Every Major League debut is a blast, but Rays fans were particularly excited for this one as the team’s number one prospect and the number 18 prospect in all of baseball (according to MLB Pipeline), Taj Bradley, stepped on a mound in the big leagues for the first time to take on the division rival Boston Red Sox. With an injury to Zach Eflin opening up a roster spot, Bradley was the clear top choice to enter the rotation.
At just 22 years old, it’s an early debut for a starting pitcher, but Bradley thoroughly deserved it. The 6’2″ right-hander dominated his way through the minors. In 2021, the 1.76 ERA (66.2 IP) and 10.9 K/9 he posted in A-ball were nearly matched by the 1.96 ERA (36.2 IP) and 10.3 K/9 he pitched to at High-A. His combined 1.83 ERA (103.1 IP) across both levels led the minor leagues. That success carried over into 2022 as he looked unhittable with a 1.70 ERA (74.1 IP) and a 10.7 K/9 at Double-A before getting his first taste of adversity with a 3.66 ERA (59 IP) at Triple-A to close out the year. He was even selected to start the 2022 All-Star Futures Game for the American League.
The 2018 fifth-round pick out of a high school in Georgia was far from guaranteed a 2023 debut given his age and the amount of talent in the Rays rotation. A couple of injuries opened a spot and the Rays aggressively gave him a shot to tout his stuff. Speaking of stuff, the fifth-ranked right-handed pitching prospect’s (according to MLB Pipeline) scouting report suggests he sits in the mid-90s with his heater and can reach up to 98 mph. The secondary pitch he turns to the most is a cutter that leaves his hand in the mid-80s, and the righty also features a split-finger changeup and a slow curveball. His highest grading skill according to MLB Pipeline is his fastball, which earned a 65 grade, while his cutter and control came in at 60 on the 20-80 scale.
With so much hype surrounding the young starter stemming from his success in the minors and his positive scouting reports, I was pumped to see what Bradley would bring to the table. So, without further ado, let’s get started with his first pitch!
It’s always interesting to see what pitch a player turns to for their first career offering. Quite often it’s a fastball, and the case is no different here. It’s easy to tell Bradley is hyped up for his debut as he hurls a fastball nowhere near the zone at 95 mph.
His second fastball is tugged up and in at 95 mph. From the start, we already have something for Bradley to work on. He clearly needs to settle down and get that in the zone for it to have any effect. These first two can easily be blamed on first-batter jitters, but it will be important to see the state of Bradley’s mental and physical resolve.
The third pitch is way inside and the nerves are really showing as he’s started the first plate appearance of his career at 3-0.
However, Bradley finally gets himself together and fights back to full with two fastballs for strikes. The first was at 94 mph placed up and in and taken for a called strike. The second reaches 96 mph and is much more appealing, earning a big whiff from Alex Verdugo.
I love the intent of this pitch. Not only will this coax swings from aggressive hitters, but it will set up secondary pitches down in the zone. This is a location that won’t hurt you and, if hit consistently, can initiate the Blake Snell blueprint (heaters up, breakers down) – an approach that has proven to be successful time and time again.
Unfortunately, on a 3-2 count, Bradley misses with his fastball again. That puts the first baserunner on, providing Bradley a taste of adversity right away, and just in time to face off against the best hitter in the lineup, Rafael Devers.
With the first pitch to Devers, we get our first look at Bradley’s changeup. Watching it live, I thought it looked like the cutter, but Baseball Savant identified it as a change despite its nine inches of horizontal movement to the glove side. I honestly think it’s being misclassified. As a changeup, it’s weird. As a cutter, it’s interesting. It doesn’t have a lot of movement, but the difference in velocity (87 mph) and intent to bust lefties inside could make it a lethal pitch.
He follows it up with a fastball in the zone at 94 mph to bring the count even before a well-placed cutter gets it to two strikes
This one is actually labeled a cutter by Savant despite its lack of horizontal movement (one inch to the arm side). This pitch is placed perfectly and should induce tons of weak contact and swings and misses from left-handed batters. If he can spot that pitch there all night, it’s going to be a successful debut.
His two-strike pitch is a fastball that misses high. It works well because it can induce a chase but also changes the batter’s eye level. Instead of taking advantage of that idea, Bradley puts his foot on the gas.
He rears back and fires a heater past Devers for his first career strikeout. There are two things two take away from this pitch. One: his first K victim is a worthy foe. Two: he didn’t back down and trusted his stuff. There was no sign of the nerves that plagued him in his walk to Verdugo and I’m reassured by how quickly Bradley was able to settle down, shake off the jitters, and make the adjustment to live in the zone. This bodes well for him going forward in his career as it speaks to his mental fortitude.
