Disaster lurks around every corner for baseball players, and the Diamondbacks’ relief corps knows that better than most. At any moment you could tear a UCL (as David Hernandez did in 2014), develop tendinitis in your shoulder (Andrew Chafin, last year), strain your groin (Jorge De La Rosa, most recently in ’16), inflame your shoulder (Jake Barrett, this spring training), or take a comebacker off your ankle (T.J. McFarland, May) or skull (Archie Bradley, ’15). These days, though, the greatest danger for an Arizona reliever lies in an unexpected drenching.
“We got Jake Barrett and our bullpen catcher, Mark Reed, last night!” Bradley says between cackles. “At separate times!”
Doctors like to joke that anesthesiology is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of excitement. That’s true of relief pitching, too. As the Diamondbacks charge toward a playoff berth, their relievers are enjoying both parts of the job. The cups of water they place strategically on bullpen doorframes to target each other are just one of the ways the zaniest staff in the majors keeps busy. “Whoever gets out there latest usually gets it,” says McFarland of the downpours. When it is pointed out to him that a prank that is played daily loses some of its unexpectedness, he laughs. “It still works,” he says. “It’s still funny!”
Perhaps their most famous antic came early this month, when Arizona relievers famously engaged in a dance-off with their Cubs counterparts during a 2½-hour rain delay in Chicago earlier this month. The Wrigley bullpens were moved before this season from foul territory to a spot under the bleachers, where they are hermetically sealed from the rest of the park. There is no outlet back to the dugout, and the pitchers are visible only because a video camera captures the view and projects it—on a small delay—onto the jumbotron. It was the delay that inspired Bradley originally. He had seen the Cubs dabbing and breakdancing during past breaks in action, and he entertained himself before games by dancing, then turning toward the jumbotron and catching the action.
So when the rain came, and Bradley’s initial suggestion of kickball was vetoed due to injury risk—bullpen coach Mike Fetters occasionally has to step in as the resident adult—the staff began choreographing. McFarland put on his uniform upside down and bounced around. They reenacted a four-man bobsled race, complete with push start and turns. Chafin, a country boy from rural Ohio who lived in an RV last spring training, mimed lassoing the others. And for the grand finale, human bowling ball Rubby De La Rosa knocked down Bradley and Chafin for the 7–10 split. Manager Torey Lovullo knew his team had hit the big time when the Today show played the clip the next morning.
If the Diamondbacks were losing, pundits would call this levity a distraction. But they aren’t. Through Tuesday, their record sat at 74–58 and they were in line for the first wild-card slot. A bullpen that was among the worst in the game last year has a 2.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio, fourth in the league. Its 3.76 ERA ranks fourth. And the stat over which this group most obsesses, percentage of inherited runners scored, is 24.2, best in baseball.
“As a starter, the worst thing is seeing your runs cashed in,” says Bradley.
He is especially sensitive to that worry, since until this spring—and even today, in his mind—he was one of them. A former first-round pick who was used to succeeding at everything he tried, Bradley, now 24, rocketed through the minor leagues on the strength of his hard fastball and power curve. But he failed to make the team in 2014, then missed three weeks in ’15 as the swelling in his head subsided and another two months with right-shoulder tendinitis. Last year he battled to a 5.02 ERA, looking nothing like the $5 million bonus baby Arizona had signed away from playing baseball and football at Oklahoma. He was frustrated. The Diamondbacks were frustrated. No one could understand how the young star had fallen so far.
This spring training, he lost the fifth-starter competition to Patrick Corbin and grudgingly accepted his new role … until he started playing it. Bradley’s first relief outing came in the middle innings of a blowout loss. He had plenty of time to get ready, knew exactly what to expect, and dominated over 31/3 innings. His second time out was an emergency call in the seventh inning of a time game—two on, no out. “I was nervous I was gonna balk, my front leg was shaking so bad,” he says. Again he dominated. Appearance No. 3 was lower leverage but with less warning. Again he dominated.
“A light went on,” he says. “I realized that when you go into the game and step on the mound, you have to do the job. People don’t care if you didn’t get enough sleep the night before. I used to make starting this big day and build everything up to it and now it’s just like, O.K., give me the ball. As a starter I’d be like, I’m not gonna golf two days before my start; I’m not gonna have a beer two days before my start. Now I’m in the bullpen and it’s like, Am I gonna sit in my room? I could pitch every night!
“When the phone rings, anything before that doesn’t matter. At the end of the day you either did what you were supposed to do or you didn’t and it was no one else’s fault but yours. When you can put that type of pressure on yourself and still be O.K., it just makes it easy.”
There is more to Bradley’s success than a new outlook, of course. He believes he will rejoin the rotation next year, but it’s possible that he makes more sense right where he is. His command (he has halved his walk rate, to 2.29 per nine) and velocity (up four mph, to 96.3) are dramatically improved now that he does not have to worry about pacing himself. He also lacks a good third pitch, a weakness hitters cannot exploit when they see him only once per game. But teammates and coaches alike have seen a man who has embraced the expectations that once overwhelmed him. And now that he is having success—he is the most valuable reliever in baseball by wins above replacement (3.6)—he feels more comfortable being himself, which allows the rest of the bullpen to do the same.
As August turns to September, Bradley will continue to lead spirited bullpen debates about waffles versus pancakes and set up rows of cups for sunflower-seed target practice. He will continue to lobby for a dress-code reduction. (“Absolutely not,” Lovullo said recently when Bradley asked about flying in sneakers.) He will continue to startle anyone in earshot by dropping hurling a weighted warm-up ball against the wall when someone seems distracted. His fellow relievers can join in on the fun knowing that when the phone rings, they will all be ready to make an impact on a team with big dreams. Until the third inning or so, they’re thinking about soaking each other with water. From then on, the focus is on champagne.