Just over a week ago, and just days after having spoken with the Hall of Fame pitcher and childhood idol Greg Maddux, Oakland Athletics pitcher Kendall Graveman had a performance worthy of the Hall of Famer.
It was big news in the baseball world when Graveman, who’s had his ups and downs since stepping into the big league starting rotation in 2015, threw a “Maddux” just days after A’s director of employee assistance programs, Dr. Marc Stickland, set up a call between the two.
I’ve written about Graveman many times before, including predicting that 2016 would be his breakout season. He’d had a rocky start to his rookie season that included a short stint in Triple-A and a rocky ending to it, succumbing to an oblique strain in August that led the Athletics to shut him down for the remainder of the season.
In June and July of that year, however, he showed flashes of brilliance, consistently pitching into the seventh inning and posting a 3.04 ERA.
Through the first half of this season, it appeared as though that earlier breakout prediction had been way off. Graveman went 3-6 while posting a 4.84 ERA in his first 15 starts. But after five more starts in July, Graveman had gone 4-1 with a 2.68 ERA, bringing his once-inflated ERA of 5.84 down to 4.15.
At the end of July, I wrote about how Graveman was beginning to show the same signs of potential that he had in mid-2015.
His first start in August made me stop and think again that perhaps I was still giving Graveman a little too much credit. He allowed six runs over four innings in his August 3 start in Anaheim against the Angels.
Following that performance, though, Graveman didn’t disappoint. He made three more starts, pitching deep into each game, including his “Maddux,” which was his third career complete game and only his second to go nine innings. He needed just 98 pitches to get the necessary 27 outs.
Still, after his “Maddux,” which was undoubtedly the best game of his career, it was too early to know if it was truly a sign of things to come. He needed to produce another similar start before really converting people into believers.
On Wednesday afternoon in Oakland against the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians, Graveman delivered that start. He pitched into the seventh, giving up six hits on the day. He allowed just one run on a solo-shot to catcher Roberto Perez while walking just two and striking out one.In the course of the past two months, he’s seemed to make some fundamental changes in his repertoire. He’s cut down significantly on the number of breaking balls he throws, relying mainly on his sinker, fastball and cutter.
Graveman is still not a strikeout pitcher, but his percentage of ground balls and infield fly balls have increased while the percentages of line drives and home runs allowed have plummeted drastically. His sinker accounts for almost all of Graveman’s soft contact.
He’s added one to two miles per hour to each of his pitches, and while he’s always kept his go-to sinker low, he’s brought this to a new extreme — at least for him. He used to keep it low but most often still in the zone, which allowed for too much hard contact on the pitch. While he still throws the sinker in the strike zone, he’s gotten hitters to start chasing one’s he throwing lower, outside the zone, which simply induces more weak contact.
He uses his sinker approximately 75 percent of the time now, which has helped him improve his command and control of the pitch.
Now he’s consistently getting ahead of hitters in the count and really attacking the strike zone, which helps him to pitch more quickly and economically, allowing him to go deeper into games.
It’s a small sample size and it’s not enough to get ahead of ourselves in thinking he’s a completely changed pitcher, but as teammate Yonder Alonso put it,“We’re seeing a guy grow, we’re seeing a competitor. This is the best I’ve seen him.”
So perhaps this is a maturing Kendall Graveman who will continue on this path of success.
He has had to grow a lot this season. With ace Sonny Gray pitching poorly and Rich Hill having been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as both of them spending extended periods of time on the disabled list, Graveman had to become the anchor of an ever-changing and very young starting rotation.
Athletics’ manager Bob Melvin acknowledged Graveman’s improvement over the course of the season and his having to be the lone anchor of the starting rotation in just his sophomore season.
“He seems to be getting better and better as the season goes along and really took ownership of the fact that he was the last guy and really has to anchor the rotation,” Melvin said after Graveman pitched his “Maddux.”
If the fact that he pitched another gem against the Indians on Wednesday is any indication that he’ll continue on his current path — and the A’s surely hope it is — Graveman could end up being a very important asset to the A’s improving as a team in 2017.