As reported by countless outlets in the last 36 hours, Archie Bradley is said by the D-backs to be under consideration to grab the pitching staff’s final spot — in the bullpen (Piecoro first). Bradley-as-reliever may be a good baseball decision, but it does not help put the team in a position to win, at least as I understand what winning means. I have little doubt that pitching in the majors in April would be good for Bradley, and that it would help the team win in April. I do have doubts.

I don’t pick fights with Buddhists. The “middle path” is a great way to stay safe, to be happy, and to avoid disaster. The “middle path” is about living well. Baseball is not. Baseball is about survival.

In competition, there are few occasions where it makes sense to go half speed. Sure, baseball may look that way sometimes, but in a long season, it’s not the smart play to go all out all the time. “Less than full speed” sometimes on the field is about the upper limit, about going only so fast and so high as your engines will allow you to do without stalling — the baseball form of “less than full speed” is still as hard as reality allows it to be. It is full speed. And when a full-on sprint is required for even a glimmer of a favorable outcome, players give it — you never know if the third baseman will triple clutch and running hard will force a throwing error.

Now, think of the runner on first base when the batter hits a lazy fly ball between the left and center fielders, and how he advances almost three quarters of the way to the second base bag. A missed catch almost never happens in that situation, and yet it costs the runner nothing to advance that far — he can get back to first safely, and couldn’t have tagged up anyway. If the outfielder does lose the ball, “three quarters of the way” doesn’t help him take second – he could have done that with a simple walking lead. Instead, three quarters of the way is the only right answer because the alternatives give you a 0% chance of an advantage, even if the chances of taking third are almost as small.

When it costs you nothing to try and there’s a reward if you succeed — you try. If it costs you something to try and there’s no or almost no reward if you succeed, you don’t. If you don’t know which of those situations you’re in? Pick. One. Landing in the middle is the only truly bad decision. The patron saint of competition is not Buddha, but Machiavelli.

…one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

What was said there of navigating a political landscape can also be said of injuries a team wishes to inflict on the standings. Winning partly gets you nowhere in terms of “winning,” especially if it makes it more difficult to win in the future. Baseball is a business, and I believe and completely understand that a 78-win team makes the potential of seeing a win so much more real to a potential ticket-buyer than a 68-win team (for which we might ask ourselves whether a win matters as a first and most obvious question, instead of whether or not they will win that night). It would not surprise me if, in terms of selling July or August tickets (or next year’s season tickets), that 68 to 78 win gap makes a bigger difference than the gap between 78 and 88. It would also not surprise me if this reported consideration of Bradley in the bullpen was about the former gap — because it is not about the latter, either in this season or future seasons overall.

Bradley Ready Enough That Relief Role Would Work

With 6 runs (4 earned) in 16.1 innings, Bradley has been one of the best pitchers in camp. More importantly, it seems like he has had quicker plate appearances and shallower counts (data a little spotty). Bradley got on the map by being nearly unhittable, and became a top prospect by showing in early 2013 that command was potentially compatible with that. On some level, we’ve been waiting for Bradley to show that that wasn’t a fluke (or to improve) for a season in a half (on the other level, he was not exactly healthy last year). No, 16.1 innings can’t tell us that his command has improved. But if Bradley has been making a specific effort to stay in the zone this spring (regardless of how hittable it might make him), at least it might show us that he won’t necessarily fail in that endeavor. Considering the struggles of Trevor Cahill, Allen Webster and others to do that, that’s not nothing. Could Bradley prove more in the minors? Absolutely. But it’s not a necessity that he be asked to.

Pitchers don’t last forever, and using those bullets in the minors for development begins to be counter productive when the potential returns on development start to diminish — especially since there can be a way for those development-bullets to help the major league team. As Nick Piecoro wrote last night, that’s the Earl Weaver school of thought about breaking in a rookie in long relief. Whether it would work with most pitchers doesn’t really matter; logistically, doing that would be impossible.

