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Taj Bradley is ready to take that sophomore leap

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Cleveland Guardians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

2024 is off and running. Plenty of free agents are still on the market, and teams are looking to add their final pieces to their respective puzzles. Players and catchers report within five weeks, and the Rays have almost everything sorted out. Except for a couple of arms, the core of the 2024 roster is already in place. A significant question for the team this year revolves around the participation and capabilities of some young players.

Among these young and exciting talents, Taj Bradley stands out as he enters his sophomore year with something to prove in 2024. In the upcoming discussion, we will explore the necessary steps That Bradley must take to elevate his game to the next level.

Taj Bradley played a more significant role in 2023 than most people expected. His overall MLB numbers are not, quite frankly, pretty. A 5.59 ERA, a 1.39 WHIP, and a 28% strikeout rate in 104.2 innings pitched don’t look terribly promising. The xERA 4.45 suggests that his ERA could have been better, but given all the hard contact he allowed, that ERA was indeed earned.

One of Bradley’s primary challenges is finding a reliable put-away pitch. The cutter was supposed to play this role, but it wasn’t always sharp. Bradley threw around 55% of his cutters inside the zone. While at the zone the pitch averaged an exit velocity of 91.8 MPH (which would rank extremely low) and a .333 batting average. The curveball was thrown all over the place, and Bradley struggled to find consistency with it. The change-up, despite posting the best WHIFF among his pitches ( 41%), does not perform equally on both sides of the plate. Due to the natural movement of the pitch, the change-up works better against lefties.

Clearly Bradley has to make that cutter more effective. How can he do that?

In the following image, all the cutters that Bradley threw this past season are presented.

We can observe that the cutters occupy a significant space on the graph. What does it mean? It indicates that Taj threw plenty of cutters with a wide variety of movements. A noticeable trend in Bradley’s cutters is that as you move higher on the graph, the velocity increases, and moving down, the velocity decreases.

For 2024, I hope to see a noticeable gap in the graph. All the cutters should be concentrated on the upper part of the graph, while a new slider/sweeper should be positioned lower. In essence, Taj needs to throw two distinct pitches without overlap. The cutter should sit 90-92 MPH with less vertical movement while the new slider/ sweeper could be thrown at 85-87 MPH with a more pronounced vertical break. This adjustment can create deception and disrupt the timing of the batter.

The fastball is crucial for Bradley, however, it got hit around a ton in 2023. The 4-seamer posted some concerning numbers including a .559 SLG and a -5 run value in 2023. Ironically, the fastball is Taj’s best pitch; it ranks high in both velocity and vertical movement, which are key assets to a successful fastball. Better numbers could be expected in 2024 if Taj does a better job at mixing his pitches. This adjustment will make the hitter lay off the fastball and start chasing the secondary offerings.

In 2024, the Rays are lacking that superstar punch; names like Tyler Glasnow, Wander Franco, and Shane McClanahan are off the table. This is precisely why Kevin Cash’s team needs to see young players like Taj Bradley make that sophomore leap.