pitches is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this.

As a guy who is already stretched out to work multiple innings, and has now shown that his stuff might play way up in relief, the Diamondbacks have to be thinking of seeing what he can do for a few innings in more important situations. While Patrick Corbin’s struggles may open the door for Bradley to move back to the rotation at some point, he may very well be one of those Wade Davis types that is more valuable in relief than he is as a a back-end starter. And since relief work no longer seems to mean 60 one-inning appearances protecting one-to-three-run leads, Bradley seems ideally suited to try the Andrew Miller role.

If the stuff keeps playing up at the level it was on Tuesday, and he can throw 97 with command for 10 batters an outing, that would change the entire complexion of the Diamondbacks bullpen. You give them 80 to 100 high-quality innings from Bradley, maybe 60 to 70 solid innings from de la Rosa, and whatever they get out of their reclamation project setup guys, and this bullpen could be not terrible.

And if Bradley turns out to be a high-end reliever capable of going multiple innings at a time, he could become either a very interesting young part of the team’s core or an absurdly valuable trade chip this July if the team falls out of the playoff hunt.

Obviously, you don’t want to overreact to one outing. Next time he takes the mound, maybe he’s throwing 94 and gets hit around again. But the huge jump in quality of stuff, combined with the potential that comes from adding a new pitch, makes Bradley one of the more interesting arms to watch over the next few months. And while Arizona would prefer to have some reliably good relievers, interesting guys to watch is still an upgrade over what they had a few days ago.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

(“multi=inning” fat finger there)