CHARLESTON, W.Va. — J.R. Bradley and Arik Sikula are West Virginians, Kanawha Valley products and relief pitchers trying to climb the Minor League Baseball ladder.
They’re also two of the best on the farm at striking out hitters.
Bradley, 21, and Sikula, 25, are in the top 15 — among all levels of the minors — in strikeout rate. Bradley has punched out 42.9 percent of the batters he’s faced this season, while Sikula is just behind at 41.5 percent. Bradley is ninth in K-rate and ninth in strikeouts per nine innings (15.80). All the players ahead of Bradley on the list are 22 years or older. Sikula is averaging 13.50 strikeouts per nine innings, good for 36th-best among minor leaguers.
Bradley, who was a 2010 second-round draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is a converted starter who struggled through nearly four seasons of professional baseball before finding his niche in the bullpen. He recently earned a promotion to high-Class A Visalia of the California League, a place from where he was demoted in the middle of last season.
“I don’t know if growing up is the right way to put it, but I was a year or two out of high school, 18 or 19 years old, and I’d have a bad game and I would think I had to change something,” said Bradley, a former Nitro High School star. “I’ve reverted back to the basics and I’m trusting my stuff. The biggest thing for me is confidence.”
That confidence was shaken last summer when club officials called him into the office last year and demoted him to Hillsboro, the organization’s short-season club that is now managed by J.R. House.
“I was starting and they talked about how I had thrown a lot of innings, but I wasn’t getting punchouts and I wasn’t doing a lot of things from a developmental standpoint that I needed to do,” Bradley said.
After allowing 11 earned runs over four innings in his final two outings with Visalia last season, Bradley was demoted. In his third appearance with Hillsboro, he allowed three earned runs and recorded just five outs. After that, with the help of Hillsboro’s then-hitting instructor House, Bradley allowed two earned in 17 2/3 innings the rest of the season.
Bradley hasn’t allowed an earned run since Aug. 2, 2013. His 2014 statistics: 0.00 ERA, 24 strikeouts, five walks and five saves in 13 2/3 innings.
“I come into a game now and I attack guys from the get-go,” Bradley said. “I’m not trying to establish a fastball. I’m in there to get three outs or six outs, so I can just let it go.”
Bradley used a fastball that averaged between 90-92 miles per hour as a starter. As a reliever he can touch 96 with his fastball and sit at 94. He’s ditched his slider, which morphed into was he called a “cutter that wasn’t very good,” in favor of a hard curveball that he can throw 82-84 miles per hour.
“Velocity is something I don’t really concern myself with,” Bradley said. “In the leagues I’ve been in, everybody can hit a fastball. It’s more important to be 93, 94 down and away than 97 over the middle of the plate.”
Sikula’s path through the minors has been vastly different. The 36th-round draft pick, who starred at South Charleston High School, Hurricane High School and Marshall University, has made 112 relief appearances and zero starts. He’s been a reliever from Day 1, and his numbers have improved every season since his 2011 debut.
“For me, personally, this is the first year that I ever played winter ball,” said Sikula, who was a back-to-back winner of the Daily Mail Kanawha Valley Player of the Year award. “Usually I have three months off and in spring training I’m facing hitters for the first time, then you start the year and you’re just getting into it.
“Now I feel like I’m in midseason form. I had a good spring training and I think winter ball helped with that.”
Sikula is 1-1 with a 1.23 ERA and 22 strikeouts, three walks in 14 2/3 innings. He leads all of Minor League Baseball with 11 saves.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound righty has made the gradual climb through the Blue Jays’ system, and this season is playing for high-Class A Dunedin in the Florida State League.
“I’m giving it as long as I can play,” Sikula said of how long he’ll pursue his dream of pitching in the bigs. “This is really what I want to do in life. Even if I don’t make it to the big leagues, there are other places to play baseball like Japan or Korea and I can make a career out of it.”
Bradley said the transition from starter to reliever hasn’t been difficult, like the move from preps to pros. In high school, he played shortstop on the days in which he didn’t pitch, so he knew every day he came to the ballpark, he’d play. As a starter earning a paycheck, he had trouble establishing a routine in between starts.
Sikula isn’t surprised that Bradley, who is an offseason workout partner, has found a home in the ‘pen.
“He has dominated, obviously, and I’ve seen it within a lot of different organizations,” Sikula said. “Some guys have a natural feel for coming out of the bullpen.
“Heck, I’m on a four-day road trip and I’m rooming with a guy who isn’t going to pitch during the whole trip. I can see where it’d be easy to lose focus on those days because it’s almost like you’re not part of the team.”
Bradley’s promotion from low-Class A South Bend to Visalia came last week when the organization made 17 moves in a two-day span. Bradley rejoined season-long roommate Aaron Blair, a first-round pick out of Marshall in 2013 who is enjoying his share of success this season. Blair has a 3.59 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings across two levels.
Compared to Bradley’s road, it might appear Blair is on the fast track, but consider this: Blair turns 22 on May 26, while Bradley will do the same exactly two weeks later.
“When you get drafted out of high school you have this idea, especially when you’re taken in the second round, of going in there to dominate and get to the big leagues,” Bradley said. “Now I’m 21 and in high A, but I’m still one of the younger dudes in the league. It used to be that, in my mind, I was somewhere I wasn’t. I was thinking about being everywhere else than I actually was. I thought about what I needed to do to get to high A and double-A, but realistically I needed to focus on where I was at the time.”
According to Baseball Reference, Bradley is 1.2 years younger than the average player at his level of the minors.
“You never want to get moved down,” Bradley said. “You never want to make a backwards move. But they told me they sent me down to spring me forward.”
It looks like that move worked.