Archie Bradley was introduced to the knuckle curveball at age 10.
A decade later, that pitch has helped the 20-year-old right-hander from Broken Arrow lead the minor leagues in strikeouts (110).
Ranked the No. 24 prospect in preseason by Baseball America, Bradley has pitched so well he's currently ranked among the top-10 prospects midway through the 2013 season.
“He doesn't look like your average 20-year-old kid,” said an American League East scout. “The knuckle curve makes him unique. And he has a mid- to upper-90s fastball. He's the entire package. At times he dominates.”
Drafted seventh overall two years ago, Bradley is “dominating” despite being one of the youngest players in the Southern League.
In 1 1/2 seasons of pro baseball, Bradley has compiled 266 strikeouts in 233 innings. He's a 6-foot-4, 225-pound strikeout machine like former Missouri star Max Scherzer, another Diamondbacks' draft pick they later traded to Detroit.
“I've always gotten a lot of strikeouts,” Bradley said. “But as weird as it sounds, I'm learning when to strike guys out. Sometimes it's best to pitch to contact. Sometimes you need the strikeout. But sometimes a ground ball is good.”
Labeled a spike curve by baseball people, the knuckle curve is nothing like a knuckleball. The pitch was made famous by Mike Mussina, who won 270 games with the Orioles and Yankees. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have thrived with the knuckle curve.
Bradley learned the pitch from Mike Houser, father of Adrian Houser, a 20-year-old right-hander from Locust Grove who is pitching for the short season Class-A Tri-City ValleyCats in the Houston organization. Bradley and Adrian Houser played together as kids on travel teams.
“I honestly don't know where I'd be without that pitch,” Bradley said. “I've worked a lot on it the past 10 years. It's far from perfected, but it's a pitch that's really helped me.”
The 84 mph knuckle curve is a unique “out pitch” but Bradley's arsenal is built around a fastball that ranges from 93- to 99-mph. He once hit 100 on the radar gun this season, but his fastball normally sits between 93 and 96. He also throws a circle change-up.
“He throws all three for strikes,” Diamondbacks farm director Mike Bell told The Arizona Republic. “His stuff is so explosive he gets swings and misses even when he's in the zone.”
Dominating in the minors
Expectations were high for Bradley after he went 12-1 with a 0.29 ERA his senior year, leading Broken Arrow to the Class 6A state title.
Bradley doesn't turn 21 until August. He pitched only two innings his first season, signing late with Arizona for $5 million spread out over five seasons.
Averaging 111/2 strikeouts per nine innings, Bradley has been so dominant he's viewed as a potential ace in a major league rotation.
Selected to pitch in the July 14 Future Games in New York, Bradley was promoted to Double-A Mobile after toying with Class A hitters his first five starts (1.26 ERA, 43 strikeouts in 29 innings).
The bump in competition hasn't slowed him down. In 11 starts with the BayBears, Bradley is 6-3 with a 2.03 ERA, notching 67 strikeouts in 67 innings.
“It shows how much how I've matured since last season in every aspect, my composure on and off the field,” Bradley said. “That's really benefitted me, a reason I got moved up.”
Bradley went 12-6 with a 3.84 ERA last season with the South Bend Silver Hawks in the Class A Midwest League.
The ERA was misleading. His one downfall was 84 walks in 136 innings, although he compensated with 152 strikeouts.
“I never was that wild before,” Bradley said. “Some games I'd only give up two or three hits, but I'd give up two or three runs because of all the walks. It was something I worked hard on during the offseason.”
Bradley has trimmed his walks to 39 in 95 innings. His minor league leading 110 punchouts give him a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
In 16 combined starts this season in Class A and Class 2A, Bradley is 8-3 with a 1.79 ERA.
A telltale stat is Bradley has held opponents to a .188 batting average in 44 career pro starts.
“He's doing great,” Bell said. “The command is there. The fastball is electric. The curveball is swing and miss. He mixes in some change-ups. The best thing is he's not looking too far ahead.”
Bundy & Bradley
Dylan Bundy and Archie Bradley. Their names will be tied together like Abbott and Costello.
“We're always going to be connected to one another,” Bradley said. “We'll never get away from that. I wouldn't say we were rivals but we've pushed each other for years.”
Bundy pitched for tradition-rich Owasso, Bradley for Broken Arrow, another 6A powerhouse.
“We both love competition,” Bradley said. “It was always intense anytime we faced Owasso.”
During their teenage battles they become good friends. Teammates on the DBAT Mustangs, a traveling team based in Dallas, they were roommates for two summers before their junior and senior seasons.
Bundy was selected fourth in the 2011 draft by Baltimore. Bradley went four spots later to Arizona. They were the first two high school pitchers selected, a rare daily double for states such as California and Florida, much less Oklahoma.
Bradley and Bundy talk every couple of weeks. They text one another. They stayed in touch in the offseason.
Both were on track to reach the majors earlier than most high school prospects, but Bundy's future suddenly is murky.
After a dominating debut season (9-3, 2.08 ERA) highlighted by a late-season call-up to Camden Yards, Bundy developed elbow soreness this spring. He received treatment. He stopped throwing.
Two months later, the Orioles announced Dr. James Andrews will perform Tommy John surgery. Bundy might not pitch in another game until June or July of next season.
“That was a setback, but he's still going to have a bright future,” Bradley said. “The No. 1 thing for any player is to get completely healthy. You don't want to keep rehab something that doesn't get better. He'll bounce back.”
There isn't a guaranteed formula how to handle light-up-the-radar-gun high school pitchers.
The Orioles limited Bundy's workload. He threw three-inning games before he was slowly stretched out last season. In contrast, Bradley started 27 games and threw 136 innings.
“That helped build my arm strength,” Bradley said. “I try to go as deep into games as I can. I've done that more this year by cutting down my walks.”
On the fast track
The Diamondbacks have a reputation for promoting players faster than many organizations.
Already in Double-A, would the D-backs consider giving Bradley a late-season call-up to the majors when rosters expand in September?
Is there a chance Arizona would allow Bradley to compete next spring for a spot in Arizona's 2014 rotation?
“If (reaching the majors) happens this year so be it. If it happens next year, or whenever it is, if I continue to pitch well my time will come,” Bradley said. “Honestly, I've tried to put that out of my mind because it's something I can't control. What I can control is how I pitch.”
Bradley most likely will spend the remainder of the season in Double-A.
“It will play out,” Bradley said. “Last year I feel I got caught up into getting moved up, like any young kid would. Numbers don't lie if you perform. My goal this year has been to go out there every fifth day and try to give my team a chance to win.”
Bradley is the type of prospect everyone will monitor his progress.
“That's a good thing,” Bradley said. ““Anytime you're a high prospect, or someone who got a lot of money, there will be eyes on you. There's media. There's fans. Your own teammates.
“Your constantly under the microscope more than the average player. That comes with the territory. You have to rise to the occasion. That's what this game is all about. I take it as a challenge. I look forward to it.”
And his reaction to being ranked among the top 10 prospects in the minors?
“You can never get away from (the hype). There are always copies of Baseball America in the clubhouse. There are twitter updates. People tweet you,” Bradley said. “That's where we are now with the game.
“I've always put a lot of pressure on myself, a lot more than any prospect ranking. It's testament to the work I've put in. It just wants to make me work that much harder.”
The long-term goal is to get to the majors.
“You want to lose that prospect status,” Bradley said. “I want to be known as a rookie, then a major league baseball pitcher. But to get there I have to continue to work on all my pitches. I feel good where I'm at, but I've got to continue to work hard to get to the majors.”