Baseball is a game of numbers. So much so, that advanced statistics creates new ones almost every year. Gone are the days of simple batting and earned run averages, now you can practically break down a player’s statistics when batting against a certain pitcher on a rainy day with runners in scoring position.
There is so much more to baseball than numbers. Oftentimes, it’s factors completely alien to computers that build the player underneath the jersey. For Cubs standout Ian Happ, perhaps his biggest numbers are the years in his life, and how they created the quietly confident player you see today.
The youngest of two boys, Ian has become a Cubs fan favorite in a small amount of time. The Arizona Fall League gave the utility player a chance to climb out of the pack into numerous prospect watch lists, capping the AFL Championship going 4-for-4 with a double, two home runs (one from each side of the plate) and 3 RBI in a 6-1 Mesa victory over Surprise.
Spring training with the big league club continued his offensive torrent. Halfway into his 22nd birthday, Happ dug out his groove once more under the eyes of Maddon and Epstein, knocking .417 with four doubles, five home runs and a 1.286 OPS. He took no shame in picking the minds of Chicago staples Bryant, Rizzo, Russel and more. True to growing up with an educator, he stays hungry to learn, absorbing every chance to study he can possibly get. When he’s in the dugout, his eyes are locked on the field, constantly analyzing every play and situation that unfolds. Happ’s comradery in the clubhouse grew with the fans’ adoration.
You couldn’t see it on the field however. The clamoring for his attention, hour-long autograph sessions, fanfare at the plate or in the field. You won’t see it. Great players are born every so often, but players with Happ’s temperament are all the more rare.
Foremost, Ian never had the background that bred any type of egotistical flash. Education, discipline, dedication and family formed core pillars. The 2015 first-round draft pick still considers himself a college dropout with every clear intention of one day finishing his degree and making his mother, a professor at The Ohio State University, proud. You’ll see his outlook spill into his baseball IQ between base-running, plate approach and demeanor. He funnels every ounce of advice, experience and coaching into every minute of his playing time.
Baseball only occupies a player’s time for so long (albeit, the offseason goes by in a flash). Ian’s sharp wit and desire to contribute extends past the diamond. His second home in Texas is not the only thing he shares with his older brother (and former ballplayer) Chris. The two keep a vested interest in real estate, particularly flipping properties. Ian’s interests branch past the homes themselves, the young Cubbie is quick to expound on interior design with modern, distinctive taste, high expectations and zero allowance for a look that falls outside of his plans.
Growing up, Ian’s father, Keith, was a master of golf and expert in maintaining pristine courses. A job offer moved the family from Pittsburgh to Ohio, where the boys watched their parents continue to dedicate themselves to excellence in their respective fields. His extensive time around courses bred a competitive golfer in Happ, something he thoroughly enjoys in his free time. Golf is more than just a hobby, it’s a connection to his late father. Ian didn’t get to have a carefree celebration of pursuing professional baseball, the family was battling his dad’s fight against brain cancer at the time he was drafted.
The Happ family managed to see Ian within the Friendly Confines shortly after Ian was drafted, partaking in batting practice with the team before reporting to his minor league assignment. Cancer would claim Keith too soon, an impression still evident in his son’s face when his family is mentioned. Keith was everything a growing boy could want in a father, he helped shape his son’s career in all the years of practicing together, giving him an outlet in golf, showing him how to conduct himself personally. The pain of losing a parent, while unimaginable, gave Ian an inner strength, a level of humility and gratitude towards just what he’s doing in this life. You see maturity that came with the highest price tag, he behaves in a manner honorable to his father, the acknowledgment at the weight of the name across the back of his jersey. “Happ” is the reason the Chicago “C” is emblazoned across his front.
“He’s going to fight for his spot… he’s going to take his place back.”
He owns that position.
Really? Can you honestly outright own a role in baseball?
Sure, Chris Sale commands the mound, David Ortiz is leaving his signature on the designated hitter role but what a bold decision that anyone who dons a baseball uniform is secure in the role they play.
Randy Johnson, a man with a legend somehow larger than his towering frame, has become a teacher of the fleeting dream career.
