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Speeding things up has turned Brett Graves’ season around

ADELANTO, Calif. — Wind-swept Heritage Field isn’t the best place to pitch in pro ball (as in, it’s literally the worst) so when Oakland A’s prospect Brett Graves tossed an eight-inning one-hitter there against the High Desert Mavericks in late July, facing the minimum 24 batters on just 74 pitches, that probably should have been recognized as a turning point.

When the Stockton Ports’ righty followed it up with three more good starts (two runs in six innings on August 1, one run in five innings on August 6, and then seven shutout innings on August 12), that start at High Desert really should have been a sign. In the span of a little more than three weeks, the Athletics prospect pitching in High-A has turned his season from a disappointing affair to a suddenly strong finish.

I’ll own the fact that I was extremely skeptical about Graves after seeing him pitch in June, but he’s a different guy now than he was just two months ago. It’s not so much a reinvention, or a new pitch, or even necessarily a new mental outlook for Oakland’s righty prospect, though. The change is simpler than all of that. As Graves’ season slowed down, he sped up.

“A lot of times I get caught up in being too perfect with my pitches, instead of just gripping my sinker and throwing it in the strike zone, and that’s the first thing to go for me when I start thinking too much about perfect pitches, or perfect location,” Graves told Today’s Knuckleball about his tough start this summer that saw his ERA balloon to nearly 6.00 by June. “But now, I’m working with the explosiveness in my delivery, and I have a little bit more of that aggressiveness. Over the last month, I’ve been able to feel myself putting that together, and that’s been the biggest difference.”

When Graves talks about explosiveness in his delivery, or aggressiveness, here is exactly what he means. Below is a side-by-side of two clips from Graves’ starts this summer. The first, on the left, is from that middling June start in Bakersfield. The second, on the right, is from his late-July one-hitter in High Desert. See if you can spot the differences:

We synced up those videos to connect at the very top of his balance point, and you can clearly see that in late July, he’s getting to that point quicker, pushing through it harder and faster, and finishing better. It’s ironic, actually, that a struggling pitcher would speed up his mechanics to get right, but that’s exactly what Graves has done, and it’s paid dividends for him of late. He’s no longer as flat-footed through balance and release, he’s driving downhill to the plate, and his stride looks a little longer, as you’d expect. That is the explosiveness to which he refers.

“It’s not just a delivery thing, that affects every one of my pitches,” Graves said of his newfound explosiveness. “It makes the fastball better, and it adds late life to all my pitches. That is the biggest thing that’s clicked for me in the last month. There’s no other way for me. What I was doing before just wasn’t working well enough.”

Graves is right about that. In his last four starts, he’s 3-0, and in 26 innings over that stretch he’s allowed just three earned runs (1.04 ERA) on 17 hits and four walks while striking out 13 hitters. Proving his point about aiming pitches less, in nine games since the end of June, he’s walked just six batters spanning 50 innings (1.08 BB/9); in the 79 innings before that, he’d walked 34 hitters (3.87 BB/9).

Furthermore, he’s 4-1 over his last seven starts, and has cut his season ERA nearly a full point to today (7-8, 4.60 in 24 games/22 starts). Those numbers aren’t the best for a prospect coming in with high expectations. While that’s weighed on the University of Missouri product, he’s overcome the mental hurdles associated.

“Seriously, with numbers like mine, I’ve had to really search to find the positive,” Graves admitted about his season. “It’s no secret that I would love for my numbers to be better, but I also think that there’s been a ton of things that have gone well, and I’ve been trying to build on that. It’s way too long a season to look at everything only to be negative the whole time.”

So where does this leave Graves?

With only 129 innings under his belt, he ought to be able to stay on a normal schedule over the season’s final month, which would give him maybe three or four more starts in Stockton. At the rate things are going now, that’s three or four opportunities to re-solidify himself in the Athletics’ organization, and finish High-A on a high note before what should be a rotation job at Double-A Midland next year.

Graves stopped short of saying the one-hitter in High Desert turned his season around—he felt he’d been throwing the ball better even before that stellar outing—but now he knows exactly how to keep himself in that space moving forward.

“This is something only I can control,” he said of his mechanical adjustments and strong performances. “Somebody can tell me this, but unless I go through that and really feel it, there’s no way for me to learn that besides how I’ve had to learn it.”

And learn it, he has. Here’s the full video of Graves’ one-hit outing in High Desert:

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