"Don’t scout the stat line" is a phrase commonly heard in scouting circles, especially when it comes to scouting Minor League or amateur players. There are a multitude of factors that play into a players’ stat line other than his true talent, including luck, age relative to his level, park factors, health, and transition to pro ball. For these reasons, it is essential to separate the numbers from the true talent, but when the numbers do not match the talent, it is often worth a second look to examine the causes of the poor numbers. Was the initial evaluation of the player inaccurate or can the poor performance be explained by other reasons? Have the tools that helped the player initially climb the lists regressed?
Using the Baseball Prospectus Midseason Top 50 Prospect list as our guide, there are four pitching prospects whose 2014 statistics do not match their high rankings. These prospects are, with their BP midseason ranking in parenthesis, Mets’ righty Noah Syndergaard (9), Reds’ righty Robert Stephenson (10), Diamondbacks’ righty Archie Bradley (14), and Astros’ righty Mark Appel (34).
This week, I’ll be examining one of these players each day. The first post, featuring Noah Sydergaard, can be found here, and the second post, featuring Robert Stephenson, can be found here. I discuss Diamondbacks' righthander Archie Bradley in today's post, and tomorrow's post, the last of the four, will focus on Mark Appel.
Archie Bradley’s 2014 Stats (across three levels)
77.2 IP, 4.06 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 71 Hits, 2 HR, 41 BB, 69 K
Following a dominant 2013 campaign in High-A and Double-A, Archie Bradley was widely regarded as the top pitching prospect in the Minor Leagues entering the 2014 season. Debates about whether Bradley would open the season with the Major League club were both present and reasonable, but Bradley’s season has not gone as planned.
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The big righty was sent to Triple-A Reno to begin the season, where he had two good starts followed by three bad starts and then landed on the disabled list with elbow soreness. The baseball community held their collective breath and feared another Tommy John surgery, but Bradley’s soreness was merely a result of swelling in the elbow. After a few weeks of rest he resumed throwing, made one decent rehab start in rookie ball, and was sent to Double-A Mobile – a level below his initial 2014 assignment.
The Diamondbacks were certainly hoping to see Bradley prove his health and return to dominance upon returning to the Southern League, but this hasn’t been the case. Instead, his strikeouts are down to 7.3 per nine innings, a low mark for a pitcher credited by Baseball Prospectus prior to the season as having a present 7 fastball (on the 2 to 8 scale) and a potential 7 curveball. Additionally, Bradley, who has never been a control artist, has seen his walks increase to a very poor 5.1 per nine innings. His ERA is still reasonable, but his reduced ability to miss bats – his greatest strength – and his reduced ability to throw strikes – his biggest weakness, lead to significant concern about his present profile.
Two possible explanations for Bradley’s poor numbers rise above the rest. First, it is possible that Bradley is not physically healthy or not completely recovered from the elbow swelling and soreness. This would be an easy explanation that would account for his regressed command and strikeout capabilities, but I have no way of confirming or rejecting this theory. It should be noted that Bradley’s reputation as a tough, competitive player who wants the ball would support this, but again, this is mere speculation based upon his ineffectiveness following elbow issues earlier in the year.
The other explanation, and probably the less favorable of the two, is that Bradley has regressed or just isn’t as good as we initially thought. While it was easy to get excited about Bradley’s 1.97 ERA in 123.1 innings at Mobile, his FIP was over a full run higher at 3.04. That's still good, but it does not suggest the same level of dominance as a sub-2.00 ERA. His FIP has risen about full run this season at Double-A to 4.07, which is not steep of a regression as it initially appeared, but still, there is no denying that Bradley has pitched markedly worse this season than before. Additionally and unlike Syndergaard, there are few positives in his numbers that give us reasons for optimism. Bradley's bat-missing and strike-throwing abilities have clearly regressed and cannot be justified by park effects, poor team defense, or bad luck.
Furthermore, I don’t buy the argument that his struggles are a result of his time on the DL and find it difficult to believe that the Diamondbacks would send Bradley out to an advanced affiliate before he was fully ready. If he is indeed healthy, I cannot justify his poor 2014 performance on missing time for an injury that was considered healed two months ago, especially as his recent performance (more walks that strikeouts in two of his past three outings) has not been any better.
Health is going to be critical for Bradley heading into the 2015 season, where the Diamondbacks hope he can resume his development into a top of the rotation starter. If poor health was the cause for his poor 2014 statistics and Bradley is fully healthy next season, I expect Bradley to retake his spot near the top of all pitching prospects. If he is not healthy or if his regression carries over into the 2015 season, expect his stock to fall significantly.
The bottom line is that Bradley is still just 22 and very good at pitching, but this season has been poor by all accounts. Between the injury and the lackluster performance, he has taken a clear step back and will enter 2015 with significantly less hype. The potential to blossom into an ace remains, but that outcome seems much farther away than before. In a current ranking, I’d bump Bradley down to about the 20-25 range, below both Syndergaard and Stephenson.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and MLB Farm. Scouting grades and rankings courtesy of Baseball Prospectus.
Dan Weigel is a contributing writer at Minor League Ball and Beyond the Box Score. His tweets about prospects and other interesting things are found at @DanWiggles38.