When the pressure is on, when the game is in the balance, baseball has a way of slowing down.
That’s when Enrique Bradfield Jr. speeds it up.
In May 2022, with his Vanderbilt team trailing Indiana State 8-7 in the bottom of the ninth, Bradfield turned to his coach and offered to take the game into his hands.
“I was like, ‘I think I can do it. Let’s go for it,’” the center fielder said.
Down to their last out, the Commodores had future Yankees first-round pick Spencer Jones at first base and Bradfield at third. With the batter facing a 1-1 count, Jones and Bradfield took off simultaneously. Indiana State lefty Jared Spencer appeared frozen, unable to react as Bradfield slid headfirst into home to tie the game.
Bradfield scored the winning run two innings later.
“It’s definitely a challenge to do,” Bradfield said of stealing home. “We did it together. It was a great moment.”
With a whopping 130 stolen bases in three seasons in Nashville, Bradfield was widely regarded as the fastest entrant in the 2023 MLB draft. Baseball America and MLB Pipeline gave the Florida native 80-grade speed (on a 20-80 scale).
Successful on 91% of his attempted steals, Bradfield was more than a threat on the basepaths. His speed held pitchers hostage.
“He’s arguably one of the best baserunners and best base stealers in recent college baseball history,” Orioles general manager Mike Elias said after selecting Bradfield with the 17th overall pick in July.
Now playing in games with bigger bases, a pitch clock and disengagement limits — “That’s all kind of aiding me in my process” — Bradfield is running with abandon. After a quick stop in the Florida Complex League, the 21-year-old received a promotion to Single-A Delmarva, where he racked up 10 stolen bases in his first five games.
He has a competition going with fellow 2023 draftee Matthew Etzel as to who can steal more bags in the final month of the season.
“I want to get a good feel of what I can and can’t do,” Bradfield said. “If I make a mistake, I make a mistake and so be it. That’s kind of how I’m treating this.”
“He especially understands what his game is all about,” Shorebirds manager Felipe Alou Jr. said. “He exploited that last week. I’m pretty happy he’s doing it, and we’re gonna let him run. It’s part of his game.”
With the ability to get to just about every ball hit his way, Bradfield also has the glove to stick in center field.
“He really impressed me out there,” Alou said. “He’s very aware; he’s ready to go pre-pitch. His instincts take over, but then his routes are pretty solid. To me, a true center fielder.”
Bradfield fit neatly into the Orioles’ preferred draft “demographic” as a left-handed-hitting college star with a good eye for the strike zone. But Elias tends to prefer above-average hitters. Bradfield’s lack of power (just 15 home runs in college) and decline in batting average (.279 in his junior season) are signs he needs more work at the plate.
Bulking up should help. Listed at 6-feet-1, 170 pounds, Bradfield, like most newly drafted players, is looking to increase his strength this winter. But he’s not concerned more muscle will affect his running abilities.
“I never worry about that,” Bradfield said. “If you put it on the right way, there won’t be any problems.”
The old cliché “You can’t teach speed” really applies only when you can teach everything else. Baltimore’s player development staff, led by Matt Blood, has maximized the offensive potential of the organization’s top prospects, leading to some staggering statistical seasons on the farm.
The Orioles clearly feel confident they can work the same magic with Bradfield that they have with prospects such as Joey Ortiz and Dylan Beavers, both considered raw offensive players when they were selected in 2019 and 2022, respectively. They chose to gamble on Bradfield’s otherworldly athletic traits in the hopes of developing his hitting abilities.
When the traits are this good, it’s a pretty safe bet.