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Portrait of a Pitcher: Rays RHP Taj Bradley

Taj Bradley Reformatted

A mea culpa. Our current scouting report at Baseball America describes Taj Bradley’s breaking ball as a slider.

It will look like a slider at times, but according to Bradley at the Baseball America/Louisville Slugger Prospect Pad, he doesn’t ever intentionally throw a slider. He throws a cutter.

“It’s never a slider,” Bradley said. “It’s just a cutter that was a little bigger.”

Bradley is one of the best pitching prospects and one of the best pitchers in the minors. He’s also the possessor of an extremely simple and effective array of pitches. As Bradley describes it, he has three pitches. And he throws all three like he’s throwing a fastball. He relies on the grip to do the work for his cutter and changeup.

“So with the fastball, cutter, changeup, I just like to think I'm throwing three fastballs,” Bradley said.

Simplicity is Bradley’s focus.

“Pitching philosophy for me, I just like to keep it simple . . . I'm not really thinking of a certain part of the zone or wherever and what not," Bradley said. "But I mean, the Rays have a philosophy to throw to the big part of the plate, and nine times out of 10 it's never going to be middle-middle. Right? So I mean, just think to throw at the big part of the plate, your strike percentages can go up and a lot of the times it won't be middle-middle like I said, I mean I took that and ran with it."

His attempts to keep it simple are proving a very complex challenge for the hitters he’s facing. By aiming for the big part of the plate, Bradley throws a well above-average rate of strikes (67% strike percentage) with his fastball, cutter and changeup, and he does rarely find the middle of the plate.

For hitters, there’s not a whole lot of easy options there. According to data compiled by Synergy, hitters are hitting .164/.171/.219 against his cutter with a 40% swing-and-miss percentage. Against his fastball, they hit .218/.295/.364 with a 25% swing-and-miss percentage. His changeup, considered his third pitch, is something he doesn’t use as much, but according to Synergy, hitters are hitting .059/.059/.059 this year with a 49% swing-and-miss percentage.

Now there’s a logical reason Bradley’s cutter has long been considered a slider. Bradley describes his cutter as “something that’s been improving since 2020’s instructional league.”

“I'm still learning it two years later. Right away it didn't click so it would be a sweeping slider or be hard one day, softer the next, the break would never be consistent. So it's just finding something comfortable that I can throw,” Bradley said. “I just needed something to take them off the fastball and to tunnel well with it. So, tunnel with the fastball at the last minute, it will break.”

While the cutter has been a steady development, finding a changeup has taken longer. The Rays had Bradley junk the split-finger he threw early in his development as a pitcher.

Bradley said that after trying “like 10 grips” over the years for his changeup, he has settled on a semi-fosh grip that has become comfortable.

“(When the changeup is working) its balls are put in play more. So hitters see less pitches, and I get a lot of weak contact. So these past few outings in Double-A tells me a lot because I figured efficiency is better than like strikeouts. Because with efficiency, you can go deeper into games. And that's my whole deal.

“It's improved a lot with shape, velocity and just consistency in the strike zone, so in a lot of ways,” Bradley said.

Bradley’s changeup is hard, sitting in the high 80s, much like his cutter.

“That's enough to get hitters out in front and chase with slight movement and get weak contact hit into the ground,” Bradley said.

Bradley says that he’s not trying to pile up strikeouts and swings and misses. He’s trying to get out of innings as quickly as he can.

“For me as a starter, I want to go as deep as I can, I mean, I only get one day out of the week.

Taj Bradley (Brian Westerholt Four Seam Images)

Rays Righthander Taj Bradley Has Chance To Lead Minors In ERA Two Years In A Row

Bradley led the minors with a 1.83 ERA last year. This year, he’s been even better, posting a 1.59 ERA so far in 17 starts.

"So I really want to get into the game," he said. "And I just get stuck in this mindset that a starter needs to go seven. My going four is cool, but it's not my goal. Going five innings is cool. But again, it's not my goal, I'm going to go deep into the game, give my team the best chance to win. And I figured with efficiency that'll help."

But for all his efforts at being efficient, he’s also striking out 10.9 batters per nine innings this year and 10.5 batters per nine for his career. That stems in part from his steadily increasing velocity. He went from sitting 90-92 in his brief high school career to sitting 93-95 mph now and touching 97.

<a href='/players/100033/taj-bradley/' class='player-linker-link mce-player-linker'>Taj Bradley</a>'s fastball grip

Bradley is also quick to the plate and has managed to avoid the stolen base surge that new rules have encouraged throughout the minors. This year only eight baserunners have attempted to steal against him. Five of them were thrown out.

It’s all working for Bradley now. He’s fresh off a Futures Game appearance and after his recent promotion to Triple-A Durham, he’s only one step away from Tampa Bay as a 21-year-old.

It’s been a rapid rise from being a fifth-round pick to being one of the best prospects in the game. But Bradley’s development as a pitcher is a somewhat unexpected event. He was a position player who didn’t really focus on pitching until midway through his senior year of high school.

“It was a random event, my coach called me like 15 minutes before the game and said 'you're on the mound.' And before that, I was just joking with the scouts who were there to see other friends," Bradley said. "I was going around shaking their hands, knowing they don't know who I am. I am joking around, and just, I mean, just have fun with it. But after that I do two innings that night and my mom came to me with some cards (from scouts). And then after that my coaches started putting me on the mound more often. And that's when everything really took off."

And it hasn’t slowed down since.

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