“For me it’s more about just telling them what it takes to get to the major leagues and what you have to do… In some ways, it’s survival of the fittest because when you get to the major leagues there’s no guarantee you’re going to stay there. There’s someone else down below you that might be doing the same thing you’re capable of doing and if you don’t have a guaranteed contract or you get hurt they’ll come up and do it for less and that’s part of the business too. The bottom line is the organization just wants to win and they’re going to put the twenty five best players on the field and in the dugout that can help that organization win. There’s a revolving door here.”
By the time the Major League Baseball draft ends, over one thousand names will have been called to begin the journey of professional baseball. According to Mike Rosenbaum, those lucky enough to receive first-round selection have around a sixty-six percent chance to see major league time. On the other end of the spectrum, players called after the twenty-first round face a grim six percent shot at making it to “The Show”.
Diving further past the draft, there are even more factors within an organization itself. Catchers get converted to outfielders, a traditional starter is needed more in the bullpen, and infielders and outfielders are interchangeable within their respective ranges.
Think about it, a company offers you a job as a financial executive but you have to start in the mail room making minimum wage. In addition to that, you only have a six percent chance to make it past the mail room and even furthermore, they might decide to move you to operations, public relations, etc. Sounds like a great chance, doesn’t it? Didn’t think so.
Right-handed pitcher Zack Godley knows all too well the battle to stay consistent through changes. After beginning the 2015 season with Diamondbacks’ High A-affiliate Visalia, Godley was promoted to AA-Mobile before receiving the call to the show. July 23, 2015 became Godley’s big league debut and the day of a new-era record; the righty tossed for six shutout innings and only four hits.
Even the performance of a lifetime did not keep Godley in Phoenix. The Tennessee product was sent back to Mobile August 10 and due to high use was relegated to a bullpen role.
“You get used to the lifestyle of moving around when you’re in the minor leagues. Part of pro-ball is getting you accustomed to jumping around. I understand what the organization is doing, they’re trying to protect my arm as well as my future with this organization… I just keep doing what they want me to do.”
Godley would return for several more big league appearances in 2015, being utilized as both a starter and reliever. He entered 2016 as a starter once more with AA-Mobile before another call-up to Arizona for June 11 against the Marlins.
“It let me know that no matter what they want me to do I can go in and do it and hopefully have success at doing it. I’m happy every time they give me a ball and let me go out on the mound and pitch and as long as I can do that I’m happy. Granted, I want to get back up there [the big leagues] as quickly as possible and stay up there as long as I can but it’s a process. I’m just going to keep grinding it out and do what I can.”
There are plenty of motives to pursue a career in baseball despite the chances, certainly the glistening opportunity that you could be the one to defy the odds, to be the six percent that succeed. Rockies prospect Wesley Rogers never forgets his motivation in the game.
“When you first get drafted and sign, it happens so fast you don’t even realize what you’re getting into. I feel like it [baseball] is a part of who I am. It takes a special kind of person to want to be a part of the grind known as minor league baseball. You can’t just be in love with baseball, you have to be in love with competing. It’s a constant everyday grind and can easily get the best of you if you don’t just love competition.”
The fourth-round outfielder, just two years into his professional career still has some growing to do. Apart from a seven-day disabled list assignment last season for a concussion things have run pretty smoothly. In contrast, Pirates free agent signee Chris Harvey has had quite a different battle. The Pennsylvania native, also signed in 2014, began battling injuries almost immediately into his professional career as a catcher.
“Dealing with injuries can be tough because as an athlete, you aren’t much good to anybody if you can’t play. It’s easy to feel like your career is temporarily stalled. All you can do is trust that the work you’ve put in is going to pay off at some point. When that [payoff] happens varies player to player. You just have to get back as quickly as you can… I’ve got to get healthy, I’ve got to get back on the field sooner or later, hopefully sooner.”
The backstop’s approach to patience in his career may be partially attributed to his time at Vanderbilt. Harvey’s “spot” as catcher was not cemented despite entering the program as a five-star recruit. Instead, he faced the challenge of battling injuries and for playing time.
“There’s only a certain amount of spots to go around for so many guys in the organization. Having to fight and compete constantly for a spot in a program like that [Vanderbilt] makes this process a lot easier. Vandy really helped me with the process of fighting for a spot and continuing as a pro player. I knew I wanted to play professionally even before I was in college.”
