Sunday Notes: Kendall Graveman Learned to Spin a Breaker

Kendall Graveman surprised me with something he said during the ALCS. Talking with the 30-year-old, then-Houston Astros reliever, I learned that it was only recently that he truly learned a breaking ball. As the now-free agent put it, “I didn’t throw one forever, really. I didn’t know how to spin it.”

He spun a lot of good ones during the 2021 season. Throwing more breakers than at any point in his career, Graveman had 61 strikeouts and allowed just 35 hits in 53 relief appearances comprising 56 innings. Toeing the rubber for both the Seattle Mariners and the Astros — he switched teams shortly before the July trade deadline — he logged a 1.77 ERA and a 3.19 FIP. Opponents slashed just .130/.193/.196 against the right-hander’s slider.

Graveman signed a free agent deal with the Mariners in November 2019, six-plus after entering pro ball as Toronto’s eighth-round pick out of Mississippi State University. Why did it take him so long to master the intricacies of such an important facet of his craft?

“Some pitching coaches have a very good understanding of how to teach something, and I ran into some people over in Seattle who taught me how to throw a breaking ball,” said Graveman. “Since when I was young, I would cup out of the hand and that would get me on the outside and not creating good spin. That’s as opposed to throwing it like a fastball. We started taking it out like a fastball and letting the wrist be loose, and started seeing positive signs with the spin.”

I asked the Alexander City, Alabama native if he could elaborate on the adjustment.

“No one had ever taught me,” explained Graveman. “They always said, ‘Hey, throw it like a fastball; grip it like a slider but throw it like a fastball.’ In my mind, it never registered that I was cupping out of the hand. When someone pointed that out to me, it started to feel really good and I was actually able to throw a true slider. Now I’m able to throw a curveball, too. I don’t know if it’s showing up on the scoreboard — I’ll look up and it shows slider — but I started throwing it about three or four weeks ago.”

Per Statcast, Graveman threw 34 curveballs (and 154 sliders) this season. That he introduced a new pitch to his arsenal in the stretch run of a playoff push is — at least in part — a testament to technology.

“I threw it on the TrackMan, we got data back, and they were like, ‘This is a good breaking ball,’ said Graveman, whose explanation extends to his new-and-improved slider. “If the numbers say it, and you trust the numbers, then hey, it’s a pretty good breaking ball across the league. That gives you confidence to throw it in a game.

“It used to be that hitters told you everything you needed to know,” continued Graveman. “You threw a certain pitch, and if you got them out, that told you it was a good pitch. And if you didn’t get them out on it, it probably wasn’t a very good pitch. But now you can pretty much predict. If you can throw a pitch with elite spin, or with elite velocity — anything that goes along with that — you can pretty much predict you’ll have success if it’s in the zone. That’s why you see a lot of catchers not setting up on corners anymore; they’re setting up in the middle of the plate, because they know how good the pitcher’s stuff is.”

Based on the numbers, Graveman’s stuff is better than it once was. Learning how to spin a breaking ball is a big reason why.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Floyd Robinson went 12 for 62 against Mudcat Grant.

Frank Robinson went 15 for 98 against Catfish Hunter.

Brooks Robinson went 21 for 110 against Earl Wilson.

Eddie Robinson went 23 for 120 against Early Wynn.

Jackie Robinson went 24 for 99 against Herm Wehmeier.

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Frank Herrmann was a guest on this past Friday’s episode of FanGraphs Audio, and one of the topics he addressed was Roki Sasaki. The just-turned-20-year-old right-hander and Herrmann were together with the Chiba Lotte Marines this season, and the 37-year-old veteran hurler was plenty impressed with his much-younger teammate.

“Yes, he could be,” Herrmann responded when asked if Sasaki could become NPB’s next superstar on the pitching side. “He was a rookie last year and they treated him very smartly, but maybe a little too cautiously. He didn’t pitch at all; they kind of just built him up… He is very young, very slender, and they worked on his back, his legs — tried to get him strong — and kind of unleashed him this year. He would pitch every 10 days… [and] started to come into his own.

“He was throwing 100 mph. His forkball, when it’s on, is the best one I’ve seen, or top-three I’ve seen in my five years in Japan. He locates his fastball very well, and he’s composed, I think he can benefit from adding a slider or a cutter — something with break that goes horizontally — because it would be better if he could pitch at 94 mph and not feel like he has to reach back at 98-99. But again, he’s 20 years old. If he was in A-ball, he would be a Top 10 prospect in MLB, for sure.”