The real point is that it might work particularly well with Bradley, for at least two important reasons. One is that Bradley is a good bet to be good enough to actually be helpful in the pen right now; there’s no worry about wasting bullets in the minors if the bullets wouldn’t be good bullets. As for the other… the last time we really talked about the Bradley-as-reliever possibility on this site was back in August 2013 in a proto-Pool Shot conversation:

I just want to introduce this idea: there’€™s no rule that says that he needs to get promoted a single time.  If we’re talking an Earl Weaver approach, and breaking him in as a reliever, which is what I’€™d suggest in the circumstances, you’€™d make it the plan from the get-go to let Bradley get his feet wet in a controlled relief environment, and then leave open the option of having him start games at Reno to open the 2014 season.  I do believe in this method, and I think we can get back to that.  But I know one thing that we’ve talked about in the past is how the nature of a pitcher’s remaining development can make this kind of plan make sense or not.  I mean, whether it’€™s a guy working on a third pitch, something you wouldn’€™t want him to do in front of major league hitters who know it’s coming, or someone working on control, where promoting aggressively would be less of an impact on the development game plan.

As Jeff noted at the time, Bradley arguably did need to sort out a third pitch back then. But I renew the point: at least for me, it does not compute that fringy (as opposed to horrendous) command cannot be improved anywhere near as well in the majors as it can in the minors. Bad things happen there, too, especially if there is Reno.

On The Pool Shot last weekend and in his piece yesterday, Jeff explored a brilliant point: while I was focused on figuring out who the best lefty matchups option might be because that’s how bullpens normally go, the last spot in the bullpen probably couldn’t (and can’t) be for a fifth short reliever (something the organization later confirmed). As Jeff illustrated, the length of pitcher starts has been and will be a concern for the D-backs, who need to arm themselves with an extra multi-inning option beyond Randall Delgado and Daniel Hudson. Bradley could probably do a reasonably good job at that; ZiPS projected him with an ERA- of 114, 14% worse than league average, well in line with Delgado (117 ERA-) and Hudson (113 ERA-). And there’s a pretty good chance (if just because that’s how the ERA statistic works) that he’d do better in relief.

Bradley in April Bullpen: The Wrong Answer

Having Bradley break camp in the MLB bullpen would nevertheless be a mistake. Jeff put it exactly right:

Neither of us is under the illusion that this is definitely a thing; the situation is not only about service time, but this could easily be whitewashing on the part of the organization (especially since the man with the brush is a lawyer), part of an organizational priority to make sure they can’t be accused of manipulating the clock (not long ago). If they were publicly considering Bradley for the bullpen despite the service time effect, then surely the MLBPA or Bradley’s agent can’t raise his not making the rotation in a grievance, right? Don’t forget, Bradley’s agent did a little saber-rattling about eleven months ago. It still doesn’t make sense to bring Bradley to Chase Field as a reliever, at least not to start the season.

The “Weaver method” doesn’t make nearly as much sense when the pitcher in question is not better than your alternatives for that bullpen spot — it’s not about sacrificing the present for the future, but about a no-lose scenario in which you don’t have to choose. This Bradley possibility is not no-lose. You’d be hard pressed to convince me that two extra weeks of Bradley this season is better for the MLB team than an extra year of a Bradley, regardless of whether the alternative for those extra two weeks is Andrew Chafin (good!) or Vidal Nuno (link not found). Sometimes, the bump in value at a relief spot is worth the lost service time, if the season in which the team finds itself is potentially a winning one (especially if that + not much bullpen depth). Most of the recent teams to have done a top-pitching-prospect-as-temporary-reliever thing have done so in winning seasons. All due respect to Tony La Russa (and I do have extraordinary respect for him), but Bradley is not going to be saving D-backs wins in the World Series this year a la 2006 Adam Wainwright. In the Piecoro piece quoting La Russa, there is also a passing reference to other teams’ history in having a top pitching prospect so well that he doesn’t get moved to the rotation. Daniel Bard aside (I have to stop saying that), we need give this no consideration in hashing out what the correct decision is right now. Making a mediocre decision because you’re afraid the alternative would lead to you making a poor decision later is an especially poor form of decision-making.

