Kendall Graveman pitches to contact with a sinker and a cutter. He throws the former better than half the time and the latter nearly a quarter of the time. Working down and skirting sweet spots is his thing. Punch-outs aren’t. The rookie righty has a worm-killing 47.4% ground-ball rate, but fans a paltry 5.66 batters per nine innings.
Obtained by the A’s as part of last winter’s Josh Donaldson package, Graveman is inducing plenty of outs. The 24-year-old Mississippi State product has allowed just 12 runs over his last eight starts. The stingy outings were preceded by a month-long stint in Triple-A following five mixed-bag performances to begin the season.
Graveman discussed his repertoire and approach, including how TrackMan data has influenced each, when Oakland visited Fenway Park in early June.
Graveman on his cutter: “I was trying to figure out how to get a pitch to move hard in to a lefty and hard down-and-away to a righty. Once I did, it was, ‘Hey, I can do this, I’m able to shape up a pitch like that.’ Then it became, ‘Can I repeat it? Can I locate it to both sides of the plate and be consistent with it?’ It was a process. I worked really hard on it between starts in the Florida State League, and once I really figured it out, I could not only throw it, I could get bad swings from hitters.
“Over time, I’ve been able to throw it backdoor to lefties and front hip to righties. It’s changed a little bit. Now I’m able to elevate it when I want to. Some days it’s more like a true cutter and other days it acts like a hard slider. Some days it’s more of a contact pitch and some days I get a little more of a swing-and-miss. Depending on how it’s shaping up, we’ll use it in different counts and situations. One thing that hasn’t changed is the velocity. It’s been 86-88 and plays well off of my sinker.
“The grip may change a tad depending on how I feel. I might hold it a little bit deeper in my hand, or a little bit looser. Sometimes the weather plays into it – a colder day, or a day that’s warmer or has a little more humidity. I usually figure that out in the bullpen before I enter the game. I’m primarily trying to shape up to one pitch, but there’s also a positive that goes along with doing different things in different outings, as long as I’m able to control it.”
On getting good extension: “That’s part of pitching mechanics. The further you throw the ball out front, the better movement you’re going to create, But if I’m throwing the cutter, and I throw it out front more and keep my fingers on top, sometimes I get more depth. A lot of times with the cutter, I’ll keep my front shoulder closed just a tad more, to create that not-opening-up and getting on the inside of the baseball. If I stay on the right side of the baseball when I throw it. and the timing is off just a tad, I’ll get some different movement.”
On his complementary pitches and changing speeds: “I throw a two-seam circle change-up and use it against both lefties and righties. One thing I’ve been working on is creating a speed difference of 8-9 mph instead of 5-6.
“I’m also throwing a breaking pitch that’s in-between a slider and a curveball. It’s more of a slurve and we use it for the change of speed that it creates. It’s been a front-to-back change-of-pace pitch with a little depth. If I’m mainly throwing sinkers and cutters, and hardly any changeups, everything is 86 and above — 86 to 91 or 92.”
On pitching to contact: “That’s been my whole thing, my whole career. Can I consistently get a guy out with the first three pitches? Can I get a ground ball? My ground-ball rate is pretty high, so if you look at that, you’re probably going to say, ‘Well, he’s not creating a lot of swings-and-misses.’ Then again, I’m not trying to create swings-and-misses, not unless I have to. If we have second and third with less than two out, then maybe I have to go more for a strikeout. Situations present themselves where I try to be a little more fine, but I’m primarily trying to get outs with a pitch early in the count.
“Some people spin the ball well and can create swing-and-miss with their fastballs. I’m trying to pitch to contact. I’m trying to get my third baseman, my shortstop, my second baseman and my first baseman all into play. Since I got called back up, I’ve been getting ground-ball outs and that’s what I’m trying to do. It gets me deeper into ball games.”
On TrackMan: “We had TrackMan set up in our facility at Mississippi State and I learned a lot about it then. I’ve played with guys who spun the ball really well, and they were creating swings-and-misses off the fastball, throwing with the same velocity as I was. I wasn’t sure why. Then we got TrackMan and it really opened up our eyes. ‘Hey, this is why this guy throws more ground balls, this is why some guys pitch more to contact, this is why some guys get more fly balls and miss more bats.’ I learned my identity. ‘This is who I am; this is the type of pitcher I am, and I need to pitch to it and perfect it.’
“If you’re in the gray area – if you spin the ball in the middle (range) – sometimes you want to either create less spin or more spin. But with me, I’m just trying to be consistent with what I’m doing. I’m trying to throw sinkers in the bottom of the zone and see how much weak contact I can create.
“Less spin on the ball creates more (downward) movement. But with more spin, you create more swing-and-miss, like we were talking about. The perceived velocity of a 91 mph fastball with more spin will look more like 93-94. That’s why you see guys late on 91 or 92 and you’re like, ‘Why is he late on that when he’s not late on my 91-92?’
“I don’t look at my (TrackMan data) here, but I could get it if I wanted to. I feel comfortable where I am right now. I understand where I’m at, and I understand it’s probably not changing much. It was good to get a basis and a knowledge, but I don’t think you want to put all of your eggs in that basket. What I need is to make pitches and create pitches, and hit a target.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.