PORT CHARLOTTE — Taj Bradley knew he had some things to figure out after leaving his Atlanta-area home in 2018 to sign with the Rays as a 17-year-old high-schooler.
For example, that buying a large pizza and eating a couple of slices a day until it was gone wasn’t the best nutrition program. That learning to cook meant more than boiling pasta every time as he did for a couple of months.
And though he’d been doing his own laundry since age 11, when his mom made it sound simple — “Throw everything in there on cold and it’s not going to change the colors” — he still had to get better at knowing when and how often.
“Learning those things, it’s pretty cool,” said Bradley, 20. “Growing as a man, I would say. Just stuff like that.”
And then there was the pitching.
Bradley, a former outfielder, hadn’t taken his work on the mound seriously until his senior year at Redan High, so he didn’t have much of a routine or plan to take into pro ball. And — after getting a hefty bonus as a fifth-rounder, his $747,500 more than double the slot amount, and one of the Rays most aggressive draft deals — he did not make much of a first impression on his new bosses.
“I remember when Taj Bradley showed up on campus when he was 17 years old, and I think he was throwing 86, 87, 88 (mph),” minor-league field coordinator Michael Johns said. “We’re all kind of scratching our heads like, ‘Ooookaaaay.’”
But the scouts who’d watched Bradley and convinced Rays executives to draft and sign him away from the University of South Carolina had seen something.
Bradley, it turned out, just needed some time to show everybody.
After some small steps in 2018 and ‘19, he had a breakthrough last season when he dominated at Class A Charleston (S.C.) and Bowling Green (Ky.), going a combined 12-3 with a minors-best 1.83 ERA in 23 games, striking out 123 and walking only 31 in 103-1/3 innings.
That was enough to rocket Bradley to prospect prominence, not just in the pitching-rich Tampa Bay organization, but industry-wide, jumping into three top 100 lists. He is ranked 58th by Baseball America and The Athletic and 95th by ESPN, with projections to soon become one of the Rays’ “next” great ones.
Johns said the improvement was striking.
“All of a sudden, his body just forms and he gets bigger and stronger,” Johns said. He’s just a man on the mound. He just keeps getting better. It’s crazy.
“Some guys hit a plateau and you’re like, how do we get him over that hump? And it’s, like, every week, every month, every year, he just keeps getting better and better. And not just with the (velocity), but with pitchability and secondary stuff and his coachability. Just a tremendous, tremendous kid.”
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Or, in short form:
“Taj (pronounced TAHJ) Bradley is a stud.”
The physical transformation, much of which happened when Bradley was working out at home during the pandemic-canceled 2020 minor-league season, was big.
He dropped 20 pounds — “baby fat,” he said — to get down to 210 and became more athletic and explosive in his delivery, which eventually added a couple miles per hour to his fastball, now clocked in the mid- to upper-90s, while also tweaking his repertoire.
But the more significant improvements, Bradley said, came mentally — in maturation and motivation.
Adopting ‘athletic arrogance’
Adopting Charleston pitching coach R.C. Lichtenstein’s mantra of “athletic arrogance,” Bradley started pitching with more aggression and intent, making clear to the hitters he was in charge of each at-bat, focusing on his strengths.
Bradley also changed how he learned, starting last spring to keep a journal of his outings to provide a base to build upon, jotting down his “pros,” but, to keep a positive vibe, logging his “cons’'as “learning steps” upon which to improve.
“I just start off with a quick, like, ‘You had a great game. You had a good outing. This is what you did well. You’ve been working on this. You did it. You succeeded.’ And maybe with, like 0-2 pitches or put-away pitches or my cutter, just the development of it — not a con so much as improvements need to be made.”
In a throwback touch, Bradley, who turns 21 this month, does his writing by hand, not by tapping it into his phone.
For Christmas, his mother, Ana Mosley, got him three notebooks which he carries everywhere in his cross-body “little satchel” and uses to expand his thought collecting: One is for his pitching assessments, one for motivational quotes he comes across from an assortment of sources (Jim Carrey, Denzel Washington, various podcasts), and one for off-field daily lessons or thoughts.
“I’m kind of old school,” he said. “I got like a $13 pen off of Amazon. I feel like if I’m going to do it, do it big, right?”
Soaking in knowledge
Lichtenstein raves about how much better Bradley is and what he did to get there. He cites how Bradley, after his rough first start with the low-A River Dogs, pulled out his notebook to reference a suggestion Lichtenstein had made early in spring training — and assumed was long forgotten — about using his cutter to lefty hitters.
After that, he was locked in on improving.
“Maturity, dedication, really invested in his craft, wants to get better,” Lichtenstein noted. “He was like a sponge. I think he got to a point where he just realized he needed to go all-in. He started to journal. He started to really focus on what was making him good and what was helping him get better. And every day he had a goal and really put himself in a position where he was trying to be productive every day to get a step closer.”
Bradley openly acknowledges he still has much to learn. That includes dealing with the attention that accompanies his elevated prospect status, admitting to being uncomfortable last week talking with a handful of reporters in front of two TV cameras, despite doing fine.
His education in becoming a big-leaguer will be ongoing.
“I learn from every pitching coach along my way,” Bradley said. “I mean, every single one, something specific. It’s like pretty much one of those Power Rangers things, like those Zords (biomechanical robots that come in different forms) or whatever. It’s like you put it together — the arm’s one guy, the leg’s another guy. So it’s pretty cool.”
As Bradley refines his sense what pitches work best for him against higher competition, — and why — he will better determine what kind of pitcher he wants to become.
But he said he knows exactly who he will be.
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