Harvey completed surgery and returned from the disabled list in June of 2016. The catcher has resumed playing for Pirates’ Short-A affiliate, the West Virginia Black Bears, albeit he now faces battling against Pittsburgh’s newest draft class signees.
Two different roads but Rogers relates.
“Regardless of the pay, some conditions of fields and the odds of you actually making it to the majors there should be a relentless will to get better every single day. Baseball is one of the only sports that is a game of failure. It’s hard to subject yourself to something that, if you’re lucky, you will fail seventy percent of the time and be one of the best in your profession. It’s easy to say why you choose to pursue baseball professionally when you’re doing well. It’s when you’re struggling when your true colors show.”
Maybe the young outfielder has already taken a page from Johnson without even knowing. The Big Unit understands baseball as a combination of mental will and physical grind.
“It’s a mindset as much as it is being able to go out there and perform. The mindset is that every day, you can’t let it slip, it’s a grind. It’s the people that can be consistent with their performances that are going to be called up because they know what they’re [the team] going to get.”
The legends and farm hands… one thing is certain, both agree that in baseball, no spot is guaranteed.
BRADENTON, FL – Thirty teams in Major League Baseball. Thirty vastly different philosophies on the development of its players. The Pittsburgh Pirates are among only three organizations who take “eat, sleep and breathe baseball” quite literally with the Pirate City spring training complex.
The facility, originally built in 1969 with major renovations in 2008, houses over 150 players and staff in on-site dorms, feeds them three meals a day from its own cafeteria, has seven considerable fields, batting cages, a state of the art training facility and even the “Dojo”- Pirates’ own mental conditioning service.
Players both international and domestic have access to tools including Rosetta Stone and in-person language classes to not only acclimate foreign players to the states but to help English-speaking players better communicate with and understand their teammates. Pitching prospect Jacob Burnette found these services particularly useful.
“Especially when you first live here [Pirate City], they arrange for you to live with a Latin player. It forces you to get to know each other and teaches you the language a little more.”
Burnette is one of many players who opted out of a college program in favor of chasing a professional career sooner. The result puts players into the organization a few years ahead of others but also means dealing with a different level of maturity. “Prep players”, those signed out of high school, have most likely never lived away from family and for that matter, the structured life that comes with it.
“I had to mature a lot and very quickly. Living in Pirate City is good, especially for younger guys. It’s different that the staff can control things better. They monitor when you’re in and out with your swipe cards, they ensure you get balanced dietary needs in the cafeteria, it really helped me.”
Pirates players living within the City typically have enforced nighttime curfews and with good reason, breakfast hours begin at 6 a.m. Buses for away games load soon after, the rest report to the Dojo or fields to begin their days. The imposed curfew impresses responsible habits into the players but also ensures talent maximizing an early and full day’s opportunity.
Now 23, Burnette no longer lives on-site after getting married this past offseason but notes his first four years on-campus held him pretty responsible for the person and player he is today. The solid foundation allowed him to maintain his mental sharpness for the game while dealing with a shoulder scope procedure.
“I’m now in a really good place, I’m healthy, I’m just ready to continue developing my work.”
Players and staff aren’t the only people stirring at sunrise. Pirate City and its major league complex at McKechnie Field are staffed by some of the friendliest boosters in baseball. Comprised of mostly snowbirds, individuals such as Don Stammley begin to make their way down from various northern states (primarily Pennsylvania) to spend their time as volunteers helping ensure security and hospitality within Pittsburgh domain.
“It’s a totally different perspective. You go from only seeing the big league guys and it’s pretty simple. They all have their roster spot, the only thing left to negotiate is salary. Here you see the guys work, and really work! You can’t tell who’s fighting for a job and who’s already got one.”
Pittsburgh’s approach to development is outwardly evident.
“They’re very organized here. Every single athlete has great work ethic, they don’t ever stop running. They [players] come from all over the place you know, and living here they all get along.”
Within a week, volunteers and players alike will disperse. Some stay on to play for Class-A Bradenton but most will find themselves along the east coast, preparing for another season to prove Pittsburgh’s theory on how to raise a Pirate.
MOBILE, AL -Baseball fans, rejoice- the season is finally upon us.