Last year, Herrmann asked Chiba Lotte pitching coach Masato Yoshii how Sasaki compares to Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani when they were his age. Yoshi said that Sasaki was better. As for whether the young phenom will eventually be posted and come to MLB, Herrmann believes that is the plan.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Nik Turley has signed with NPB’s Hiroshima Carp. A 32-year-old left-hander who saw big-league action with the Minnesota Twins in 2017 and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020, Turley spent this past season in Triple-A with the Chicago White Sox.

The Orix Buffaloes and the Yakult Swallows will meet in this year’s Japan Series. Orix advanced to NPB’s championship round by beating the Chiba Lotte Marines, while Yakult bested the Yomiuri Giants.

Yakult right-hander Yasunobu Okugawa was named the Central League Final Stage MVP. At 20 years old, he is the youngest to earn that honor. Yu Darvish was 21 when when he was so honored in 2007.

Aríel Miranda has been awarded the KBO’s Choi Dong-won award, which goes to the league’s top pitcher. The 32-year-old Doosan Bears left-hander went 14-5, 2.33 with a KBO record 225 strikeouts.

Tirso Ornelas is slashing .388/.423/.517 in 124 plate appearances with the Mexican Pacific Winter League’s Mayos de Navojoa. A 21-year-old left-handed-hitting outfielder in the San Diego Padres system, Ornelas had a .733 OPS this year at High-A Fort Wayne.

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Scrolling through my unused-quotes folder, I unearthed the following from a Don Mattingly Zoom call held early in the 2021 season. The Miami Marlins manager was asked about game-planning for specific ballparks.

“I think you prepare your team just to play, and who you’re playing,” Mattingly told reporters. “Then as you get into your workouts, your stuff on the field… like for instance in Boston: You’ve got to take a few balls off the wall to see how it bounces. You’ve got to check out the little nooks and crannies at Wrigley, because it’s not a cookie-cutter, rounded fence; there are little cuts and jut-outs down the lines. As a player, you prepare for all those. You don’t know what the wind is going to do, but you prepare guys to play in the wind; you ask them to make sure they’re checking it. Things like that. But you don’t actually game-plan for the ballpark.”

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A quiz:

Kirk Gibson and John Mayberry each hit 255 home runs, the most in MLB history among Michigan-born players. Which native of the Wolverine State has the most hits?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

Joakim Soria is reportedly retiring after a 14-year-old big-league career that saw him make 773 pitching appearances, all but one of them in relief. The Monclova, Mexico native is his country’s all-time leader in both appearances and saves (229).

Pedro Feliciano, a left-handed reliever who pitched in 484 games for the New York Mets from 2002-2013, died earlier this week at age 45. A native of Puerto Rico who led the National League in appearances in 2008, 2009, and 2010, Feliciano reportedly had a rare genetic heart condition.

Legendary Kansas City Royals scout Art Stewart died at age 94. A member of the Professional Scouts Hall of Fame, Stewart had been with the Royals since 1969.

Per the Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro, the Arizona Diamondbacks are on the verge of hiring Brent Strom as their new pitching coach. The 73-year-old Strom announced after the World Series that he was leaving the Houston Astros after eight seasons in that role.

The Philadelphia Phillies have hired Ani Kilambi as an assistant general manager. The 27-year-old Cal-Berkeley graduate has been working as an assistant director of research and development for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The San Francisco Giants have signed Gabe Kapler to a contract extension that runs through the 2024 season. The odd-on favorite favorite to be named National League Manager of the Year, Kapler led a team that was projected to go 79-83 to 107 regular-season wins.

Taj Bradley was named the top starting pitcher in minor league baseball by MiLB.com. A 20-year-old right-hander in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, Bradley went 12-3 with a 1.83 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 103-and-a-third innings between Low-A Charleston and High-A Bowling Green. Bradley was a guest on episode 937 of FanGraphs Audio in late August.

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The answer to the quiz is Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer. The Fowlerville, Michigan native logged 2,839 hits, all with the Detroit Tigers, from 1924-1942.

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Ivan Johnson — featured in last Sunday’s column — put up an .817 OPS between two levels in the Cincinnati Reds system this season. I recently asked the highly-regarded 23-year-old infielder which pitcher he faced stood out the most.

“It would probably be Daniel Espino, with Cleveland,” responded Johnson, who finished the year in High-A. “He’s got some absolutely filthy stuff. He throws 100 [mph], and he’s built like a freight train. His fastball… you see guys who are 98-99, but his just jumps out at you. It gets on top of you in a hurry, and he’s also not afraid to come right at you.”

A 20-year-old right-hander who was taken 24th overall in the 2019 draft, Espino finished the season with a 3.73 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 91-and-two-thirds innings. Currently Cleveland’s No. 1 prospect, Espino was featured here at FanGraphs in late October.

