Graveman Takes Rejuvenated Career to Chicago’s South Side

It’s a good time to be a pitcher: The market for hurlers has been ablaze with rumors and signings, and we haven’t even reached Thanksgiving. The latest move comes from the White Sox, who have signed reliever Kendall Graveman to a three-year, $24 million deal, per MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. He is already the fifth pitcher to sign a multi-year deal so far this offseason, and the sixth pitcher to come off our Top 50 free agent list, where he was ranked at No. 45.

Graveman spent his mid-20s as a starter for the A’s, posting elite ground-ball rates and minimal strikeouts — a recipe that never quite worked out, as by the time he had Tommy John surgery in 2018, he had a career ERA of 4.38, a FIP of 4.54, and a strikeout rate of only 15%. He returned to the big leagues in 2020 with the Mariners, which is where we first got a glimpse of his new form, with a 3.60 ERA and 3.09 FIP in a month of bullpen work to close out the season.

His successful transition to the ‘pen after struggling as a starter is hardly a new story, yet Graveman and his aversion to whiffs isn’t exactly the prototype you look for when trying to create a great reliever. One of the keys for him, as is often the case, came from tapping into unseen velocity when pitching shorter relief outings; what once was a 93-mph sinker now sat 96 and touched 99.

The velocity carried over into 2021, and with it, newfound run suppression, as he became a dominant closer for the surprising Mariners. By the time the trade deadline rolled around, Graveman had a 0.82 ERA, and while his peripherals (a 2.90 FIP and 3.13 xFIP) may have suggested he was closer to a good reliever than an elite one, it was still clear that the move to the bullpen had turned his career around. The Astros acquired him at the deadline to bolster their bullpen for the playoffs, and while still good, he regressed closer to what his peripherals had said all along, putting up a 3.13 ERA the rest of the way.

There is more to Graveman’s ascension than merely adding velocity. If you’re a reader of David Laurila’s Sunday Notes, then you may already know about the development of his slider. Prior to last season, Graveman’s breaking ball was slow and lackluster, but with coaching and instruction from Seattle, he started throwing it like a fastball. That helps explain why the breaker he threw 17.9% of the time this year came in about seven mph harder than the ones he threw in Oakland.

This new pitch is something Graveman can consistently get whiffs with. He had a 20.1% SwStr% on the pitch this year, making it even better than a league-average slider at delivering whiffs (16.2%). That was the first season he had a SwStr% over 7.6%, and he ran it all the way up to 10.7%. He certainly has some characteristics of an elite reliever now that he carries a high 90s fastball and a whiff-inducing slider; combined with his ability to get grounders, he becomes a fascinating addition to this White Sox bullpen.

Speaking of that bullpen: If you’re keeping track at home, Chicago now has three guys that spent large chunks of the 2021 season as a closer, accumulating a combined 72 saves: Graveman; Liam Hendriks, who was signed last offseason to a four-year deal and finished eighth in the AL Cy Young voting; and Craig Kimbrel, who was acquired at the deadline after having a bounce-back first half as the Cubs’ closer. For now, Graveman would likely be setting up those two, as well as the left-handed Aaron Bummer, in what currently looks to be a very formidable ‘pen.

White Sox Projected Bullpen (2021 Stats)
Liam Hendriks 71 59 54 42.3% 2.6%
Craig Kimbrel 59.2 53 55 42.6% 9.8%
Aaron Bummer 56.1 82 67 31% 12%
Kendall Graveman 56 42 76 27.5% 9.1%
Garrett Crochet 54.1 65 64 28.3% 11.7%
Ryan Burr 36.2 57 96 21.9% 13.9%
José Ruiz 65 71 91 23.2% 9.2%

Last season, Chicago’s bullpen had the best K-BB% in baseball, as well as the fourth best FIP, but finished 12th in ERA; there were clearly a lot of talented arms even if the run-suppression didn’t quite stack up. Adding Graveman to that bullpen may seem like overkill, but the White Sox haven’t been shy about their interest in dealing Kimbrel after picking up his $16 million option for the 2022 season. His acquisition didn’t come cheap for the Sox, who traded away Nick Madrigal and reliever Codi Heuer, and Kimbrel faltered in his new home, putting up a 5.09 ERA and 4.56 FIP. If they can pull off a trade in which the other team takes on all $16 million owed to him, they could theoretically replace his production with Graveman’s at half the cost. Of other note is the role that Michael Kopech will play in 2022. After sitting out the 2020 season, he was used as a reliever last season to manage his workload but is expected to join the rotation in place of departed free agent Carlos Rodón, creating another potential bullpen hole to fill.

Regardless of what happens with Kimbrel, or how Kopech is used, Graveman provides a unique look for a bullpen flush with guys pumping high-90s four-seamers.

White Sox Projected Bullpen (Characteristics)
Throws Release Height (Ft.) Fastball Type Fastball Rate Breaking Ball Type Breaking Ball Rate GB%
Liam Hendriks R 5.91 Four-seam 68.9% Slider 21.6% 32.6%
Craig Kimbrel R 4.84 Four-seam 59.3% Curve 40.7% 30.3%
Aaron Bummer L 5.46 Sinker 62% Slider 29.6% 76.1%
Kendall Graveman R 5.71 Sinker 63.3% Slider 17.8% 54.9%
Garrett Crochet L 6.46 Four-seam 64.3% Slider 27.8% 40.2%
Ryan Burr R 6.56 Four-seam 50.3% Cutter 40.1% 57%
José Ruiz R 6.19 Four-seam 59.5% Curve 35.8% 41.8%

No bullpen threw more four-seam fastballs than the White Sox last year, at over 50%, and they also had the eighth-lowest sinker usage rate. That led to a bullpen that was second in strikeouts but middle of the pack in grounders. Graveman should step in nicely as a right-handed complement to Bummer, as both can come into the late innings and get grounders while throwing strikes.

The White Sox don’t seem like a team that’s done making moves, even as their projected payroll is now $35 million higher than last year’s. They have a strong need for a second baseman, and who knows what will happen with a potential Kimbrel trade. It’s possible that by the time the postseason is over, the acquisition of Graveman will be long overshadowed, but the crucial innings he’ll be throwing over the next few seasons should continue to bring him back into the spotlight.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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