As you read this, players are packing up and making moves out of the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues and into their respective teams or affiliates. The countdown clock to Opening Day is dwindling into its final hours.
For the lucky or dedicated who made the trek to Florida or Arizona, they had an opportunity to learn just how much preparation goes into getting teams Opening Day ready. Whether you have attended or not, it seems time for this glimpse into the “real” spring training.
On the surface, spring is a time for teams to feature a mostly-big league roster sprinkled with prospects on the brink. Teams may have one or two games per day against other teams within their league and have the chance to monitor players’ offseason progress, determine positions and lineups and analyze which teams players should be designated to.
From a structural basis, the organization receives big league pitchers and catchers first, typically around mid-February. The rest of big league camp will report within a week and minor league camp opens within another few weeks. While technically all of the players belong to the same organization, big league and minor league camps remain separate. This includes facilities, fields, schedules, etc.
Regardless of which classification players are designated to, each has a day-long schedule to follow. Some components are focused on developing players as professionals, including meetings about social media use, while most of the day is devoted to honing their athletic talent.
Mobile’s new Manager Robby Hammock summarized the schedule best.
“There’s a lot on the schedule. We start in the morning before we even practice, so to speak, with early work. That’s small groups of players, depending on their position and they do specialized work in whatever areas they need to work in. Then they go out for regular stretch, team defenses and live batting practice where pitchers throw against hitters; it’s not a game it’s just set up as a live experience. Then you have batting practice rotating groups through cages and other work on the side and at the end of the day there is still probably some extra work.”
That “end of the day”… is all before lunch.
“Once the games are started, you turn around and go play a game. There’s a lot that goes into it. The hardest part comes in the morning.”
The big league games, while heavily attended and televised, are not the only games going on at each complex. Depending on the schedule, minor league affiliates can be matched up against other levels within their own organization or against the same levels of affiliation in other teams.
There’s also the concept of split squads- particularly splitting big league teams in two. The actual splitting of the team can fall any which way, it generally occurs when a team has two games in a day. The decision is based off not only who the opponent is but who is on the opponent’s roster. A division rival featuring their projected number one starter and Opening Day lineup is more likely to cause the team to select equivalent players for that squad versus an inner-league game featuring more prospects than guaranteed starters.
The movement of players between big league and minor league camps is common, for some it is the most effective way to develop and compare their training with already-established big leaguers. Having been a big league catcher and now coach, Hammock sees a series of differences and similarities between the two.
“A lot of it is based around the same type of work but when you’re on the big league side, those guys have done it for so long. So with more kids [in minor league camp], what takes us longer doesn’t take as long on the big league side even though it’s the same routine because they can run through it quicker. It’s more quality over quantity as opposed to the minor leagues where we have to get a lot of reps in.”
Hammock mentions of the prospects participating in big league camp, Brandon Drury and Socrates Brito really got on the radar this spring, noting he’s a little partial because both played for him at Class-A Visalia last season.
By the end of spring training, whether prospects participated in big league or minor league camp, rosters will be settled and eventually released to the public. Press conferences to meet teams will commence and fans will flood gates of ballparks again. The preparation is done. Here comes Opening Day.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
SCOTTSDALE, AZ - It takes a dedicated individual to follow baseball. Each team, with the late exception of the San Francisco Giants, deals with its share of highs and lows. Some make it to every game, home and away. The dedicated trek to their team’s respective spring training facility, eager to bridge the gap between offseason and baseball’s return.
Upon meeting Susan Price, there are no doubts that she is a true fan of Arizona. You can find her just behind the Diamondbacks’ dugout, a small, white-haired and spritely woman. She had no fear to let me know she was going to continue to watch the game while we talked, her thoughts interrupted by cheers for each player. Overrall I have to say, she has been one of my most favorite subjects.
Fans have taken note of Susan, her recall of the entire roster leads to both offensive and defensive cheers. Most notably, “Best in a million, infinite universes (insert player name)”.
“This team is a ton of fun, it’s hard to ask for more.”
Following her retirement in 2000, she found herself in Tucson, Arizona, the then-home of the Arizona Diamondbacks spring training facility.
Susan recalls the beginning of the DBacks and the reason she became a lifetime fan.
