Key departures over the offseason have left the Mariners’ bullpen with several question marks. Their four leading relievers in terms of appearances are all no longer with the team. As a result, Chasen Bradford was the most utilized bullpen arm that is still in Seattle. In the midst of significant uncertainty, Bradford is as close to a known commodity as the Mariners have in the ‘pen heading into their 2019 season.
The Mariners claimed Bradford off of waivers last January, after the righty had only logged 33.2 major league innings after seven seasons in the Mets organization. He had never been one to rack up strikeouts, having only posted one season with a K/9 above eight beyond AA; however, Bradford excelled at forcing ground balls. Throughout his entire minor league career, he only posted one season with a ground ball rate below 50%.
The Mariners took advantage of a low-risk investment on a reliever who didn’t overpower opponents, but kept the ball on the ground and limited the long ball. He began the 2018 season in Tacoma, but was called up to Seattle by April 9th. Bradford made his Mariners debut that day, pitching three scoreless innings in a 10-0 loss against the Royals.
Over the course of the next two months, Bradford was excellent. He posted a 3.47 FIP by running a respectable 7.94 K/9 and limiting his walks to less than two per nine innings. More than half of the balls put in play against him were hit on the ground, and even those in the air weren’t hit hard, as he ran an impressive 10% HR/FB ratio.
Unfortunately for Bradford, he struggled though the remainder of the season. His ground ball rate plummeted nearly 10%, allowing his HR/9 to rise above 2.00 from June onwards. Furthermore, he struggled to generate swings and misses, seeing his strikeout rate drop below six during that same interval.
It was interesting to see that Bradford actually got hitters to chase more of his pitches out of the zone during the summer. He also threw more pitches out of the zone; however, opponents made contact on 82.5% of the pitches they swung at.
Considering that statistic, it is unsurprising to see all three of the pitches saw dramatic decreases in whiff rate as the season progressed. This series of charts may explain why.
These charts show that over the course of the season, Bradford steered away from the top shelf, electing to pitch lower in the zone and away to right handers.
As you can see from these charts, pitchers adjusted to his approach, allowing them to fight off pitches down and away. As his whiff rates decreased, fouls per swing surged. By trading whiffs for fouls, opponents managed to stay alive in plate appearances and wait for pitches to drive.
Hitters were able to capitalize on pitches over the plate, whether or not they were in the zone. They managed to golf pitches below the knees for base hits and drive balls in the middle of the zone for extra bases. Bradford never fully overcame his struggles, failing to post a monthly FIP below 4.00 after May.
What will it take for Bradford to bounce back heading into 2019? He may need to throw a counter-punch to his opponents’ adjustments made mid-season last year. Although he’s traditionally lived in the bottom-half of zones, he may need to make a habit of changing batters’ eye levels more often. Can his heater bring enough oomph to be an effective top-shelf pitch?
Over the course of his career, he’s shown an ability to get swings and misses on pitches up out of the zone. Furthermore, he hasn’t been punished for fastballs he’s left high and in the zone. Kate pointed out last year that Bradford’s four-seamer has an above average spin rate, which likely plays a role in his heater generating whiffs and relatively weak contact when elevated.
Although Bradford’s career M.O. has been generating grounders and throwing low and away, it might be time for him to add a new element to his approach. By at least posing a threat to blow a high heater by a batter, hitters won’t be able to consistently look down and away when facing Bradford. Whether or not that’s the adjustment he needs to make, the Mariners need him to step up in a big way this year. With several new faces in the bullpen, Bradford will be relied upon early to provide productive innings.