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Archie Bradley could become a Diamondbacks relief ace

Armed with a great fastball and a solid arsenal of breaking pitches, the former first round pick has the tools needed to create value out of the bullpen.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Archie Bradley appeared in his fourth game for the Diamondbacks on Sunday, throwing 2 ⅔ shutout innings against the Dodgers, adding a strikeout and walking just one. This solid appearance for Bradley only adds to his strong start as a relief pitcher this season: 9 ⅔ innings pitched, five hits allowed, 11 strikeouts and just three walks.

Bradley’s 0.00 ERA is obviously tied for first among relievers but even more telling are his peripherals. His FIP of 1.54 and xFIP of 2.40 suggest that his performance has not been too diluted by luck. Even better, he’s already been worth 0.3 fWAR, ranking near the top of qualified relievers, in a tie for 11th.

A former first-round pick by the Diamondbacks in 2011, Bradley’s future was always thought to be in the starting rotation. He has a big fastball and can mix in a changeup, curveball and cutter, all of which projected to be at least average Major League pitches.

His path to becoming an ace starter, though, wasn’t clear after his rookie season yielded mixed results. In 141 ⅔ innings last year, Bradley posted a 5.02 ERA and a 4.10 FIP in 26 starts. He especially struggled in the control department, posting the 5th highest BB% among starters with at least 140 innings.

And after the Diamondbacks added Taijuan Walker in a trade over the winter, Bradley was on the outside looking in at the starting rotation, and he was officially named as the Diamondbacks’ long reliever on March 24.

Despite that, though, Bradley has shown he may have what it takes to become an ace in Arizona, just an ace reliever rather than starter. The team might be starting to catch on, giving him the ball with the lead in two close games already.

Here’s why Bradley has all the tools to potentially be the Diamondbacks’ relief ace:

Velocity

Bradley’s fastball has looked significantly better in 2016 than it has in the past, and the data is here to back it up.

Data via Brooks Baseball

As seen in the chart, Bradley’s average fastball velocity has jumped since becoming a relief pitcher, from about 93-94 mph in the past to 96 mph now. In fact, his slowest fastball to start the year was 93.8 mph, still faster than his average fastball during the entire 2016 season. His fastest? Up at 98.7 mph.

The strikeouts have done nothing but pile up. Bradley had a 22.4 percent strikeout rate in 2016, but that number has risen to 30.6 percent here in the early going. With a better fastball comes more strikeouts, and thus, Bradley is far more effective in getting the outs he needs. He does so with better command, too, an obvious added bonus.

Arsenal

It’s not just Bradley’s fastball that gives him the ability to be a great reliever; the fact that he has two (and sometimes three) other pitches to work with makes him even better.

In addition to his fastball, Bradley has relied mostly upon his curveball and cutter to keep hitters off-balance. He also has worked in a sinker from time to time. His cutter, in particular, might be his second-best pitch. According to Brooks Baseball, is has generated plus vertical movement when compared to the average cutter, as seen here in a 1-1 pitch to Dodgers’ catcher Yasmani Grandal, generating a swing and a miss.

Bradley’s cutter — more of a cutter-slider hybrid, really — is a new addition for the 2017 season. It’s a pitch that he added over the offseason, and although he has thrown it sparingly so far (about just 15% of the time), it is a good change-of-pace option that he can turn to as the season wears on.

Longevity

Because Bradley was a starting pitcher as recently as this Spring Training, he has the ability to pitch multiple innings. This can save his other relief pitchers from overworking, and perhaps put less pressure on the starter in front of him to pitch deeper into games.

Take Sunday’s game for example. Walker (ironically) started the game, but was only able to complete five innings before manager Torey Lovullo pulled him. Walker only pitched 87 pitches and almost certainly could have started the sixth, but Lovullo decided to use a fresh arm — Bradley — and go from there.

The decision worked to perfection. Bradley pitched 2 ⅔ innings, taking the Diamondbacks into the eighth before having to be pulled. Then, they used another starter-turned-reliever, Jorge De La Rosa, to get the final out before moving to Fernando Rodney for the ninth. Bradley’s ability to pitch to 10 batters saved Arizona from having to use, say, J.J. Hoover, Andrew Chafin and Randall Delgado in the same game, or from having to leave Walker in longer than they would’ve liked.

Plus, Bradley’s effectiveness held up all the way through, limiting any concerns there. He was still pumping 96–97 mph even at the end of his stint.

Yesterday’s performance was not even out of the norm for Bradley, who hasn’t thrown just a single inning in any of his four relief appearances. He’s pitched anywhere from 1 ⅓ innings to 3 ⅓ innings so far, and not much seems to be slowing him down.

At this rate, even if the Diamondbacks only get Bradley into the game 50 times, he’s on pace to throw between 113 and 114 innings, possibly more valuable than the 150 or 160 less-effective innings that he would throw as a starter. There is real potential for Bradley to be an important part out of the bullpen for the Diamondbacks in 2017 and beyond.

Beard

In addition to his added velocity and pitches, Bradley has added a great reliever-type beard over the offseason. Check out his transformation.

Bradley may have a chance to become one of the league’s best relievers, if things work out in his favor. It’s hard to know whether he will become the next Andrew Miller, or even the next Chris Devenski, but it is easy to see the comparisons between all three as former starters.

But, if the Diamondbacks use him correctly, Bradley could be an asset that very few teams have out of their bullpen: a “long-man” that can pitch in high leverage situations. And, that is what makes this transition so exciting for both Bradley and Arizona.

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Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DevanFink.