“The Diamondbacks were still a relatively new team at this point. They were eager for new fans and very hospitable. Especially Buck Showalter, he was so nice. That’s when I got hooked, how inviting and accommodating the staff was.”
The following year in 2001, Price bought season tickets, just in time to travel and witness the Diamondbacks take the World Series in 7 games from the New York Yankees.
“Nothing will ever top the World Series, it will always be my favorite memory. I went to every game in the NLDS (ARI v STL) and NLCS (ARI v ATL). Those guys on the World Series roster were gems, just great, great guys. I always think the people in New York. The talk this year on the World Series referred sometimes to Randy [Johnson] and Curt [Schilling] in 2001 and I will never forget it. I went to that game [Game 3, Arizona v New York]. I remember standing by the bullpen while Brian Anderson warmed up and President Bush threw out the first pitch. It was one of the most awe-inspiring moments, in respect with anything to do with baseball, because of the courage it took for him to walk out there.”
Aside from the Fall Classic, Susan mentions her favorite “season” of baseball is any time the DBacks play in Salt River, citing the wonderful facilities and overall happiness of players, fans and staff during a more laidback season.
“If I could create my own schedule, we would have six weeks at Chase Field and six months of spring training and fall league. That would be perfect. I know the outcome of these games isn’t as important as the regular season but let’s face it, I will always want Arizona to win. These players work hard all year, if five seconds of my cheering can make one of them smile, that’s all I need.”
Her cheering is not limited to stadiums. On any given morning you can find her wandering between the minor league fields, observing batting practice and taking her notes. In addition to knowing each player on the big league roster, Ms. Price also knows every minor league player and can tell you how his spring is going.
Susan adds she is more than happy for other fans to join her throughout the year, capable of providing in-depth perspective to anyone asking. “People have asked why I don’t do this for a living and it’s because I want to enjoy it, enjoying it is my job now that I’m retired. I’m just looking for another World Series now.”
Good news, Susan, the season is upon us.
Originally posted to the Mobile BayBear's website.
RHP Kaleb Fleck's 2014 Has Defied all Odds
SCOTTSDALE, AZ - Life is about numbers. Ball players get 18 years from the moment they're born to perfect their craft on the field. Batting average, earned run average, fielding percent, on-base percent… everything you do is a statistic to be reported and scrutinized by hundreds of people you don't know and have never met.
If you're talented enough to make a high school team, you're one of over 400,000 lucky student athletes. Make it to an NCAA program? You've become one of nearly 25,000. Drafted? You're in 10% of the statistics. Odds to make it to the Bigs? After the 21st round, you're looking at less than 7%. For Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Kaleb Fleck, statistics are nothing to be defined by.
Fleck started playing baseball when he was eight, unlike most little leaguers, he took the time to enjoy the game for what it could be versus what he could do.
"I started pitching in t-ball, it just ended up being the position I played and I stuck with it. I did it to be with my friends, I wasn't particularly passionate about any of it, I didn't do stuff in the offseason I just played."
Through high school, the righty took command of his form, becoming a starter at Hollidaysburg before transferring to Claysburg-Kimmel, a notably smaller high school just down the road. Fleck started garnering attention from schools but admits for the most part, he hadn't planned on a career past his high school days in Pennsylvania.
"The thing is, until my senior year I just planned on going to Penn State and not even playing a sport. I was going to go to school with my friends and enjoy it. At the time I underestimated what I could do with baseball and then realized it could help pay for school. By my senior year I started taking it seriously and making visits. I couldn't tell you the top five Division-I baseball schools, that's how much I underestimated it."
Fleck made the decision his senior year and signed with Division-II Pittsburgh-Johnstown.
"They had my major which played a big part. The pitching coach, Rick Roberts, did offseason lessons with me my junior and senior year so I already had an established relationship with him. He was young and really smart and I knew he would take care of me. Plus I was close to home and had an additional academic scholarship, it was a good option."
The righty remained a starter through college, noting with Division-II that all games are 7-inning double headers versus a traditional 3-game, 9-inning series. This format allowed a starter to have a significant number of appearances without a high amount of innings pitched. The unique system could not prevent Fleck being shut down for Tommy John surgery his junior year. Ironically, the system allowed him to claim a medical red shirt if he chose, despite nearly finishing the season because he had only pitched an average of 70 innings.