The third batter of the inning is Justin Turner and he takes a fastball placed perfectly on the outside edge.
We get a good look at why Bradley earned such a good command grade. Not only is the location great, but it was where it was supposed to go, as catcher Christian Bethancourt’s glove barely had to move from where it originally set up.
After a high cutter is fouled off and a fastball is thrown too high, he puts his four-seamer right on the outside edge again and induces his first ball in play.
Turner grounds into an easy 4-6-3 double play to get Bradley out of his first MLB inning without any damage.
Facing Triston Casas to lead off the second, Bradley misses with a fastball up and away before getting the big lefty to pop out in foul territory on a fastball at the top of the zone.
Next up is Raimel Tapia and he quickly falls behind in the count thanks to a favorable call for the rookie pitcher.
The pitch was clearly low but a great frame job from Bethancourt netted Bradley the strike.
He quickly gets it to 0-2 with a cutter out over the plate that’s fouled down the line. It was a pitch that Tapia should’ve handled, but Bradley lives to see another day. His next pitch is a fastball that misses high, but he makes up for it with this pitch:
A beautifully dotted fastball right on the corner. He missed his location, but when your misses are that good, you’re gonna have a great time. That’s now two strikeouts in two innings and he’s got two outs in the blink of an eye. The contrast between Bradley’s first batter versus the next four is noticeably different and there’s an unfamiliar lack of stress in the air surrounding a pitcher making his MLB debut.
Bobby Dalbec is the final batter of the inning and Bradley handles him with ease. A cutter down the middle is looked at for strike one.
The second pitch earns an A+ for location as it’s placed perfectly on the outside corner. That pitch in that location will work 99% of the time and it makes me feel some type of way.
If that last pitch didn’t get you to start taking notice of Bradley, this next one sure did. He dials the heat up to 97 mph and just blows it by Dalbec for his third punchout. On just nine pitches, Bradley has an easy 1-2-3 second inning.
Now facing the bottom of the order, we’ll see if Bradley takes his foot off the gas or if he maintains his intensity.
Facing Reese McGuire, we get our first look at Bradley’s curveball. It’s a slow one, coming in at just 77 mph. It should work great to steal strikes early in counts as it did here, but I’m curious to see if it can do more than that.
He follows up the curve with a cutter placed nicely but hit foul. With two strikes, Bradley starts attacking the top of the zone with his heater, nearly earning a chase on the first one and not getting any action on the second one out of the zone.
On 2-2, he drops a curve from the sky that clips the top of the zone to earn the K. That’s now three strikeouts in a row and four in total. Although the location wasn’t great, it was pleasing to see him use the curve in a way other than stealing early strikes. If it can be a weapon late in counts, it becomes a legitimate third pitch. I think it could be a nice complement to the fastball and cutter because it has more movement and comes in significantly slower.
The second batter of the inning, Yu Chang, puts up a real fight. One cutter outside the zone and one in the zone put the count at 1-1. A fastball too high and a cutter pulled low puts Bradley behind 3-1. He gets away with a fastball that catches too much of the plate to bring it to 3-2. With the full count, he begins to lean heavily on his heater. After another foul ball, he exhibits his max velocity.
It’s barely fouled off and I love that Bradley is not afraid to challenge hitters. It’s also nice to know the scouting report didn’t lie to us about the heights he can hit with his heater and that he’s got upper-90s velocity in his back pocket when he needs it.
Bradley attempts to catch Chang off guard with a curve in the zone, but it’s just barely fouled off. The battle finally ends in Bradley’s favor as Chang smashes a low fastball toward third but it’s saved by Taylor Walls who makes a great play to keep the bases clear.
I noticed during this at-bat that Bradley works very quickly. Obviously, it’s necessary due to the pitch clock, and as a minor leaguer that has become accustomed to it, he’s trained himself to adjust to the faster pace. However, I found that his athletic, simple, and repeatable delivery made it so that he didn’t exert too much energy on each pitch and that he was able to recover in a timely manner in between offerings. I think this bodes well for his ability to pitch deep into games as he expands his pitch count.
With Kiké Hernández at the plate, Bradley gets ahead 0-2 with two called strikes – a cutter low in the zone and a curveball dropped in the middle of the zone. In the driver’s seat, he misplaces a fastball low, which is fortunately fouled off, and then misses upstairs with another fastball. He gets another heater down far enough to clip the top of the zone but Hernandez fouls it off. Clearly, the hard stuff isn’t getting the job done.
