Looking back on the 2013 minor league baseball season, we are going to point to this as the moment when Arizona Diamondbacks right-handed pitcher Archie Bradley went from raw potential to Best Pitching Prospect In The Game.
In fact, after an incredible season that saw the No. 7 pick in the 2011 draft put up 162 strikeouts with a 1.84 ERA and 115 hits allowed in 152 innings between Low-A and Double-A, Bradley warrants comparisons to some of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball.
Looking over everything a prospect has and does on the baseball field, Bradley's direct comparison is Detroit Tigers star Justin Verlander, who was the No. 2 pick in the 2004 draft. (That was the infamous draft when San Diego took Matt Bush No. 1 overall.)
It should be noted that with these comparison pieces, especially for pitchers, I look at what the players look like physically, how their mechanics work, the stuff they throw and the projection of that stuff.
I do not factor in what a player has done in the big leagues, because that isn't fair to either the minor leaguer who has yet to prove himself in MLB or the big leaguer who has already established himself. It is all about how the players project.
With that in mind, here is how Bradley's projection compares to Verlander's at the time he was working his way through Detroit's system.
The Physical Comparison
It is very rare that anyone will throw out a No. 1 starter ceiling on a prospect, especially a high school pitcher because there is so much physical and mental maturity that has to take place over the next two to three years before you know what the stuff will turn into.
Bradley was an exception to that rule. He came out of Broken Arrow High School in Arizona about as physically mature as an 18-year-old can be.
Baseball America's Top 200 Draft Prospects list for 2011 had Bradley listed at 6'3" and 210 pounds. By comparison, Gerrit Cole, a 20-year-old in his third year at UCLA, was listed at 6'4", 220 pounds.
Even today, while he has filled out a little bit, Bradley's listed at 6'4" and 225 pounds. With that size and strength, it is no wonder everyone fell in love with him out of high school. He has tremendous athleticism, having played quarterback in high school with a scholarship waiting from the University of Oklahoma before he decided to go pro in baseball.
Verlander did not generate a lot of excitement in high school. It wasn't until his sophomore and junior seasons at Old Dominion that the world really took notice of him, both because the stuff greatly improved and the body looked like that of a typical right-handed horse. He wasn't nearly as good an athlete as Bradley at the time both were drafted, but he's worked to become respectable in that category.
As a 21-year-old with three years of college experience at Old Dominion, Verlander was all done filling out his 6'5", 225-pound frame. He has added a little more muscle over the years but nothing substantial.
Bradley can make you fall out of your seat watching him throw a baseball. You can see why everyone touts him as a top-of-the-rotation superstar in every start, even the ones when he is getting hit around.
Everything starts with the fastball, which is a monster that sits in the mid-90s, will touch 97-98 and stays away from barrels. Bradley's size and strength allow him to drive the heater down in the zone, making it nearly impossible to elevate when he's commanding it.
I will leave the description of Bradley's curveball to my B/R colleague Mike Rosenbaum, who wrote this in his Midseason Top 50: "Curveball is a hammer with sharp, downward bite; plus offering that should be a legitimate out-pitch in the big leagues."
The word "hammer" is a very appropriate choice to describe the curveball. I also think that it might be a little too soft, given how much I love the pitch. It is thrown in the low 80s and will snap a few knees in the big leagues.
One of the biggest things Bradley still has to work on is a changeup. He does throw one, though not very often because the fastball and curveball are so good and so effective for him. It can be a good weapon—there is some nice late fade to get excited about—but it will probably never be more than an average pitch.
If a power fastball-curveball combination sounds familiar, all you have to do is look at Justin Verlander scouting reports coming out of Old Dominion.
This is what Baseball America wrote about Verlander in a capsule after the Tigers drafted him in 2004:
Verlander might have the best pure stuff in the draft. He has a tall, upright delivery with a lighting-quick arm, and a fastball that tops out at 99 mph with hard run and sink. He complements it with a curveball that has good late depth and sharp bite, and a deceptive changeup that has fastball arm speed and late fade and sink. Verlander's biggest obstacle is his lack of command as he struggles to repeat his delivery.
Verlander and Bradley work with eerily similar arsenals, both from the types of pitches they throw and the grades for those pitches.
Which top pitching prospect would you start a roster with?
As time has gone on and hitters start to learn tendencies, Verlander has added a slider to his arsenal and has thrown it a little more every year. According to FanGraphs, the former AL MVP started throwing the slider in 2008 just 0.1 percent of the time and has gradually increased that to 13.3 percent this season.
There might come a time when Bradley has to add another breaking ball, but for now his top two pitches are so good that he can get away with a merely average changeup as his third pitch.
I also wanted to note that last sentence in the Verlander report by Baseball America regarding his issues with command and repeating the delivery. Bradley has dealt with similar issues in the minors.
For all the great things he did in 2013, Bradley also walked 69 in 152 innings. That's coming just one year after he walked 84 in 136 innings at Low-A.
The improved rate from year to year is encouraging, but there are still steps to be taken that will ensure Bradley reaches a ceiling somewhere close to where Verlander's wound up being.
Usually when you are comparing pitchers, one of the first areas in which they'll differ is in the mechanics. No two players are going to be doing the exact same thing, because what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for the other.
However, as has been the case throughout this comparison, Bradley and Verlander aren't really that different when it comes to mechanics of the delivery or the finish. Here are the two deliveries in slow motion.
The one major difference between the two is Verlander doesn't utilize the extreme leg kick that Bradley does, which could help explain why Verlander's command came along very well and why Bradley is still searching for more consistent command.
Because Bradley's leg kick is so big, it can be difficult to plant the lead foot, move your arm forward and hit the same release point 100 times. He does project to have above-average command because his athleticism makes it easier to manage that kind of wind-up, but it isn't quite there yet.
Bradley's arm action in the back is also a bit longer than Verlander's, but both players get great push from the tree trunks they call legs and are able to drive the ball into the hitter before they know what to do with it.
A lot of young pitchers give you cause for concern because their mechanics are a complete mess, making them more susceptible to arm problems. But Bradley and Verlander are very clean and know how to use their lower halves to generate velocity.
Bradley's ceiling is, as you have no doubt guessed, incredibly high. He has the chance to have two 70-grade pitches in his fastball and curveball. The changeup will be, at worst, a fringe-average (45-50) pitch, but I still think there is a little more to it that can push it into the above-average (55) range if he throws it 10 to 15 times per game.
The command and control might be the most problematic areas for Bradley. He's still throwing too many balls, but he also pitched most of the year at age 20 in Double-A.
I am not going to knock him too much, especially when you consider that his walk rate went from 5.56 per nine innings in 2012 to 4.09 this year. That's still high, but when you factor in age relative to the competition, it's not nearly as worrisome.
If the command and control continue to develop, and the changeup turns into a solid-average offering with that fastball-curveball combination, we are talking about a true No. 1 starter with Cy Young potential.
I often hesitate to throw out the No. 1 starter tag because that is something you can only earn in the big leagues. You have to throw 200-plus innings every year and do it in dominating fashion, which should tell you how much I think of Bradley.
To bring the whole comparison full circle, Verlander is Bradley's ceiling. Given their similar physical profiles and caliber of stuff coming though the minors, it's not completely out there to expect it to happen.
So, yeah, get excited about the future of your rotation, Arizona.
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