"I could have been a fifth year senior and only a red shirt junior on the field, so it was an option. Had I waited for the draft though, I'd have been 23 years old. Signing as a free agent during instructional league rather as a free agent in spring training changes the odds, I'm one of 70 guys in instructional league versus being brand new and one of hundreds at spring training."
To the normal human, 23 is young. Most 23-year-olds have recently graduated college and are starting their lives, there's another 30 years to work towards a career goal. A 23-year-old brand new in professional baseball is old, behind, attempting to compete with 18-year-olds who started at the same time but with more energy and potential. The younger a signee is, the higher the odds that he can be taught, developed and utilized for his team. This isn't even factoring probability of injury and the likeliness of older players attempting to balance and support family life. Fleck needed to make a decision before another birthday.
"At the time I had several free agent offers. There were a lot of different paths teams wanted me to take. The people I talked to in Arizona's organization, Ray Montgomery and the scout who was looking at me, were so nice. I heard nothing but good things about the organization and my agent was really positive about it. Arizona allowed me to come to instructional league and that was a big factor. It was the best fit."
Proving his arm was healthy post-Tommy John, Arizona made the decision to transition Fleck into a bullpen role. Initially, the goal was to monitor his innings, a key component of competitors making a return from baseball's most notorious procedure. There was still a little talk about bringing him back to a starting role eventually but he seized the opportunity to play a new role.
"I went in the bullpen and hit the ground running, I did well at it. Once I got used to the transition I really enjoyed it and I've stuck with it. I think it's paid off. I'm glad I stayed in this role, being a starter is definitely a different routine and has its pro's and con's but I'm definitely enjoying what I'm doing now."
While some struggle with transitions from starter to bullpen and vice versa, Kaleb took every opportunity to study the role and develop his performance. Note: his studiousness maintained an above 3.0 grade point average while working on a pre-med degree at Pittsburgh-Johnstown.
"As a reliever you're up every night, you don't know if you're in or not because it depends on the score. I have to keep my mind in the game every single night and be prepared. Your mentality as a reliever is to come in guns blazing and that was something for me that I had to try to wrap my head around."
The closer certainly wrapped his head around it. In 2014 Fleck began his season with Arizona's AA-affiliate Mobile, throwing for 63.1 innings, 79 strikeouts and 17 saves. Following the conclusion of Mobile's playoff run he was called up to AAA-affiliate Reno where he made appearances for 2 innings, recording 3 strikeouts.
"I'm in for one inning, my job is to get three outs. You have to do whatever you can to get those three outs, there's no establishing a fast ball anymore as a reliever, you have to come in working to attack. Once I adjusted to that it's been smooth sailing."
Fleck has sailed into the Arizona Fall League, appearing in 8.2 innings with 2 saves and 12 strikeouts. His command and velocity have kept him on radars for writers, scouts and Diamondback officials alike.
"Its surreal how things have changed in the last three years. To see your name in an article, it's definitely humbling. It's exciting, it doesn't mean anything going into the future because I still have to perform well but it keeps you optimistic and makes you want to work harder. To reach the big leagues is the ultimate goal so it's exciting. Everything happens for a reason. It's been one of the best experiences of my life."
An unknown entering 2014, Fleck will be on everybody's radar next summer. A far cry from where he thought he'd be just a few years earlier.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
Originally posted to the Mobile BayBears website
SCOTTSDALE, AZ - The invitation to Arizona Fall League can be a double-edged sword.
On one hand, it's an honor. You've slugged it out in the minors well enough that the big guys have noticed you. There's an extra two months for coaches, scouts and fans to watch you do what you do best.
But that's just it… it's another two months.
Two months to stay healthy, two months to produce results… your season is officially longer than those playing in the World Series.
For the Diamondbacks top prospect, Archie Bradley, Fall League is the time to get back on track, a chance to prepare for another spring training invitation to "The Show."
Bradley had an interesting 2014. The right hander started spring training with the chance to compete for a spot in Arizona's starting rotation. Following camp, he was optioned to AAA Reno where he posted a 5.17 ERA before being shut down for a flexor strain in his elbow. Avoiding Tommy John, Bradley re-appeared in AA Mobile, pushing through 54.2 innings of work with an alarming 36 walks.
