Most pitching coaches will tell their pitchers over and over again, pound the strike zone and don’t be afraid to keep your fielders busy.
With his ability to throw strikes and keep the ball on the ground, Toronto Blue Jays prospect Kendall Graveman is more than making his infielders earn their paycheques and keeping his pitching coaches at all levels happy.
Graveman began the year in Lansing, the Jays A affiliate, and has advanced through their minor league system leaping to Buffalo. That’s four levels of the minors in a calendar year for a guy who was a college senior a little over the year ago and received a signing bonus – $5,000 – that wouldn’t even get you one year of undergraduate studies at an Ontario university.
Despite being somewhat of a mystery and an unheralded prospect coming into the year, Graveman has done what he needs to as a pitcher: throw strikes and rack up outs.
“The hitter recognizes that I’m going to attack and not walk people and they’re going to have to go up there and make contact,” Graveman said following his Aug. 23 start for Buffalo against the Pawtucket Red Sox. “I know I’m not going to strike out a lot of guys, but if I can be consistent with ground balls and let my defence play, for me, my job is to let them play. That’s why I have eight other guys out there. It’s not just me and the catcher out there.”
Not every pitcher is blessed with a 98 mph fastball that can keep bats making wild swings and misses, however, many pitchers who lack that deadly fastball never get so much of a whiff of the big leagues.
Graveman is looking to be different. With a slightly below average fastball in the low 90s, strong change up and sinker and a cutter he developed last offseason, he’s kept batters from making strong contact with his pitches featuring late movement.
“I worked really hard to gain a few miles per hour on the velocity side of (my pitches) and I learned a cutter to keep them honest on both sides of the plate and I’ve got one going away from a righty and one going into a righty,” Graveman said. “It’s making them honour it and adding that velocity and cutter has been really big to my game.”
The cutter has helped his arsenal of pitches carry him from a 4.31 ERA, 1.378 WHIP and a 4.12 FIP, according to Fangraphs, in 39.2 innings to a more eye popping 1.83 ERA, 1.034 WHIP and under 3.00 FIP, via Fangraphs.
With his ability to go after batters and induce weak contact, while still working early in the count, it allows him to go deep into games with his shortest minor league outing coming back on April 30 in Dunedin when he went 4 innings.
“He throws tons of strikes with movement, so he gets a ton of ground balls and he’s not going to walk guys,” Bisons veteran catcher Mike Nickeas said. “If you can throw strikes, you can get outs. He’s not afraid of going inside of hitters, even to lefties, which is difficulty for a righty. He’s not scared, man. He just pounds the zone.”
Although he lacks the blazing fastball, Graveman said he knows his strength lies in his sinker ball that keeps his infielders busy.
In 2014, across four minor league levels, 27.47% of all batters he’s faced have resulted in groundouts and a staggering 61.48% of his batted ball breakdown, according to MLBfarm.com.
With his style, it’s rare to see many batters get a free pass to first. This past year, he’s put up a 3.71 strikeout to walk rate and only allowed 1.7 walks per nine innings. Across four levels, he’s averaged 2.21 pitchers per batter and 3.6 at AAA.
“It’s key for him because like most sinker ballers they give up their hits, but if you roll a ground ball you get a lot of double plays and it erases the hits,” Bisons pitching coach Randy St. Claire said of Graveman attacking the plate. “He’s been great and he attacks the zone with all his stuff and works both sides of the plate with great movement on all his pitches.”
His success at keeping the ball in the park – he’s only allowed two home runs this year – is one reason he’s maintained a 1.83 ERA across four levels with 21 of his 27 starts being quality ones.
Bisons manager Gary Allenson credits Graveman’s confidence and his lack of fear as a key aspect towards his success.
“He throws strikes. He’s not afraid of contact. He’s aggressive and he’s got a lot of confidence out there,” Allenson said. “He can get a little surly at times; he’s a competitor. Like I said, for a guy that started off at Lansing he doesn’t let the older more experienced hitters affect him at all.”
Granted, he started his year at Lansing as a 22-year-old that was likely two years older than most of his competition. However, since catching up with his peers in AA and AAA, he’s caught many by surprise.
In his senior college season with Mississippi State, the 23-year-old was the ace of the staff that saw them march to the 2013 College World Series, where they finished second. Although drafted as a junior by the Miami Marlins in the 36th Round, he said the extra year put him in the place to succeed when he reached the minors.
“As a junior, I’m not the same pitcher mentally or physically I was as a senior. I think things would’ve changed if I came out as a junior,” Graveman said of the extra year on the mound in Mississippi. “Going back for a senior year helped me for this stage.”
Following an unspectacular 2013 with Lansing, he pointed to an offseason workout of long toss four times a week over the winter and an emphasis on keeping his lower body strong throughout the season as a reason he added a few ticks of speed on his pitches that’s helped keep batters making weak contact.
The long toss saw him throwing 300 or more feet at a time, he said, adding that it gave his arm the extra strength necessary to get more pitches past bats or inducing weak contact.
In a scouting report by Fangraph’s Marc Hulet back in August 2013, he wrote that Graveman had “a smooth, easy delivery and worked quickly. He also, perhaps more importantly, threw strikes.”
He gives few free passes and from the first pitch onwards, he makes no secret that the ball’s going to be in and around the strike zone.
“If you look at my stats in college it was a lot of walks the first few years and I tried to eliminate it my junior and senior year, he said. “I think that’s what makes pitching successful if you challenge hitters.”
The key to Graveman’s game since he gained control of the plate in his sophomore year has continually been to make the batters beat him. In 2010 as a freshman, he had 32 walks in 50 innings pitched. He came back with nine in 56.2 the next year, 21 in 89.1 innings in 2012 and 29 in 113.2 in 2013.
Yet, despite knowing where the pitch is coming, batters at all four minor league levels that Graveman has pitched at have largely made weak contact. Much of this is thanks to Graveman’s nasty sinker that induces ground ball after ground ball. And when he has a strong infield defence behind him, like he had at Buffalo in AAA, many hits that would’ve snuck through gaps to the outfield are gobbled up by gloves that are major league ready.
“Three times out of 10, they’ll get you and seven out of 10 it’s in your favour,” he said. “I try and stay ahead of hitters and attack them and see how much weak contact I can get is my big thing.”
Although it’s unlikely for Graveman to maintain such a low home run rate, a below league average rate isn’t hard to imagine. And as long as he has average to above average defence behind him, it’s not unrealistic to see his high ground ball out rate continue.
Over time, batters will undoubtably adapt to Graveman, but as he’s shown in his stint in the minors and his time at Mississippi State, Graveman can also adjust.
With his ability to pound the strike zone, his rise through the Jays system and the skill in creating outs, it’s likely his time in the minors could soon come to an end.