ST. PETERSBURG – It’s not an exaggeration to say Taj Bradley became a completely different pitcher last year than he was in his first two seasons in the Rays’ Minor League system.
Bradley transformed physically. His pitch mix evolved. Above all, he developed a mentality that allowed him to find consistent success throughout a full season. Making all those changes between the end of the 2019 season and last year, Bradley joked, felt like “rebranding without knowing.”
And the 2021 brand of Bradley was arguably the best pitcher in Minor League Baseball last season, another potential star coming through the Rays organization. Between Low-A Charleston and High-A Bowling Green, the right-hander went 12-3 with a 1.83 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP, 123 strikeouts and only 31 walks in 103 1/3 innings over 23 outings. His ERA was easily the best among qualified full-season pitchers, and his .181 opponents’ average was the sixth lowest.
As a result, he was named Top Starting Pitcher in the MiLBY Awards and the Rays’ pitching prospect of the year by MLB Pipeline. The affable 20-year-old, currently the No. 6 prospect in Tampa Bay’s deep system, displayed his dedication and attention to detail throughout the year as he grew into a presumptive Top 100 Prospect entering this season.
“To our many Minor Leaguers that didn’t have the opportunity to play games in 2020, can’t give them enough credit for finding ways to get better. He was one of many in that regard. That showed up in the success of our system, certainly showed up in his performance specifically,” Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander said in November. “The reports from staff were that he’s just an absolute delight to work with and someone that takes his craft very seriously.”
Both attributes were evident as he discussed his evolution physically, mentally and on the mound.
Heading into Spring Training in 2020, Bradley said, he weighed 230 pounds. He sometimes felt stiff on the mound, like he was falling into pitches. As the pandemic delayed and eventually canceled the 2020 Minor League season, Bradley realized he had to find a way to stay in shape. So he picked up some resistance bands, one dumbbell and a physio ball at Walmart and went to work at home in Stone Mountain, Ga.
He worked out in his living room. He flung balls into a bouncy pitchback net in his backyard. He played catch with friends. Eventually, a facility opened so he could throw bullpen sessions.
By the time he reported to the Rays’ instructional league camp, Bradley had lost 20 pounds. He noticed the difference in his delivery, lifting his knee higher and keeping his chest upright, and his fastball -- a 90-93 mph sinker in 2019 -- started clocking in at 95 mph. He maintained those velocity gains last season, touching the upper 90s.
“I couldn’t tell you where the velo came from. I’m doing little lifts with bands and a physio ball in my living room,” Bradley said in a phone interview, laughing. “I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it’s maturity.”
Last spring, Bradley began keeping a journal to log all the instruction he’d receive throughout the season. His first few years in professional baseball brought an overwhelming avalanche of information -- especially for him, considering he was only 17 years old with relatively little pitching experience when the Rays picked him in the fifth round of the 2018 MLB Draft.
“I was coming in fresh. It’s a lot of things being thrown at you all at once, and you’re only remembering, ‘OK, speed your arm up,’” Bradley said. “I started writing them down, so I could remember the little things.”
He didn’t fill the pages with only mechanical tips. During one of their many conversations throughout the year, Low-A pitching coach R.C. Lichtenstein shared an idea that resonated with Bradley: taking the mound with an attitude of “athletic arrogance.” He jotted those two words down in his journal and practiced them on the mound.
“I always felt like I had to humble myself because the game would do it for you … and I took that onto the mound, so I was giving hitters credit, like, ‘Oh, this is a guy,’” Bradley said. “He was saying the presence you need to have on the mound is that you can dominate this guy -- no matter who they are, what they’ve done, anything like that. So that’s what athletic arrogance means to me. It doesn’t mean I have to hate the guy or hate the team. It’s just knowing what I can do and knowing I can beat the person in front of me.
“Once I’m off the field, I can be the nice guy again. But once I’m on the mound, I’m there to dominate.”
Bradley kept learning as the season continued. At one point, Lichtenstein informed him that left-handed hitters were batting about .340 against him. He needed an effective changeup to complement his fastball and cutter. So Bradley started using his changeup in games. He threw it while playing catch in hotel parking lots on off-days. At the end of the season, lefties’ average against Bradley was just .207.
Another important realization, Bradley said, might seem obvious: “Runners on, they don’t have to score.” He stopped thinking about damage control with runners on base and focused instead on stranding them and getting out of innings. He was even better with runners on last season (.490 OPS allowed) than with the bases empty (.561 OPS).
Bradley’s goal last year was just to advance from Low-A to High-A. He achieved that. All the accolades and awards, he said, were “extra.”
“Just figuring out what kind of pitcher I’m becoming, because I feel like it’s changed from 2019 to 2021,” Bradley said. “I came into 2021 with a whole new arsenal, whole new body type, a whole new pitch type. So, figuring out what kind of pitcher I am is the main goal right now, then capitalize on that and make myself better.”