While eyes lay heavy on players, Fall League is still a deep contrast from the regular season. Time in Arizona is less about scores and outcomes and more about self-awareness and development, even mechanical experimentation. Teams get a little more freedom in the postseason and can send in big league coaches and trainers to give attention to their top prospects. For Bradley, this means getting to work with Dbacks' Pitching Coordinator Dan Carlson on footwork and introducing a fourth pitch, the slider.
"One thing I struggled with was command and controlling pitches, so adding a new pitch may not sound like the best answer but... I wanted to add something to get hitters off my fastball. Talking to my pitching coach Dan Carlson I just started throwing it one day in the bullpen and it was better than I expected it to be."
Just three games in, Bradley introduced his slider and again in the league's Fall Stars game where he picked up the win for the East team. When a batter faces a pitcher with a three-pitch scouting report and is suddenly looking at an entirely new pitch, the confusion and change it the mentality can lead to effective strikes.
Bradley adds that creating confusion has been a skill he has worked on for years, particularly off the mound. The 6'4" righty was formerly committed to the University of Oklahoma as a dual-sport athlete, set to join the Sooners on the gridiron as a quarterback and on the diamond at his natural position, pitcher.
"It [football] was so much fun, I liked being the quarterback so much because the ball was always in your hand the way it is with pitching. As far as quarterback, there's formations, plays, the different reads… its very complex as far as your mentality and having to figure out what play to call versus what defense they're going to be running. It's a challenge every play, you can't take a snap off or relax mentally."
At 18 years old the Muskogee, Oklahoma native had a decision to make. To go on and join the Oklahoma 2011 signing class as one of the top collegiate athletes or commit to the Arizona Diamondbacks after being selected seventh overall to the tune of $5 million dollars. The choice came down to multiple factors.
"At the end of the day it was where I saw my future. At the time, I felt like baseball was the best option for me. Physically, it's a lot less demanding than college football. The money was a big deal as well, that's life changing money and I saw myself as a big leaguer, it's what I saw myself doing more than football. Instead of taking a chance to play three or four years and hope for a chance to be drafted into the NFL, I already had an opportunity right in front of me and it was something I couldn't turn down."
His family came around to the idea as well, leading to a contract signing just short of the deadline.
"My mom had mixed feelings, for her, education was number one. The money was a big deal but education is priceless. My dad had thought it was an unbelievable, once in a lifetime opportunity for me to sign for that kind of opportunity as an 18-year-old kid and potentially set myself up for life. My little brother just thought it was really cool to have a big brother become a professional athlete. The rest of the family was just really excited for the opportunity."
Opting out of Oklahoma is something that stays with Bradley who keeps his TV on Sooners games and never misses an opportunity to attend in-person during returns home. He mentions being fortunate enough to catch a few Oklahoma road games when he's within proximity, including the 2014 Sugar Bowl where the Sooners defeated Alabama 45-31. Bradley still remains in contact with a coach as well as some of the players he would have shared time on the field with.
"When football gets going and players ask me about it, I sometimes think what could've been. Especially here in the Fall League, [Byron] Buxson [Minnesota Twins] was going to play as a safety at Georgia and every time we're on the bench together we talk about what we would be doing right now if we were to play college football."
While Archie dreams about the what-if football days, the ace also admits it's not far from a reality four years later, especially after being shut down earlier this season.
"Any time you deal with an injury, you start to ask, "What if I don't come back from this? What if this ends my career? If it does can I be able to throw a football?" It's always been in my head, if I didn't make it and I could still throw a football, I'd at least have to give it a try."
While Bradley's baseball career advanced past his education, it's not something he has turned his back on. Archie's mother Pam Bradley has a lot to do with that, having worked in education for most of her life.
"It's something I would be proud of getting, I know my mom would appreciate it. It just depends on the situation, if something were to happen I'd go back and get my degree but knock on wood, everything goes as planned."
For now, Bradley's plans seem to be coming back to the 2014 expectations. He plans on finishing the Fall League and enjoying two months off before returning to Arizona. He's looking forward to time giving back to his community and spending time outdoors with his black lab Crash.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.