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ARIZONA FALL LEAGUE STANDOUTS

Milwaukee Brewers infield prospect David Hamilton had a triple, double, single, two walks, and a stolen base on Thursday as the Salt River Rafters fell to the Mesa Solar Sox 15-10. The 24-year-old speedster swiped 52 bases this season between High-A Wisconsin and Double-A Biloxi.

Cole Henry has an AFL-best 30 strikeouts with the Surprise Saguaros. A 22-year-old right-hander in the Washington Nationals system, Henry has thrown 19 innings and allowed a dozen hits.

Graham Spraker has fanned 16 batters over 10-and-a-third scoreless innings with the Mesa Solar Sox. A 26-year-old right-hander in the Toronto Blue Jays system, Spraker has walked two and allowed three hits. He has three saves.

Joe Record has recorded 13 strikeouts in 11-and-two-thirds scoreless innings with the Glendale Desert Dogs. A 26-year-old right-hander in the Houston Astros system, Record has issued three free passes and surrendered the same number of hits.

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A statistical snapshot comparing a pair of southpaws:

Sandy Koufax pitched 12 seasons and went 165-87 with a 131 ERA+. He had a 156 ERA+ over his six-season peak and won three Cy Young awards.

Johan Santana pitched 12 seasons and went 139-78 with a 136 ERA+. He had a 156 ERA+ over his six-season peak and won two Cy Young awards.

Koufax was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Santana fell off the ballot after getting just 2.4% of the vote in his only year of eligibility.

Was Santana as good as Koufax? Quite possibly not, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t worthy of a plaque in Cooperstown.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At CBS Sports, Dayn Perry wrote about Rob Manfred’s job security with MLB heading toward a lockout.

At The Score, Travis Sawchik wrote about how the analytics revolution has changed baseball, and with a labor war coming, how the MLBPA should start prioritizing the 100%.

The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner interviewed Katie Strang about how the sports media covers sexual abuse.

Baseball America’s Matt Eddy supplied us with a list of the 2021-2022 minor league free agents for all 30 MLB teams.

Beyond the Boxscore’s Matt O’Halloran wrote about how Eduardo Rodriguez is in prime position for free agency following a career year.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

A record 39 nine-inning games lasted at least four hours this year. In 2015, there were six. In 2011, there were three. In 2004, there were none. In the shortened 2020 season, there were 11 — more than from 1901 to 1990 combined. (per @ajacksonevans.)

There were 63 home run robberies in 2021. Texas Rangers outfielders had six, the most for any team. Baltimore Orioles hitters had six home runs robbed (five of them at home), the most for any team. (Per Lindsay Zeck in the 2022 Bill James Handbook.)

The shortest distance from home plate to the home run wall in every MLB ballpark is either the wall at the LF line or the RF line…. with one exception: Wrigley Field. (per @TangoTiger.)

Hank Aaron averaged 110 runs scored and 110 RBIs per season from 1955-1969.

Larry Walker signed with the Montreal Expos as an amateur free agent on today’s date in 1984. The then-17-year-old Maple Ridge, British Columbia native went on to record the most hits (2,160), and most home runs (383), of any Canadian-born player in MLB history. Walker was voted into the Hall of Fame last year.

Mariano Rivera had a 1.000 WHIP, an 8.2 K/9, and a 2.76 FIP.
Billy Wagner had a 0.998 WHIP, an 11.9 K/9, and a 2.73 FIP.

Ted Williams was named AL MVP on today’s date in 1946. In his first year back after missing three seasons serving in World War II, “The Splendid Splinter” slashed .342/.497/.667 with 38 home runs and a 215 wRC+.

Players born on today’s date include Jim Brewer, a left-handed pitcher whose 17-year big-league career included World Series appearances with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1965, 1966, and 1974. A screwball specialist, Brewer debuted with the Chicago Cubs in 1960 and went on to be credited with 69 wins and 133 saves.

Also born on today’s date was Fu-Te Ni, who made 58 relief appearances for the Detroit Tigers from 2009-2010. A southpaw from Pingtung County, Ni is one of 16 Taiwanese players in MLB history.

Ewart Gladstone “Dixie” Walker died on today’s date in 1965. A pitcher for the Washington Senators from 1909-1912, the Brownsville, Pennsylvania native was the father of a pair of big-leaguers. Fred “Dixie” Walker batted .306 for five teams from 1931-1949, and Harry “The Hat” Walker batted .296 for four teams from 1940-1951. Each of the siblings won a National League batting title.





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.

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DontBunt93
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DontBunt93

Graveman played for the Rays? Did I miss something?