Yes, this is about service time, an issue that recently moved the Players Association to speak out on Kris Bryant‘s behalf. The common cry on Twitter has seemed to be that the Cubs weren’t putting their best team on the field, as some kind of self-proving contention. I don’t understand that at all; teams put interests in future assets ahead of on-the-field quality all the time at the trade deadline, and no one seems to have a problem with that. I do have a problem with the fact that keeping Bryant down actually may be against the CBA even if it’s not against the letter of it, as SweetSpot Network-er and labor lawyer Jason Wojciechowski wrote. But we don’t have that issue here with Bradley. The argument that Bradley could use a couple weeks’ experience trying out the whole middle or long relief thing before a callup for that role is at least as valid as the argument that Bradley should be tried in relief to get ready for an MLB starting role. You can’t have the latter be valid without the former being arguably valid.

It’s really that simple, and calling up Bradley to start the year is really that indefensible. If it’s so important to the organization, they should approach Bradley about a sign-and-promote, or promote him with a framework for an extension already in place. Chances are, it won’t matter a whole lot either way — just like a runner moving up most of the way to second on a lazy fly ball to left center probably won’t matter either way. Pitchers get hurt, especially power pitchers, and Bradley is far from “can’t miss.” That is no justification for getting a decision this wrong. Random chance can be any team’s friend, and yet the only way to maximize a team’s chances of winning is to treat all of these things like they matter just the way players do on the field. Perfect is the enemy of good, but what’s so great about good? Excellence in decision-making is the only defensible goal for decision-making. That’s winning baseball.

Maybe this Bradley tango will be a minor talking-point blip when this front office regime’s tenure is all said and done. But Bradley is not the first example, here. It’s hard to read the team’s offseason moves and come away with a lukewarm feel for a lukewarm vision for the team, one that sees a better-than-terrible 2015 finish as a goal coequal to a good finish in 2017. A team approach to the front office is a great idea, but in the “team of rivals” sense where the best ideas can be chosen — not in the committee sense in which most decisions are the product of consensus and compromise. That’s what this looks like thus far, just over six months in. We’ll see if this trend continues shortly, when we find out if Nick Ahmed will be put on the MLB roster for an extremely limited bench role (or any limited bench role). Which, by the way, would violate a different and maybe even more firmly held Earl Weaver tenet.

It’s too much to ask for any major league team to try relentlessly to contend, like a shark always in motion — in MLB, there are not as many wins to be earned as there are fish in the sea, and that shark would starve. But consider that particular brand of ruthlessness advised by Machiavelli, the ruthlessness required to let things go when doing something about it would only compromise your position in the future. It’s not too much to ask for a major league team to go about winning like a bear, another fearsome animal that contends with cycles no more unforgiving than the demands of baseball. Hibernation is a particularly ruthless strategy when it comes to survival. In major league baseball, ruthlessness is required.

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15 Responses to Bradley-to-Bullpen Consideration Good Baseball, but Not Winning Baseball

  1. Anonymous says:

    Either put him in the rotation or send him down. You hit it on the head with card comparison. Fact is Archie right now is arguably the second best candidate on the team.

  2. coldblueAZ says:

    Can’t find anything to agree with in this post.

  3. Kevin says:

    What’s good for Bradley IS good for the Diamondbacks. I, personally, am rather tired of seeing highly touted young Dbacks pitchers struggle with the team before going on to flourish with another. It is time for the Dbacks to prioritize the actual development of their young pitchers, because a failure to properly develop has bitten them too many times in the past. If promoting Bradley in April to a bullpen role increases his likelihood of actually developing into an ace, they should do it. The team is coming into a boatload of money with their new TV deal. If Bradley develops, they’ll have plenty of time to sign him to an extension ala Goldschmidt.

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      Maybe some kinds of good are worth more than others? Especially in light that we can’t guarantee he’d pitch into a seventh year anyway, there’s a very good argument to be made to just let him go ahead and start.

      Otherwise, if the D-backs are serious about it being good for Bradley to be broken in as a long reliever, it’s probably just as good later this month. He’s pitched in one game as a reliever — in Rookie ball in 2011. I think there’s at least a chance that learning what it’s like to answer the bell without much advance notice could be a benefit. Maybe (probably?) not. But having him make three appearances as a long reliever in the minors doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice.

    • coldblueAZ says:

      I agree. The Dbacks need to understand that prospects don’t think of themselves as pawns on a chessboard.

      Top prospects don’t live in a void, and their egos can be easily offended resulting in lack of motivation. See: Skaggs, Tyler.

