Kendall Graveman and the Rare Double Spike

There was a post I intended to write sometime last month. The post was going to be about Kendall Graveman, and his future, and it was going to be based around the fact that Graveman went and had his best spring training to date. What’s more, there were some unconfirmed reports floating around that Graveman was occasionally pushing his sinker up into the high 90s. Ultimately, I sat on the idea, because Graveman didn’t throw any spring-training pitches in front of instrumentation that spits out useful data. He had a good March, and that was all.

On account of Sonny Gray’s injury, Graveman just got the nod to start for the A’s against the Angels on Monday’s opening day. Here is the Graveman post I was thinking about. It took one inning for me to know what I was going to do.

Here’s a first-inning pitch to Albert Pujols. The pitch was a ball. The video doesn’t contain much information. Just looking at it, it’s completely unremarkable, aside from the part where you can see that the A’s are promoting a bobblehead of their manager.

You can tell it’s a sinker, but there’s no on-screen velocity reading. We can get that from Baseball Savant. The pitch: 97.5 miles per hour. The previous pitch was 97.4 miles per hour. The following pitch was 97.2 miles per hour. Graveman was showing Pujols some heat. Some particularly uncharacteristic heat! That’s what opening day will do to a guy — there’s a little extra adrenaline, especially when you’re going up against a future Hall-of-Famer. Graveman didn’t show quite the same stuff later on.

But the velocity didn’t collapse. Here’s a second-inning heater to put away Cameron Maybin:

That was in at 95.5. Maybin, for his part, wasn’t all that close to putting the ball in play:

And now for the final pitch, pitch number 104.

Clearly, that wasn’t Graveman’s peak heat, but it still clocked in at 93.0. That’s at the end of a full night’s work, in the first game of a long season. Graveman’s average fastball from 2016 clocked in at 92.8. And, oh, by the way, Graveman’s average fastball from 2015 clocked in at 91.2. Graveman, a year ago, saw his velocity spike. Based on early indications, Graveman is seeing his velocity spike again.

Dave just wrote a useful post about these present velocity spikes. There’s a switch that’s taken place from PITCHf/x data to Statcast information, and because of the different ways the data is interpreted, Statcast velocities lean a little hotter. Thankfully, I’m given to understand Baseball Savant just uses Statcast information for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, so in this case we can compare Graveman against himself. Here are his average fastball velocities, by start, since the beginning of 2015:

According to Baseball Savant, on Monday, Graveman threw the five fastest pitches of his big-league career. He threw 10 of the 11 fastest pitches of his big-league career. For a simpler breakdown, consider this:

  • 2015, first half: 90.9mph average fastball
  • 2015, second half: 91.7
  • 2016, first half: 92.1
  • 2016, second half: 93.2
  • 2017, opening day: 94.3

Kendall Graveman keeps throwing faster and faster. He was fueled in part by opening-day adrenaline that will add a fleeting boost to certain pitches, but this didn’t come out of nowhere. An A’s person told me earlier that Graveman has reached 97-98 in each of his last three games. That’s not the same as sitting at 97-98, but that would put him in Noah Syndergaard territory. Starters generally don’t sit in the high 90s. Graveman could be prepared to sit in the mid-90s, and that’s remarkable enough.

I’m not yet sure how far Graveman will take this, since we’ve had one game and everything, but I can give you some facts from history. Between 2006 and 2016, there are 850 cases of a starting pitcher throwing at least 50 innings in three consecutive seasons. In 77 of those cases, the starter saw a fastball velocity boost of at least one mile per hour between Year 1 and Year 2. In just four of those cases, the starter saw another fastball velocity boost of at least one mile per hour between Year 2 and Year 3. It’s possible that Graveman could join them, given how he’s looked. The double spike isn’t unprecedented, but it’s tremendously rare. And it could be of great utility for a guy who pitches almost entirely off of his sinker.

There’s no guarantee of success. Luke Hochevar had a double spike, and he was never a great starter, although he did have his lowest FIP- in the year with his best fastball. Jon Lester had a double spike between 2007 and 2009. In 2009, he had his best-ever FIP-. It’s encouraging for Graveman and the A’s that he picked up seven strikeouts in six innings on Monday, while working with a very simple and sinker-heavy pitch mix. Graveman has reached seven strikeouts just four times, topping out at eight. It’s also encouraging that, in the one-start sample, he was so good at staying down, around the zone boundary:

Kendall Graveman is just 26 years old. We’ve already seen him get observably stronger, and it seems he might’ve gotten stronger again. It’s not an easy thing to fake high-90s velocity, and Graveman has gotten there as a guy who needs his sinker to be around where he wants it. It stands to reason the velocity should make him better, and if Monday is any indication, Graveman could start adding some strikeouts to his grounders. It could all help serve a dual purpose.

For one thing, if the A’s are to do anything in the season ahead, they’re going to need their pitching staff to hold up. It’s heavy on talent but light on reliability, so having an even better Graveman could make up for the Gray-related question marks. And for another thing, although I know it’s not the priority, a better Graveman could ever so slightly balance out the Josh Donaldson mistake. Short of becoming Clayton Kershaw, there’s nothing Graveman could do to make that an even trade by himself, but at least Donaldson wasn’t given away for nothing. Already, Graveman was a fine and cost-controlled No. 3. He’s threatening to boost his own stock. Don’t sleep on a guy who can make his sinker do what Kendall Graveman does. Those pitchers are few and far between.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

93 of his 104 pitches yesterday were sinkers

7 years ago
Reply to  mplais

If that’s his best bet to get stuff done, then go for it. 89.4% usage of a single pitch type? Sounds fine, as long as that gets results.

7 years ago
Reply to  mplais

This is kind of a deal where the tracking systems don’t quite get it right. He throws a sinker and a laminar express. Both are two seams but they have some pretty distinct differences in movement