Bradley makes the adjustment and calls upon the curve again and gets a swing and a miss for his fifth strikeout to finish off another low-stress inning. That bender wasn’t featured at all in the first two frames, yet is the putaway pitch on two Ks in the third. So far, I adore his desire to live in the zone with three pitches that he genuinely trusts.
The second time through the order, it will be interesting to see how he incorporates all of his pitches as the Red Sox hitters make adjustments based on their first meetings with Bradley.
He misses up and away with a fastball before Verdugo turns on an inside cutter, hitting it down the line for a double. It’s the first hit given up by Bradley in his Major League career, though not any fault of his own. The pitch was located off the plate inside, but Verdugo put a good swing on it. Let’s see how Bradley deals with his first runner in scoring position.
He falls behind Devers 2-0 after bouncing a curve and yanking a cutter too far inside. He bounces back with a cutter in the zone but puts himself in a bind, missing with a fastball up and away to make it 3-1. This is where you really get to see the makeup of a pitcher. A leadoff double likely has him on edge, afraid of making another mistake. Now well behind in the count against the team’s most dangerous threat, he’s in a sticky situation.
Bradley does exactly what I like to see out of a rookie pitcher. He doesn’t back down or give up. Instead, he tosses a backdoor cutter to bring the count full.
He asserts his dominance again on the next pitch, blowing a heater past Devers to get a strikeout for the second time on the evening. I also like that he played with the pitch clock, letting it run all the way down before delivering his pitch. That’s now six strikeouts, but he’s not out of the jam yet.
A first-pitch fastball to Turner misses away, but then Bradley leaves a cutter over the plate and this happens:
It’s not the worst outcome, but it results in the first run levied against the young righty. That first real taste of adversity, when Bradley’s career ERA is no longer 0.00, prompts a visit from the pitching coach.
It was a successful mound visit as Bradley takes on Casas and doesn’t change his approach of attacking the zone with all of his weapons. A curve misses too low but a gorgeous backdoor cutter brings the count even.
He plays off the cutter by dropping a curve right down the middle that freezes Casas.
The curve may not have vicious movement or be his go-to whiff pitch, but it seems to catch hitters off guard because he consistently sits in the 89-95 mph range with the fastball and cutter. They seem geared up for the hard stuff when a looping curveball comes out of nowhere. Now he’s got Casas guessing.
We finally get to witness the trifecta of pitches working in tandem. He earns the called strike with the cutter, catches the hitter off guard with the curve, and then blows a fastball by him up in the zone. It’s a recipe that should have tons of success in future starts.
To close out the inning, he induces a flyball to left off the bat of Tapia that is easily reigned in by the left fielder. We got to witness how Bradley handled his first taste of real adversity, and I’ve got to say, I’m impressed.
I was under the impression that Bradley was only going to be allowed to go four frames, but at just 59 pitches, manager Kevin Cash elected to give him a shot at the win.
He kicks off the frame against Dalbec missing high with a cutter and a fastball, which may be an indication that he’s nearing the end of his line. The third pitch is a cutter left right in the happy zone, but Dalbec hits a sky-high flyball to left for the first out.
Now facing McGuire again, he also misses high with a heater before leaving a “changeup” over the plate. I put quotes around changeup because I think this is another misclassification. Either way, McGuire smacks it past the diving second baseman for a single.
It’s not a hard-hit ball, but Bradley is consistently leaving his pitches up or over the heart of the plate and it’s clear he’s running out of gas.
He misses high again to Chang before placing a nice cutter on the outside corner to make it 1-1. He follows that up with a cutter just off the plate that coaxes a swing and miss. So either he’s gotten lucky on the placement of the last two pitches, or he was just feigning his fatigue.
He closes out the at-bat with another strikeout on the curveball. While his cutter is his favored secondary, the pitch with which he turns to the most outside of his fastball, the curveball seems to be the secondary putaway pitch. It’s racked up three strikeouts thus far and works wonders at any time in the count. With two outs, Bradley is just one out away from putting himself in line for the victory.
Hernandez gets into an 0-2 count on two fastballs before poking a third heater down the line.
It’s nearly catchable and not a terrible pitch as Hernandez just put a good swing on the ball. He was being aggressive, but Bradley probably should’ve tested Hernandez with something out of the zone. Unfortunately for Bradley, the hit knocks in a run and keeps the fifth inning alive.
Now Verdugo steps to the plate for the third time after being the only batter to get to Bradley twice thus far. A curve earns strike one and a fastball fouled off makes it 0-2. Can he finish off the inning this time?
Nope. He goes with the curveball but hangs it right down the middle and Verdugo lines it into center field for another RBI base hit.