      • Ryan P. Morrison says:

        Bob: I’d wager real money that the D-backs are one of the teams most conscious of that. And in the first of two sections above, I was aiming at explaining why I agree it would be a good move for Bradley.

        I don’t know how much better, though, and I’m not sure anyone does. Given that, it’s not a mistake to take other things into account.

        If your point is that the best way for the D-backs to win the most (meaningful?) games is for Bradley to break camp in the bullpen, then I appreciate your point although I’m not with you. If your point is that nothing other than Bradley and the potential for offense must trump all other concerns, then you’ve lost me. Other things at least might matter.

        I think 11 months ago we were in agreement on my take on calling Bradley up. That take (based in part on how if being called up meant Bradley would make more money, he would deserve it) is consistent with the one above.

        • coldblueAZ says:

          Ryan, my point on Bradley is his remarks that in 2014 he was focused on making the team, rather than improving his game. In 2015, he has dramatically improved his game and might still be left off the 25 man roster. How much can one man do to get the recognition he so desires (and deserves)?

          This season is not about ‘winning baseball’ it’s about winning in the future. In my opinion, Bradley will get much more benefit by seeing major league hitters and experiencing mistkes at the major league level than any number of years in AA/AAA.

          By the way, Bradley has the best numbers of all of the candidates for the final bull pen spot.

          • Ryan P. Morrison says:

            Bob —

            I packed a lot into the above, and maybe tried to do too much at once — I just thought I needed to in order to adequately make the two highly related points I wanted to make. Also, I’m pretty horrible at headlines, and this is one of those times in which I think that detracted from what I was trying to do. That’s 100% on me and 0% on you, and I really mean that.

            But we agree on a lot of things, and I value your opinion and have for a long time. In the interests of trying to get to the substance, here’s where I think we agree based on your comments and what I think/wrote above:
            1. Bradley deserves this, and doesn’t need to prove anything more. There’s no good baseball reason to keep him down.
            2. Numbers wise, Bradley has done great in the spring. I tried to make that point as best I could just under the first header — even in a small sample, things like successful control mean something. Not just the best of the few guys who haven’t yet claimed a job — one of the best in camp.
            3. Bradley will get much more benefit by seeing major league hitters and experiencing mistakes at the major league level than any number of years in AA/AAA. I completely believe that, and I believe it’s important. That’s what I intended to say when I expressed the opinion that even if one thought Bradley hadn’t proved everything he could with respect to command, his command is absolutely not so far off that he shouldn’t be in the majors. The majors is the only place he can take that to the next level. The minors are different.
            4. This season is not about winning baseball, it’s about winning in the future. I tried to draw, perhaps unsuccessfully, a difference between a slightly increased chance of winning a few games in the first two weeks of April and winning long term. That’s precisely what I hoped to say here. A potential seventh year is not worth as much, IMHO, as some think it is (esp for pitchers) — but it is definitely worth something. And that is all about the future, even if it’s not about next season.

            I honestly think we are completely in alignment on the first three points. On the fourth, maybe we disagree on what the proper scope of the future is/should be considered as, but if so, I think that disagreement is a matter of degrees, and not of us facing in opposite directions.

            There’s really only one other point in the mix between us, I think. This piece was about what is in the interests of the team, because the team is the only one making the decision here — it’s not about what’s best for Bradley (we agree) and not what we’d like to see (I think we agree there, too). That one point is: whether it’s better for the team to get Bradley going in the majors right now, or whether it’s better for the team to wait just a little longer. To tease that out, let me ask a hypothetical.

            If the team would enjoy control for 2021 by keeping Bradley off the major league roster for one single day, would it be better for the team to keep him in the minors for that day, or would it be better for the team to promote him for Opening Day?

            I ask this question not because I’m trying to win an argument at all costs, or anything like that — I genuinely want to know. Because if your answer is “promote him anyway,” we definitely disagree. That’s ok, I’d still see where you were coming from. But if your answer is that it probably would be best for the team if it waited that one day, then we don’t have a major disagreement, we have a minor difference of opinion. That’s ok, too.

            If one day means it’s better for the team to keep him in the minors, then what about two? Does the answer change at three? I don’t know exactly where I would draw the line, but thinking about it, it might be 4-5 weeks. You could probably talk me into 3 weeks, though. Again, we’re not far on the baseball of this.

