Though Archie Bradley knew his future would be on a diamond after Arizona made him the seventh overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, he sometimes thinks about the opportunity he passed up to play quarterback for the University of Oklahoma.
Bradley committed to play football (and baseball) for the Sooners before he turned pro with a $5 million bonus from the Diamondbacks. He might have been Oklahoma's starting quarterback this past fall had he gone to college. Instead, he opted to attend most of the school's home games and its Sugar Bowl victory as a fan during his offseason.
"I miss it a ton," Bradley said. "I'm still very passionate about football. I definitely made the right choice, but if something ever did happen, I definitely would consider going back and playing."
Bradley did make the right choice. After two full pro seasons, he ranks as baseball's best right-handed pitching prospect and has a chance to make Arizona's Opening Day roster at age 21.
Bradley insists that he won't put any extra pressure on himself to make the D-backs' Opening Day roster out of Spring Training. He knows his Major League debut will occur in the near future, and he admits to thinking about it but says it doesn't consume him. His plan for big league camp is to learn from the coaches and veterans, simply do his best when he takes the mound and let his performance dictate his destination.
That was his attitude in 2013, when Arizona planned on having him spend all or most of the year with Class A Advanced Visalia. Instead, he was so overpowering in his first five starts, recording a 1.26 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings, that he earned a promotion to Double-A Mobile at the beginning of May.
"I'm not going to say I expected to move as fast as I did," Bradley said. "I just worked really hard to do it. I think as soon as you understand you don't control how fast you move, you can just control your day-to-day activities and how well you pitch. When the organization, the manager and general manager and people above you think you're ready, then you'll move. Once I learned that was out of my hands, everything just became easier for me."
Bradley maintained that philosophy and continued to dominate in Double-A, leading the Southern League in wins (12), strikeouts per nine innings (8.7) and opponent batting average (.214). He finished the year ranked third in the Minor Leagues in wins (14) and ERA (1.84) and sixth in strikeouts (162 in 152 innings). Yet his most significant statistic may have been his walk rate, which decreased from 5.6 per nine innings in 2012 to 4.1 last season.
"He did a great job preparing himself," D-backs scouting director Ray Montgomery said. "You never want to keep someone down if the level is beneath them. When he did what he did to the Cal League, it wasn't challenging enough to make it worth his time. He's on a very accelerated curve, and he's proven he can handle it."
Bradley can overpower hitters with sheer stuff. He uses his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame and high three-quarters delivery to throw 92-97 mph fastballs and hard curveballs on a steep plane. When he doesn't locate his pitches, he tends to miss down in the strike zone, a reason he has yielded just 12 homers in 290 Minor League innings.
Since turning pro, Bradley has improved the consistency of his delivery and control. He's doing a better job of repeating his delivery and landing spot, and he's making progress with a mid-80s changeup that features some fade.
"He's never going to be that touch-and-feel guy," Montgomery said. "I'm OK with that, relative to the type of pitcher he's going to be. He's a power guy. There's power to his fastball, power to his breaking ball. If he develops an average changeup, that's more than enough."
Bradley plans to rely on more than his arm strength. Despite the significant improvements he has made, he's more focused on other necessary refinements.
"As big a stride as I made last year, there's still a ton left," he said. "I still need to control the fastball more, need to throw the changeup, and then the big leagues is a whole new job. I don't even know what's up there. I think when I get there, it'll expose a lot more of what I need to learn and need to adapt to."
Big leaguer hitters will have to adjust to Bradley, too. There aren't many pitchers with two well-above-average offerings like his fastball and curve. Football is in his past, but All-Star Games and Cy Young Awards may be in his future.