At 74 pitches and Devers striding to the plate, you have to figure this is his last chance at securing the win, especially with the team’s lead dwindling. He gets ahead with a cutter, misses inside with a fastball, and gets a foul on a cutter right down the pipe.
On his 78th pitch of the afternoon, Bradley finishes strong, hurling a heater above the zone, forcing Devers to hit a lazy fly ball to center to complete his MLB debut.
Final Line: (W) 5 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 8 K – 9 Whiffs, 35% CSW, 78 Pitches
|Pitch Type||Count||%||Called Strikes||Whiffs||CSW%||Zone%||Max Velo||Min Velo||Avg Velo|
|4-Seam Fastball||42||54%||4||6||24%||45%||98 mph||93.9 mph||95.8 mph|
|Cutter||23||29%||9||1||43%||70%||91.8 mph||84.8 mph||88.1 mph|
|Curveball||11||14%||5||2||64%||73%||79.5 mph||76.1 mph||77.7 mph|
|Changeup||2||3%||0||0||0%||50%||89.1 mph||87.3 mph||88.2 mph|
|Total||78||100%||18||9||35%||56%||98 mph||76.1 mph||90.8 mph|
In spite of the sour final inning, Bradley’s debut was quite impressive. He displayed his stuff and his ability to control it while living in the zone. He made adjustments early on, showed his mental fortitude, and overcame adversity. It’s all the stuff you want to see from a young starter.
He relied heavily on a fastball that he controlled well and on which he could turn up the heat when necessary. There were times when it seemed just like any other fastball but also times when it felt overwhelming. It wasn’t a huge CSW pitch, but if placed at the top of the zone or blown by batters, it got the job done.
As for the secondaries, the cutter is a pitch that relied heavily on location. It doesn’t have a standout quality, meaning that it doesn’t have the velocity to become a problem and it doesn’t have the movement to be a consistent whiff pitch. However, placed in on the hands of lefties or used as a front/backdoor pitch, it can earn called strikes and induce weak contact.
The curveball is his most intriguing pitch. Not only did it earn an eye-catching 64% CSW, but it showed the ability to grab called strikes and miss bats. I’m not totally sure if this is a product of it being more of a surprise pitch rather than a main feature of his arsenal or if it’s actually a hard pitch to hit, but it worked wonders in this one. Bradley may be able to have even more success if he were to turn to the pitch more than just 14% of the time. He started doing so across the final three frames after establishing his fastball, and it may be a pitch that requires the correct feel from start to start to be effective. It will be something to monitor in future starts.
Contrary to what Statcast believes, we never saw the changeup hinted at by his scouting reports. I think he can survive with this three-pitch mix, and we saw it at its peak in that at-bat versus Casas.
The only negatives I witnessed were his lack of a whiff pitch and how quickly his command wavered when he got tired in the fifth. The fastball does the best at getting swings and misses and I think the curve can do more than it did in this one, but he doesn’t have that go-to, unhittable putaway offering that every strikeout pitcher needs. I could see the Rays helping Bradley develop a sweeper or turning the cutter into more of a slider, but that won’t be happening this season. We’ll need to see another start or two to get a better idea of how legitimate the fastball can be as a whiff pitch, but for now, I wouldn’t get too excited about the eight strikeouts.
As for his stamina, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. Not only is he a young pitcher, but it’s early in the season and he was likely leaving a lot on the field in the first four innings. It was somewhat concerning that when he started losing stamina that he was unable to put his pitches in favorable locations, but I think that inning looks very different if he’s able to set down either Hernandez or Verdugo after having them in 0-2 holes. That may be attributed to not having a whiff pitch, but I think it has a different outcome in another universe. His athletic and repeatable windup lends credence to the notion that he should be a pitcher that can consistently go six or more frames on a regular basis once he’s fully stretched out.
In the end, I believe that Bradley warrants a pickup in 12-team leagues and deeper. He exhibited a fully fleshed-out arsenal that he commanded exceptionally. Even if his pitches aren’t overwhelming, he makes up for it with his mental characteristics, easily overcoming adversity and making adjustments on the fly. He should go deeper into ballgames as he gets more experience and the Rays will do their thing and get the most out of him by putting him in positions to succeed. His spot in the rotation isn’t guaranteed, but he’s earned himself one more start until Eflin returns and it’ll come against the lowly Reds. That’s a great matchup and it’s worth the hold. I’m excited to see what Bradley does for his encore.
EDIT: Sadly, the Rays optioned Bradley to Triple-A, so he won’t be making that next start. He’ll get another chance in the Majors this year, so be ready to snag him off the wire when he makes his triumphant return.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)
Well done. Vivid writing. I got lost in it. We might see Taj soon as a replacement for Springs.