            Opening Day is April 6. If the team waits to call him up until April 18, they get the service time year. It wouldn’t actually be just 12 days, because of the optics. But call it 14 days. How many is too many? For me, it’s over that line, not by a whole lot, but over it. And my final point in the piece was if the real number is over that line, then you go with the real answer from the real number, and not waffle just because it’s close and you don’t care that much about the outcome. That is the only part of this piece in which I was comfortable staking out a definitive position, but it’s a different (though importantly related) position.

            Also — I get that these aren’t just numbers, and that personality and all the rest are real things that matter. If the D-backs name Bradley to the 25-man, they will get something out of that along those lines (maybe even the more favorable extension referred to in the piece). I think that gets factored in, but that it’s one factor among many.

  4. Kevin says:

    I’m not sure Bradley starting in the majors right now is good for him. The team seems to think he could developmentally benefit from facing big league pitching (the minors are simply no substitute for that), but also feel he’s not yet ready for the pressure of a rotation spot (and though his spring numbers look shiny, I would probably have to agree). The long relief role caters to both these legitimate concerns. I see your point in waiting a few weeks to maintain extra control, and if they did go that road I would have no complaints. But I feel putting too heavy a priority on maintaining control over the developmental needs of the player is the textbook example of counting your chickens before they hatch

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      Kevin, I think we’re pretty close to the same page here, and I think in general, you’re going to see me ride those last points (no guarantees in the future, and prospects can still develop in the majors) pretty hard. Pitchers who excel for 7+ years are the exception, even among top prospects.
      Making team control a top priority is arguable for position players, but I agree — probably not for pitchers. If you were going to give it a low priority, however, I think winning overall still tips the scales in this particular case.

  5. Anonymous says:

    ryan if it takes you this long in this many comments to explain what it is you’re talking about then its pretty clear yeah you tried to do to much.
    that said even if it took me 20 min to figure out what you were saying I agree with most of it and those are things I come here for.

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      Ha — point taken. Elsewhere, writing is like being a technician, which can be fun, but in this space, minutiae and some topics that can’t be done cleanly can still be done…and that’s really fun.
      Thanks, though. And don’t forget you can comment here if you have a nugget you want to try to unpack. I live for that stuff.

  6. rye says:

    Based on his performance yesterday and based on his comments afterwards, “I don’t care how I make this team, if it’s as a stinking water boy, I literally don’t care,” I think the team needs to make room for him, but only in the rotation. Prior to both, I was for sending him to Mobile/Reno for 2 weeks and then calling him up. IMO, this new regime needs to send the message that performance will be rewarded. In this particular case, I think sending that message is more important than the year of Bradley the team gains. Especially given the number of young arms that will be starting in the minors and have rotation aspirations. I’m not for a 6-man rotation, especially in April with so many off-days, so something will have to give. I’m not clear on whether RDLR can be optioned to the minors or not. It would be entirely unfair to Anderson to be optioned and Cahill and Hellickson are stuck. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      Sounds like we may have our answer to that last question, with the rumored Cahill deal.

      I thought the service time/bullpen thing didn’t have a clear answer, making it a good topic here — and I thought that being deliberate with the decision, if there was an answer, was something that the team shouldn’t have been uncompromising about.

      Rotation is a different question, and it doesn’t have the same kind of clear answer, I think. The don’t-waste-bullets argument still works in favor of bringing him up, and I think both arguments are reasonable.

      Basically, if he comes up and does well, they probably won’t regret it, either because he won’t last forever or because it was worth it to start solidifying the not-too-distant future. If he comes up and struggles, they can always send him back to the minors, which ends up giving the team an extra year — like with Jackie Bradley Jr. not too long ago.

      He’s a pitcher; they can’t really lose if they’re bringing him for a meaningful role. There’s one exception — if he almost immediately gets hurt in the majors, and then spends the rest of the year on the MLB DL, like Eddie Butler did for most of last year. But there’s no way to guard against that anyway. And, thank the gods of baseball, he certainly looks healthy right now.

      Can’t wait to see him pitch!

  7. […] start that also featured an encouraging long relief bid by Ray. One thing I did not consider Wednesday was that Cahill trade talks may have been ongoing. It’s possible that it didn’t seem to […]

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